MEDAN, Indonesia, March 29 -- A major underwater earthquake struck off the coast of Indonesia's Sumatra island late Monday, killing hundreds of people and crushing buildings on a nearby resort island, according to Indonesian police.
Panicking residents raced to higher ground from the shoreline in Sumatra, fearing that a tsunami would be generated. A larger earthquake in the same region on Dec. 26 produced a tsunami that killed an estimated 280,000 people in eleven countries around the Indian Ocean. Tsunami warnings blared in Sri Lanka, India and Thailand, which were hit in December, but no killer waves were produced.
Sri Lankans gather in Colombo, the capital, after fleeing their homes along the coast following a tsunami alert. Advisories or evacuation orders were issued in several countries in the Indian Ocean region, including India and Thailand. Many areas are still recovering from December's devastating tsunami.
(Anuruddha Lokuhapuarachchi -- Reuters)
Post's Nakashima reports from Jakarta, Indonesia, on reaction to the powerful earthquake.
The earthquake, with a magnitude of 8.7, triggered fires and devastated portions of Nias Island, a popular surfing destination 45 miles from the epicenter and 75 miles off the western coast of Sumatra. It ranks among the 10 biggest quakes since 1900, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Raymond Laia, a Catholic priest in the Nias town of Gunungsitoli, reported that a large fire was raging early Tuesday, according to the Missionary Service News Agency.
"From the window I see very high flames," the agency quoted Laia as saying. He spoke by telephone about two miles from the town center.
In Jakarta, about 800 miles to the southeast, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said Tuesday he would fly to the stricken island. Vice President Jusuf Kalla said in a radio interview that the death toll on Nias could be between 1,000 and 2,000. He said he based his estimate on reports that 70 percent of buildings in the town had collapsed, rather than on confirmed deaths.
Indonesia's disaster center estimated Tuesday that about 1,000 people were killed on Nias, the Reuters news agency reported.
Police in Gunungsitoli also reported destruction and death. "About the victims, we cannot count them now," said Zulkifly Sirait, a police sergeant quoted by the Reuters news agency. "We only know there are many buildings flattened."
Nias, with a population of more than 600,000, was hit hard in the earlier quake, with 340 people reported killed and 10,000 left homeless.
Another police officer quoted by the Associated Press said rescuers were trying to pull people out of the rubble and that many were still panicking because of continuing aftershocks.
"We are busy now trying to pull people or bodies of children from the collapsed building," said the officer, Nainggolan, who like many Indonesians uses only one name. "It is very hard also because there is no power."
"The situation here is really messy," he said. "Aftershocks keep hitting every half hour, making thousands of people flee their homes and afraid to go home."
"It was a very violent earthquake," said Jonathan Evans, the Indonesia country director for Catholic Relief Services who was in Medan at the time. Evans said his group was still trying to charter an aircraft to take emergency equipment to Nias and evacuate the wounded. "We've gotten reports of serious loss of life and very damaged buildings in Gunungsitoli," he said in a telephone interview.
"People haven't rebuilt their lives from the last one; this is such a body blow for everyone living there," said Jude Barrand, of SurfAid International, a non-profit group providing tsunami relief to islands off the western coast of Sumatra, including Nias.