A powerful earthquake triggered a tsunami that pounded villages on remote islands off western Indonesia, killing at least 23 people and leaving more than 160 others missing, witnesses and officials said Tuesday.
The death toll from the 7.7-magnitude quake, which struck 13 miles (20 kilometers) beneath the ocean floor late Monday, was expected to climb with reports about damage and injuries just starting to trickle in the next day.
Mujiharto, who heads the Health Ministry’s crisis center, said a 10-foot (three-meter) -high wave washed away hundreds of houses on Pagai and Silabu, part of the remote and sparsely populated Mentawai island chain.
“We have 200 body bags on the way, just in case,” he said.
Indonesia, the world’s largest archipelago, is prone to earthquakes and volcanic activity due to its location on the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire.
The fault that ruptured Monday, running the length of the west coast of Sumatra island, also caused the 9.1-magnitude quake that unleashed a monster tsunami around the Indian Ocean in 2004, killing 230,000 people in a dozen countries.
Getting to the Mentawais, a popular surfing spot 175 miles (280 kilometers) from the Sumatra coast takes 12 hours and the islands are reachable only by boat.
A group of Australians said they were hanging out on the back deck of their chartered surfing vessel, anchored in a nearby bay, when the temblor hit. It generated a wave that caused them to smash into a neighboring boat, and before they knew it, a fire was ripping through their cabin.
“We threw whatever we could that floated — surfboards, fenders — then we jumped into the water,” Rick Hallet told Australia’s Nine Network. “Fortunately, most of us had something to hold on to … and we just washed in the wetlands, and scrambled up the highest trees that we could possibly find and sat up there for an hour and a half.”
By daytime Tuesday, the toll from the quake and tsunami was rising.
Ade Edward, a disaster management agency official, said 23 bodies were found in coastal villages — mostly on the hardest hit island of Pagai — and another 167 people were missing.
Water in some places reached roof tops, and in Muntei Baru, a village on Silabu, 80 percent of the houses were damaged.
Some 3,000 people were seeking shelter Tuesday in emergency camps, Edward said, and the crews from several ships were still unaccounted for in the Indian Ocean.
The quake also jolted towns along Sumatra’s western coast — including Padang, which last year was hit by a deadly 7.6-magninuted tremor that killed more than 700. Mosques blared tsunami warnings over their loudspeakers.
“Everyone was running out of their houses,” said Sofyan Alawi, adding that the roads leading to surrounding hills were quickly jammed with thousands of cars and motorcycles.
“We kept looking back to see if a wave was coming,” said 28-year-old resident Ade Syahputra.