Wednesday 23 October 2019

Quake Bible class victims 'hugged as they died'

A woman cries as she attends a mass prayer for Palu at Talise beach in Palu, Indonesia. Photo: Reuters
A woman cries as she attends a mass prayer for Palu at Talise beach in Palu, Indonesia. Photo: Reuters

Nicola Smith

The class photo is a picture of happiness, with dozens of teenagers in crisp blue-and-white uniforms smiling brightly at the camera ahead of a weekend Bible camp in the picturesque village of Jono Oje, in the tropical countryside of northern Sulawesi.

Hours after it was taken, many of the students were dead, trapped and suffocated in a church that was wrenched from its foundation and driven 5km away by a wave of muddy sludge triggered by the earthquake that struck the Indonesian island last week.

Hala Tawasa (50) lived beside the church and witnessed the horrific scene as her son carried her to safety from the ruins of their home.

"We had run out of the house when it began to shake. But then the ground began to crack and mud began to spray up like fountains.

"It sounded like bombs exploding. I saw the church moving away like a ship," she said. "My relatives, who later saw the bodies of the children, said that many of them were hugging."

Close to 200 children were attending the bible camp when the disaster occurred. More than 80 went missing and so far only 34 bodies have been recovered.

Gusti Bagus Andronicus, a local pastor, said one of his nephews had survived by swimming out of the mud and clinging to a coconut tree as the deadly torrent rushed by. But his eyes welled up as he described how he had found the bloated, blackened body of his other nephew, Gusti Bagus Agung Anugrah, in a hospital morgue. Like many of the victims, he was just 17.

When the terrifying 7.5 magnitude earthquake rocked Central Sulawesi last Friday, reducing multi-storey buildings to a mangled mess, parents of the bible class students were initially grateful that their children were out in the countryside of nearby Sigi province and unlikely to be hit by falling debris.

Nobody had accounted for the phenomenon of liquefaction, which happens when soil shaken by an earthquake behaves like liquid.

Maths and religious books containing teenage scrawls were scattered in the wreckage.

Seska Sumilaf (48), whose daughter Gabriela (17) was at the church, naturally began to worry after the quake shook the family's home in the nearby town of Palu.

"The only thing that made me strong was the knowledge that she was not close to tall buildings. I didn't think anything would happen to her in Jono Oje," she said.

She immediately rang Gabriela, the youngest of her two children. "The first call connected but there was no answer, but I couldn't even get a connection the second time," she said. It was only the next day that Mrs Sumilaf heard the bad news from another parent.

Irish Independent

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