JAKARTA (Reuters) - A severe earthquake shook Indonesia’s Sumatra region, destroying buildings, killing four people and injuring 21 in a toll experts said was sure to rise.
The 8.4 magnitude earthquake, which was also felt in neighboring Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia on Wednesday, caused extensive damage to buildings along Sumatra’s coast, officials said.
Some buildings had collapsed in Padang, the capital of West Sumatra north of the tremor’s epicenter, witnesses reported, while Metro TV said some buildings had caught fire.
“The city is in complete chaos. Everyone is heading to higher ground, I saw one house collapsed to the ground. I’m trying to save my family,” said a Reuters witness in Padang.
Padang Mayor Fauzi Bahar said three people were trapped in a collapsed three-storey office building.
David Oppenheimer, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California, said the death toll could well rise as authorities take stock of the impact.
A quake with an eight magnitude typically leads to partial collapse of buildings, houses moved off their foundations, and other damage, he said.
“That’s the kind of stuff that causes death, especially in the Third World,” he said, “I think there is an information blackout at this point.”
A huge earthquake measuring more than 9 struck the same area of Indonesia on December 26, 2004, causing a massive tsunami and over 230,000 deaths in countries across the region. Indonesia suffers frequent quakes, lying on an active seismic belt on part of the so-called Pacific “Ring of Fire”.
Indonesia issued two tsunami warnings on Wednesday, one after the first quake, and the second after a smaller tremor a few hours later in the same area. However, the Indonesian warnings and most others in the region had been lifted by 1900 GMT on Wednesday.
However, as several big aftershocks hit the region, many people chose to sleep out in the open rather than return indoors, a Red Cross official in Bengkulu, close to the epicenter of the quake, told Reuters.
A total of 141,000 people in the Sumatran towns of Curup and Sungaipenuh were exposed to a quake of magnitude 7, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, while a combined 379,000 people in Bengkulu and Pagaralam were exposed to a magnitude six quake.
“Glass was broken, ceilings collapsed, and the walls cracked in the hospital,” said Aldi, a member of the staff of M. Yunus hospital in Bengkulu. He added that patients were being treated in two tents erected in the hospital grounds and that more tents were needed.
Rustam Pakaya, head of the health ministry crisis centre in Jakarta, said the latest casualty figures showed that four people had been killed and 21 injured.
He said the government would send one metric ton of medicine, three metric tons of food supplements, and one metric ton of noodles on Thursday for displaced people in the area.
“This quake is a test in Ramadan so that Indonesians become more patient,” Pakaya said, referring to the fact that the quake struck on the eve of the Muslim fasting month.
An official at Indonesia’s meteorological agency said gauges measured a wave surge of one meter after the first quake. The agency said the big quake’s epicenter was 159 km (99 miles) southwest of Bengkulu, a remote area of mountains and forests.
“The emergency rescue system has mobilized and the president has ordered the military to help the rescue effort,” President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s spokesman said.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued an Indian Ocean tsunami warning after the first quake struck at 6:10 p.m. (7:10 a.m. EDT). Authorities from Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Australia issued independent warnings, as did India for the Andaman and Nicobar islands, France for the island of Reunion and Mozambique.
Additional reporting by Telly Nathalia, Harry Suhartono, and Ed Davies in Jakarta, and Adam Tanner in San Francisco