The pilot was preparing to take off on a remarkably clear, windy Friday evening. He had a bad feeling.

Ricosetta Mafella, the 44-year-old pilot of Batik Air Flight 6231, told his first officer, who had stopped to take photos of the scenic beachfront in Palu, Indonesia, to hurry back onto the aircraft. 

“I told them to do everything quick. I said let’s go,” Mafella said in an interview with The Washington Post. The door closed, and he began moving the plane at 5:52 p.m., three minutes before the scheduled departure time for a flight that’s usually a bit late.

“Batik 6231, Runway 33 clear for take off,” came the calm voice of the air traffic controller, 21-year-old Anthonius Gunawan Agung, as Mafella took off minutes ahead of schedule. It was not until later that the pilot realized that just as his wheels lifted into the air, severe tremors from a 7.5-magnitude earthquake shook the ground, causing massive cracks in the runway and prompting the controller to jump from the tower as its roof was caving in. 

When he could no longer reach the controller as his plane climbed into the clouds, Mafella thought the man might have left for evening prayers. But he noticed odd “circles” forming in the water below and thought, “Maybe there’s something wrong in Palu.”

The young air traffic controller was one of the hundreds who died in twin disasters — a massive earthquake and accompanying tsunami — that hit the central Indonesian island of Sulawesi on Friday evening.

Rescue officials acknowledged reports circulating that the death toll has reached 1,203 but said this was an “unofficial” count that includes estimates of hundreds of dead in two housing complexes. In one, in the area of Petobo, mud rose from the ground and then seemed to swallow up the building, said Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman for Indonesia’s National Disaster Mitigation Agency. The agency’s official death toll remains at 844.

Three days after the disaster, thousands remained homeless, in desperate need of medicine, blankets, food, water and more. Hundreds were still unable to reach their loved ones, as bodies piled up at government offices, and officials rushed to bury them for fear of disease.

The victim count so far has been based almost entirely on deaths in Palu, so the “number will definitely increase,” said Oxfam’s country director in Indonesia, Maria Lauranti. 

In Palu, Radika Pinto, a spokesman for World Vision, said the situation remained dire. While some aid workers were beginning to reach areas along the coast, many spots remained cut off. Desperate residents rushed a mini market in search of food and water. The main fuel station had collapsed.


Officials carry body bags into a mass grave ahead of a mass funeral for earthquake victims in Palu on Oct. 1. (Bay Ismoyo/AFP/Getty Images)

“It’s like chaos. People are looking for food in the streets and looking for fuel,” he said. “There’s a smell of dead bodies in that area.” 

Husni, a spokesman for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Indonesia, who like many Indonesians goes by a single name, said that volunteers from his team discovered 36 bodies Monday morning buried in debris and mud in a village in Sigi, south of Palu. The Red Cross has sent about 100 volunteers to Palu and is distributing drinking water through 20 trucks, but was still unable to reach many affected areas.

On Sunday night, Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, authorized foreign aid. Nugroho said in a briefing Monday afternoon that his agency had “not asked” but is receiving assistance from countries that have offered it. At least 10 countries have offered assistance, including Australia and the United States.

Indonesian military transport planes, which have been shuttling people and aid in and out of the area, have so far been overwhelmed by demand. Many Indonesians are trying to get into the disaster area so they can get aid to family members and see whether they are alive.

In Makassar, 515 miles south of Palu, hundreds of people crowded the gates at a dilapidated airfield before dawn Monday hoping for a seat on those military transport planes ferrying relatives, rescue workers and supplies north. Pickup trucks filled with packets of instant noodles, crates of eggs and boxes of bottled water donated by local charities clogged the road leading to the runway.

Some Palu residents, desperate to return home, spread tarps and cardboard boxes on the ground waiting for an official with a loudspeaker to call their names and allow them to board. Others, after hours of waiting, abandoned the idea and dragged their luggage with them as they instead resorted to driving the 20-some hours north.

Bismark Faldorama, 28, who is from Palu, arrived at the airfield Saturday night from a nearby island where he works, he said, and immediately put his name on the list to board a military plane home.

He sat with two mobile phones, attempting unsuccessfully to contact family members with whom he had not spoken since the disaster.

“I decided to come here and look for myself,” he said. “I hope there’s a way.”

Nearby, Veronika, 35, waited next to boxes of supplies she hoped to take with her back to Palu. She was traveling to Jakarta for work and was meant to return home Thursday but had been delayed. Since the earthquake and tsunami, she had not heard from her husband or two young sons, ages 3 and 4.

Her village of Petobo was destroyed by the earthquake, according to local media reports and photos that show it almost flattened, debris strewn everywhere. The earthquake happened around the time of evening prayers, and she suspected her husband would have been without his phone.

“My home is not there anymore,” she said. “I don’t know anything about my family.”

In Malaysia for training, Mafella, the pilot, says he and his 145 passengers cheated death.

“If I were late by 30 seconds, it could have been a different story,” he said. “The shake . . . would have thrown my plane away from the runway.”

 The air traffic controller, he added, was his “guardian angel.”

Mahtani reported from Hong Kong. Ainur Rohmah in Jakarta contributed to this report.