MEUREUDU, Indonesia – A strong earthquake rocked Indonesia’s Aceh province early on Wednesday, killing nearly 100 people and sparking a frantic rescue effort in the rubble of dozens of collapsed and damaged buildings.
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Maj. Gen. Tatang Sulaiman, chief of the army in Aceh province, said at least 97 died while four people were pulled from the rubble alive. Another four or five are known to be buried, but he didn’t say if they are dead or alive.
“Hopefully we would be able to finish the evacuation from the rubble before sunset,” said Sulaiman.
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The rescue effort involving thousands of villagers, soldiers and police is concentrated on Meureudu, a severely affected town in Pidie Jaya district. Excavators were trying to remove debris from shop houses and other buildings where people were believed buried. TV footage showed rescuers in orange uniforms shining flashlight into the interiors of broken buildings as they searched for signs of life.
The National Disaster Mitigation Agency said 273 people were injured, about a quarter of them seriously. Some 245 buildings were seriously damaged or destroyed, mostly in Pidie Jaya, including 14 mosques and the remainder largely dwellings and shop houses. Roads also cracked and power poles toppled over.
Aiyub Abbas, the chief of Pidie Jaya district, which is located 11 miles southwest of the epicenter, said there was urgent need for excavation equipment to move heavy debris and emergency supplies. Footage showed rescue personnel taking bodies in black bags away from the rubble.
Muhammad Reza Faisal, director of Chik Ditiro General Hospital in Pidie Jaya, said the facility, which was damaged by the quake, was overwhelmed with the numbers of injured and many people were being treated in tents pitched on its grounds. He said five of the quake victims died at the hospital.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the shallow 6.5 magnitude earthquake that struck at 5:03 a.m. was centered about 12 miles southeast of Sigli, a town near the northern tip of Aceh, at a depth of 11 miles. The agency had initially placed its epicenter undersea. It did not generate a tsunami.
For Acehnese, the quake was a terrifying reminder of their region’s vulnerability to natural disasters. More than 100,000 died in Aceh after the Dec. 26, 2004, earthquake triggered a devastating tsunami.
“It was very bad, the tremors felt even stronger than 2004 earthquake,” said Musman Aziz, a Meureudu resident. “I was so scared the tsunami was coming.”
In the capital Jakarta, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo said he has ordered all government agencies to take part in the rescue efforts for Aceh, a conservative province that has considerable autonomy from the central government under a peace deal with separatists. The Red Cross Indonesia has deployed emergency response teams and advertised bank accounts for donations. The International Organization for Migration said it had sent an assessment team to Aceh.
Seaside resident Fitri Abidin in Pidie Jaya said she fled with her husband and wailing children to a nearby hill after the quake jolted the family awake early in the morning. They stayed there for several hours until authorities reassured them there was no tsunami risk.
“It terrified me. I was having difficulty breathing or walking,” said Abidin.
She said her husband grabbed hold of her and carried her out of the house.
The family’s house didn’t collapse but the homes of some neighbors did and Abidin is afraid three friends were buried in building collapses.
In Pidie Jaya’s neighboring district of Bireuen, a teacher at an Islamic building school died after being hit by falling debris, said health worker Achmad Taufiq.
Residents of the nearby town of Lhokseumawe ran out of their houses in panic during the quake and many people fled to higher ground.
The world’s largest archipelago, Indonesia is prone to earthquakes due to its location on the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” an arc of volcanoes and fault lines in the Pacific Basin. The 2004 quake and tsunami killed a total of 230,000 people in a dozen countries, most of them in Aceh.