JONO OGE, Indonesia — Windy Mantong was excited for her chance to lead an evening prayer last Friday night at her village church near the coastal city of Palu. She taught Bible studies on Sundays. So she wanted it to be perfect.

About 5:30 p.m., she sent a text message to her mother. “What should I wear?” she asked. The 17-year-old settled on a dark gray shirt and black jeans.

At 6 p.m. her father, Mika, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, was eager to get moving. He did not want to be late getting to the church, where his daughter was preparing for her big moment.

Eight minutes later, the ground heaved. His house was still standing when the shaking stopped from the 7.5-magnitude earthquake. He guessed the church was also fine.

AD

But no one could reach Windy. Finally, he hopped on his motorbike to check on the church and find his daughter.

AD

On Thursday, Mika sat with other parents among the beige-colored ruins of Jono Oge Protestant Church. It had been swept away from its foundation — sliding more than a half-mile into a rice paddy — when the quake turned the soil muddy and fluid.

“Like a river,” said Mika, 48.

Across the heart of the Indonesia island chain — even as aid started to pick up nearly a week after the devastating quake and tsunami — the task of counting the bodies and seeking the missing is unfolding in scores of villages, neighborhoods and beachfronts.

Jono Oge, about nine miles from the coast, is just one of them. The bodies of 34 people were found at the church earlier this week. Mika scanned the list of the dead. His daughter Windy was not among them.

AD

Now, Mika and others wake early each day. They carefully pick their way through twisted, crumbled concrete and splintered wood beams in what is left of the church. They watch heavy machinery scoop the thick mud, wondering whether this time another body will appear.

AD

Indonesia’s death toll reached at least 1,424 on Thursday and is expected to rise. One reason is that some victims were entombed in a slurry of soil, rocks and mud — a quake-triggered process known as liquefaction that weakens waterlogged soil. It can swallow and topple buildings or carry them away in ribbons of spongy earth.

“Things start to fly around. Houses start to slide,” said Adam Switzer, a scientist at the Singapore-based Earth Observatory. Once that happens, he said, there is little you can do to escape.

AD

“Unfortunately, you are a passenger, and you are along for the ride,” he said.

As the day stretched on, the survivors in Jono Oge looked over each shovelful of mud for a body. For hours rescuers turned up nothing. Others from the village walked through the wreckage, pushing bamboo sticks into the mud that one government rescuer estimated was more than six feet deep.

AD

Last Friday, Mika never made it to the church site on his motorbike. Roads had split open. Bridges were gone. Entire villages seemed to have washed away in a rushing flow of soil. When he returned, his wife asked him where their daughter was. He remained silent.

“I couldn’t say anything,” he said.

AD

He set off again the next morning trying to reach the church — a long-standing anchor for the community that hosted Bible-study classes and other educational courses and served as a government training center open to all denominations.

Christians are a minority in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim-majority country in the world. But central Sulawesi, where the quake and tsunami struck hardest, has a sizable population of Protestants, about 17 percent.

“I asked somebody, ‘Where’s the church?’ And he answered, ‘The church is swept down there,’ ” Mika recounted as he pointed ahead toward the rice paddy.

AD

Mika tore through a field of debris, blindly charging toward where he thought the remains of the church might be. The destruction was so complete, however, it was impossible to tell.

AD

He found others and they frantically searched together, using collapsed corrugated-metal roofs as a rickety walkway across the destruction. At one point, they discovered a man trapped in rubble. Mika and the others gave him water and worked in vain to free him.

“We tried to make him hold on,” he said. “But it didn’t work.”

Mika searched into the night but again turned up no sign of his daughter. He broke the news to his wife.

“I couldn’t hold back my tears,” he said. “I told her, ‘I couldn’t find her.’ ”

Siska Sumilat, 48, was one of the parents who sat near Mika, along with Muis Pangalo, 45.

The three held a tattered, dirty photo book that was pulled from the debris, pointing at photos and discussing their daughters. The parents did not know one another before the earthquake, they said, but had spent the past days sharing stories about their children.

AD
AD

Sumilat’s 17-year-old daughter, Gabriella Cesilia — known to her friends and family as Gaby — was preparing for a separate prayer night when the earthquake struck.

Sumilat went to the hospital where bodies were being stored before mass burials. She opened every body bag, and then opened them and checked a second time, to make sure her daughter was not among the dead, she said.

“I was here today at 7, just waiting,” she said, wearing a turquoise baseball hat pulled low to protect her from the blazing sun and a pale green surgical mask to shield her from the worsening smell. “I’m afraid that if I’m not quick enough and they find my daughter, I won’t be able to see her immediately.”

AD

All of the parents said they had not given up hope that their daughters would somehow be found alive. But, at the very least, they wanted closure.

AD

“If she is still alive, thank God, it’s a miracle,” Mika said. “But even if she died, let us have their bodies for us to bury. That’s our only hope.”

Shibani Mahtani in Hong Kong contributed to this report.

AD
AD