- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 27, 2010

MENTAWAI ISLANDS, Indonesia (AP) — Rescuers searching islands ravaged by a tsunami off western Indonesia raised the death toll to 370 Thursday as more corpses were wrapped in body bags or buried by neighbors. Officials said hundreds of missing people may have been swept out to sea.

Elsewhere in Indonesia, the volcano that killed 33 people earlier this week began erupting again, though there were no reports of new injuries or damage. Mourners held a mass burial Thursday during a lull in Mount Merapi’s rumblings.

The twin catastrophes struck within 24 hours in different corners of the seismically charged region, severely testing the nation’s emergency response network.

Islanders dug graves and slung up tarps to sleep under in one of the areas hardest hit by a 10-foot wave that swept houses off their foundations and deposited the shattered remains in the jungle. Many residents who fled to the hills were refusing to return home for fear the sea might lash out again.

Officials say a multimillion-dollar warning system installed after a monster 2004 quake and tsunami broke down one month ago because it was not being properly maintained. A German official at the project disputed that, saying the system was working but the quake’s epicenter was too close to the Mentawai islands for residents to get the warning before the killer wave hit.

Indonesian Vice President Boediono (upper right with white shirt) looks at the bodies of tsunami victims in Pagai Utara, Mentawai Islands, on Wednesday. (Associated Press)
Indonesian Vice President Boediono (upper right with white shirt) looks at the ... more >

Search and rescue teams — kept away for days by stormy seas and bad weather — found roads and beaches with swollen corpses lying on them, according to Harmensyah, head of the West Sumatra provincial disaster management center.

Some wore face masks as they wrapped corpses in black body bags on Pagai Utara, one of the four main islands in the Mentawai chain located between Sumatra and the Indian Ocean.

Agus Zaenal, of the West Sumatra provincial disaster management agency, raised the official toll Thursday to 370, up from 343 earlier in the day. He said 338 people are still missing.

Harmensyah said the teams were losing hope of finding those missing since the wall of water, triggered by a 7.7-magnitute earthquake, crashed into the islands on Monday.

“They believe many, many of the bodies were swept to sea,” he said.

In a rare bright spot, an 18-month-old baby was found alive in a clump of trees on Pagai Selatan island on Wednesday. Hermansyah said a 10-year-old boy found the toddler and that both his parents were dead.

On Pagai Seatandug island, the wave deposited giant chunks of coral and rocks the size of people into the places where homes once stood in Pro Rogat village, one of the hardest-hit areas with 65 dead. Villagers huddled under tarps in the rain and talked about how many who had fled to the hills were too afraid to return home.

Mud and palm fronds covered the body of the village’s pastor, 60-year-old Simorangkir. His corpse lay on the ground, partially zipped into a body bag. Police and relatives took turns pushing a shovel through the sodden dirt next to him to create his final resting place.

His grandson, Rio, 28, traveled by boat to Pro Rogat from his home on a nearby island to check on his relatives after the quake. He said he was picking through the wreckage when someone cried out that he had found a body. Rio walked over and saw his grandfather’s corpse partially buried under several toppled palm trees.

“Everybody here is so sad,” Rio said, as family members prepared to place his grandfather in the grave.

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