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Nearly 400 killed after tsunami strikes Indonesia with no warning

CNN's Ivan Watson reports.

Posted: Dec 26, 2018 8:47 PM
Updated: Dec 26, 2018 9:20 PM

Bapu Suwarna had just wrapped up a work meeting at a hotel in Indonesia's Banten province when he heard a sound like thunder and saw people running and screaming, "Tsunami! Waves! Waves!" He'd soon find himself separated from his family.

He recalled his story days after Saturday's tsunami hit the Sunda Strait between the islands of Java and Sumatra, killing at least 429 people, according to the latest tally. The wave, which officials say reached as high as 5 meters (16 feet) in some areas, arrived with virtually no warning and also displaced 16,000 people and injured 1,485 more.

Want to help victims of the tsunami?

Officials said 154 people are missing, as of Tuesday, and they worry the numbers of dead, hurt and missing could rise as the rescue effort expands and the threat of more tsunamis looms.

According to Hendra Sudirman, the chief of Jakarta's search and rescue agency, rescuers have so far found 34 bodies at the Mutiara Carita resort on the Java coast that hosted Bapu's work meeting. The registered guests from the resort have been evacuated, but many caretakers of private cottages remain missing, the rescue chief said, leaving open the possibility of finding more bodies.

'Dad! Dad! Dad!'

Bapu said he first thought the thunderous clamor emanated from a concert near the Mutiara Carita resort, but it wasn't before long he realized it was much more.

"When I stepped out, I saw people running from the waves nearby the pool and dining hall," he said. "I saw that my cottage was dark and flooded with waves. I felt weak."

Standing in chest-high water, he watched as it reached the roof of his cottage, then, "I saw my car float and the alarms went off."

He and his friends took shelter, but he soon found himself asking, "Why were we waiting here? Our families were over there. Let's pick them up!"

Bapu pushed through the waves, dodging a log and tables floating by. When he got to the cottage, he heard one of his children shout, "Dad! Dad! Dad!" he said. He was shivering from the cold, but that didn't matter much once he found his wife, Piniarti, and three children -- ages, 4, 14, and 18 -- safe, he said.

Lead singer loses bandmates, wife

The 49-year-old father was lucky in that he was reunited with his loved ones. Many Indonesians enjoyed no such fortune. Among them is Riefan Fajarsyah, lead singer of the pop band Seventeen, which was performing at a Tanjung Lesung beach resort when the tsunami crashed onto the stage, collapsing it and carrying off his wife and bandmates.

Riefan said Sunday that two band members were killed, but his wife, Dylan Sahara, and three other members of Seventeen, he said on Instagram, were missing.

"Today is your birthday, I am wishing that you come home my love," he said in the post, which included an image of him and his wife kissing in Paris.

Wave crashes through stage at concert

On Monday, upon learning the three missing musicians were found dead, Riefan posted a tribute, calling them "family forever." On Tuesday, the news got worse for Riefan, when band manager Yulia Dian confirmed the singer's wife had been killed, too.

"She was the best wife God gave me. I couldn't ask for more," he wrote on Instagram.

Rescuers work amid tsunami threat

Tanjung Lesung, a popular tourist spot in Banten province, is one of the more remote areas rescuers still need to search, and it will take hours to reach the area from the Mutiara Carita resort where the bodies were found, said Hendra, the rescue chief. At least 16 people remain missing in the area, he said.

There are 371 search-and-rescue officials working on the coasts that bookend the Sunda Strait, all equipped with life jackets in the event of anther tsunami.

The Anak Krakatau volcano, roughly 40 to 50 kilometers (about 25 to 30 miles) from the Java and Sumatra coastlines, continues to erupt, leaving many in fear that more monster waves could arrive on Indonesia's shores.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Indonesia has said it expects the death toll to rise, and Doctors Without Borders has said the number of injured will likely go up as well.

On top of the massive human toll, property damage is extensive. An early assessment given to reporters Monday indicates more than 880 homes were destroyed, with 73 hotels, 60 restaurants and 435 boats suffering heavy damage.

It came out of nowhere

Witnesses have said they had no clue the tsunami was coming until seconds before it hit, and Bapu, the survivor at Mutiara Carita, is among many Indonesians pleading for a better early warning system for the archipelago, which is known for tectonic activity and tsunamis.

"From the bottom of my heart, I sincerely request that the government set up an early warning system so people can anticipate an incoming tsunami," he said. "I didn't have much time after the loud sounds were heard. Second, we need a better emergency response procedure."

Saturday's tsunami was unusual in that no earthquake preceded it, which officials said contributed to the lack of a warning.

Did tsunami warning system fail Indonesia again?

According to a conglomeration of agencies, the disaster was the product of multiple triggers: a volcanic eruption causing a 64-hectare (158-acre) chunk of Anak Krakatau to slide off the island volcano and into the ocean during a full moon at high tide.

The Sunda Strait has also experienced a spell of heavy rainfall, the agencies said.

The Indonesia Ministry of Maritime Affairs' sensors "did not sound early warning because they are for tectonic activity not volcanic activity," spokesman Rahmat Djamaluddin said.

As for tsunami warnings, Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman for the National Disaster Mitigation Agency, provided a list of reasons why the outdated tsunami buoy network hasn't functioned properly in six years.

"Vandalism, limited budget, technical damage caused no tsunami (alerts) at this time," he said on his official Twitter account.

Despite the devastating December 26, 2004, tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands of people, Indonesia lacks proper equipment to warn of an incoming tsunami.

Officials also blamed the faulty warning system in October when a tsunami killed more than 2,000 people on the western coast of Sulawesi.

President Joko Widodo has ordered the country's Meteorology, Climatology and Geological Agency to purchase detectors to provide early warnings to Indonesians.

As long as the volcano remains active, residents should be vigilant, Sutopo said.

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