Indonesian Earthquake: 18 ft Tsunami Sweeps Across Palu, Killing Hundreds and Devastating Town

At least 384 people were killed when a major earthquake and tsunami hit the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, authorities said on Saturday.

Hundreds had gathered for a festival on the beach of the city of Palu on Friday when waves up to six metres (18 feet) high smashed ashore at dusk, killing hundreds and devastating the town.

"When the (tsunami) threat arose yesterday, people were still doing their activities on the beach and did not immediately run and they became victims," Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman of Indonesia's disaster mitigation agency BNPB said in news briefing in Jakarta.

Residents trying to salvage belongings from their homes which collapsed after an earthquake and tsunami hit Palu on Sulawesi island on September 29, 2018. Getty Images

"The tsunami didn't come by itself, it dragged cars, logs, houses, it hit everything on land," Nugroho said.

Some people climbed trees to escape the tsunami and survived, he said.

Amateur footage shown by local TV stations showed waves crashing into houses along Palu's shoreline, scattering shipping containers and flooding into a mosque in the city.

Nugroho said the tsunami had struck with a speed of 497 mph , destroying buildings and infrastructure.

Hundreds of homes as well as hospitals, a shopping mall and hotels have collapsed, as strong aftershocks continue to hit the town following Friday's 7.5 magnitude earthquake which triggered the tsunami. TV footage shows hundreds of those injured being treated in makeshift tents. Photos confirmed by authorities showed bodies being lined up along the street on Saturday, some in bags and some with their faces covered with clothes.

Bodies of some victims were found trapped under the rubble of collapsed buildings, said Nugroho, adding 540 people were injured and 29 missing.

He said "many bodies" had been found on the shoreline.

"We have not received comprehensive reports yet because communications are cut. Many bodies were found along the shoreline because of the tsunami, but the numbers are still unknown," he said.

Indonesia's meteorological and geophysics agency BMKG issued a tsunami warning after the quake, but lifted it 34 minutes later. The agency has been widely criticised for not informing a tsunami had hit Palu on Saturday, though officials said waves had come within the time the warning was issued.

The quake and tsunami caused a major power outage that cut communications around Palu and on Saturday authorities were still having difficulties coordinating rescue efforts.

Nugroho said the quake intensity was much higher in the fishing town of Donggala, which was closer to the epicentre, and they expect the damage there to be much worse, but have not been able to establish communications.

Donggala and Palu are home to some 600,000 people.

Chief security minister Wiranto told TVOne the military had started sending in cargo planes from the capital Jakarta carrying relief aid.

The city's airport is slated to reopen on Saturday afternoon after being closed as its runway and air traffic control tower was damaged in the quake, authorities said.

President Joko Widodo is scheduled to visit evacuation centres in Palu on Sunday.

The Palu area was hit by a less powerful quake earlier on Friday, which destroyed some houses, killed one person and injured at least 10 in Donggala, authorities said.

The U.S. Geological Survey put the magnitude of the second quake, which struck at 6 pm local time, at a strong 7.5, after first saying it was 7.7.

Indonesia sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire and is regularly hit by earthquakes. In August, a series of major quakes killed over 500 people in the tourist island of Lombok and destroyed dozens of villages along its northern coast.

Palu was hit by tsunami in 1927 and 1968, according to BNPB.