PANGANDARAN, Indonesia – Indonesia pledged to build a nationwide tsunami alert system as soldiers pulled bodies from ravaged beaches, homes and hotels Tuesday. Parents searched for their children and the death toll hit at least 531, with nearly 275 people missing.
Bodies covered in sheets piled up at makeshift morgues, while others, a 6-month-old baby among them, lay beneath the blazing sun in the resort of Pangandaran.
The search for survivors continued Tuesday, with parents among the last to give up.
“The water was too strong,” said Irah as she dug through a pile of rubble with her bare hands, close to the spot where she last saw her 6-year-old son. “Oh, God. Eki, where are you?”
The magnitude 7.7 undersea quake on Monday triggered walls of water more than 6 feet high that crashed into a 110-mile stretch of beach on Java island, an area spared by the devastating 2004 Asian tsunami.
The waves destroyed houses, restaurants and hotels, and tossed boats, cars and motorbikes far inland.
“We are still finding many bodies. Many are stuck in the ruins of the houses,” said police Chief Syamsuddin Janieb.
At least 42,000 people fled their homes, either because they were destroyed, or in fear of another tsunami, adding to the difficulty of counting casualties.
At the area’s main hospital, in the town of Banjar, medics scrambled to treat a steady stream of patients, most from the Pangandaran coast. Some slept on dirty mattresses on the floor, while others were treated in the admissions hall.
After the quake, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center and Japan’s Meteorological Agency issued tsunami warnings. It struck Java about an hour later.
Science and Technology Minister Kusmayanto Kadiman said Indonesia received the bulletins 45 minutes before the tsunami hit, but did not announce them because they did not want to cause unnecessary alarm.
“If it (the tsunami) did not occur, what would have happened?” he told reporters in Jakarta, noting that there was no effective way to spread a warning without a system of sirens or alarms in place.
He said Indonesia now plans to speed up plans for a nationwide warning system.
Indonesia was hardest hit by a 2004 tsunami that killed at least 216,000 people in a dozen Indian Ocean nations.
Though the country started to install a warning system after that disaster, it is still in the early stages. The government had been planning to extend the alert system to Java – which was hit by a quake in May that killed more than 5,800 people – in 2007.