- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 26, 2010

BANGKOK | Rescuers struggled Wednesday to reach victims of Indonesia’s earthquake, tsunami and volcano in two locations, where at least 113 people drowned along Sumatra island’s coastal fault line and 18 more perished on central Java island from spewing Mount Merapi.

“We have 200 body bags on the way, just in case,” said Mujiharto, head of the Health Ministry’s crisis center, referring to the isolated Mentawai isles, which suffered the twin punches of a magnitude 7.7 undersea earthquake on Monday night, followed by a localized 10-foot-high tsunami.

Corpses were strewn along some beaches because there were not enough grave diggers, the Associated Press reported.

The tsunami’s powerful onslaught of churning sea water and fast-floating debris caused many of the casualties, washing away buildings and drowning people who survived the temblor.

In Washington, President Obama said he and first lady Michelle Obama were “deeply saddened by the loss of life, injuries, and damage that have occurred,” adding, “as a friend of Indonesia, the United States stands ready to help in any way.”

Mr. Obama, who spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, is set to make his first trip as president to the country on an Asian tour next month.

The Mentawai isles are usually accessible by ferries and speedboats from the southern coast of much-larger Sumatra island, hampering the quick arrival of emergency crews, relief supplies and equipment.

Huge, well-formed curling waves from the Indian Ocean make the Mentawai isles an international surfers’ paradise, trimmed by dazzling white-sand beaches and Wi-Fi-enabled holiday resorts.

Waves swept a chartered surfing vessel into another boat, forcing a group of Australians to leap into the water and cling to anything that could float.

“Fortunately, most of us had something to hold on to … and we just washed into the wetlands, and scrambled up the highest trees that we could possibly find,” Rick Hallet told Australia’s Nine Network.

There were no immediate reports of any foreigners killed or injured by the quake and tsunami, or from the volcano on neighboring Sumatra island.

“A significant tsunami was generated by this earthquake,” said the Commerce Department’s Hawaii-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center.

The tsunami destroyed houses made of wood and bamboo on Pagai island, inundating roads and farms 600 yards inland, officials said.

The tsunami was less severe than the one that wiped out much of Sumatra’s northern Aceh region in December 2004, killing 230,000 people in a dozen coastal countries in Asia and Africa after an underwater earthquake.

Monday’s quake was centered 13 miles under the ocean floor when it hit at 9:42 p.m. local time at the epicenter, followed by at least 14 aftershocks, including one that hit magnitude 6.2, according to the U.S. Interior Department’s U.S. Geological Survey.

Residents in the nearby Southeast Asian island nation of Singapore felt the quake, the USGS said.

The quake and tsunami site is 500 miles northwest from Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, which is on neighboring Java island.

It is also 800 miles from the volcano, forcing emergency services to simultaneously grapple with victims in two locations on Indonesia’s string of 17,500 islands.

Mount Merapi, one of the country’s most volatile volcanoes, began erupting Tuesday evening, hurling rocks, hot ash and burning debris from its jagged, smoke-shrouded peak.

Rescuers said they uncovered 17 burned bodies from houses about two miles from the cone’s crest, and said a 2-month-old baby boy choked to death on sulfurous, ash-laden fumes elsewhere after the volcano belched at least three times, local media and officials said.

Mount Merapi, or “Mountain of Fire,” rises above Kaliadem town, near the city of Yogyakarta in a central southern region of Java island, 500 miles southeast of Jakarta, which is linked to the stricken area by relatively modern overland, air and sea routes.

Scientists were concerned about more eruptions, which could disrupt domestic and international passenger and commercial flights over the zone near the equator, about equal distance between Singapore and northwestern Australia.

Ash-covered, grim-faced adults carried children in their arms, while others clutched whatever belongings they could.

Rescuers guided them to makeshift sleeping areas and arranged vehicles to move burned and coughing victims farther away.

“Approximately 40,000 people live in the vicinity of the [9,560-foot] mountain,” said the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

“Everybody, including the military and police, is ready to carry out an evacuation and secure the areas,” Priyadi Kardono, an Indonesian National Disaster Management Agency spokesman, told U.N. officials Tuesday.

Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, and the longest archipelago on earth. It is part of the infamous Pacific Ring of Fire, where volcanic activity and earthquakes are frequent.

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