PALU, Indonesia (Reuters) - Police guarded banks in the Indonesian city of Palu on Monday as residents scrambled to flee and dozens of bodies lay unclaimed in a hospital three days after a major earthquake and tsunami.
The confirmed death toll from a 7.5 magnitude earthquake on Friday, which triggered tsunami waves as high as six meters (20 feet), rose to 844 but was sure to go higher as rescuers reach remote villages cut off since disaster struck.
All but 23 of the confirmed deaths were in Palu, a city of about 380,000 people at the head of a long, narrow bay on the west coast of Sulawesi island.
On a hill above the city, authorities used an excavator to claw a long, mass grave from the sandy soil.
They are hoping relatives can identify bodies of loved ones before they are buried. But it is a heart-breaking search.
“There are a few young girls but I can’t recognize them,” said Lisa, 38, who was at Palu’s hospital looking for her 14-year-old daughter and mother among dozens of bodies in orange bags lined up out the back.
They had been at a restaurant on Palu’s beachfront when the tsunami hit.
“We ran and ran but the waves caught us. We ran together but I lost them,” she said.
“I can’t say how I feel.”
Palu appeared to be teetering on the verge of chaos on Monday, with survivors short of food and water, and fuel.
Children gathered by roads held out their hands hoping for help from cars streaming out of Palu.
About 3,000 people also thronged the city’s small airport hoping to catch a ride on military planes laid on to take people out, most to a provincial capital to the south.
Lines of car, several kilometers long, stretched back from filling stations and a Reuters news team saw dozens of people looting one petrol station.
Nearby supermarkets were cleared out. People said they had been looted. Mini marts and convenience stores were also empty.
The government has played down fears of looting. Officials say quake victims can take things from shops and the government will pay compensation later.
There have been no reports of violence and there was no major security presence on Palu’s streets on Monday but dozens of armed police were guarding city banks.
Parts of the city are expanses of devastation - shattered timbers and concrete, broken window frames and roofs.
One main road into Palu was blocked by a boat, swept ashore by the tsunami. Workers with heavy machinery were trying to clear debris from another stretch of the road.
Many of Palu’s streets are fractured by huge cracks or just gone, swept away into muddy ravines. Leaning lamp posts hold up wires that carry no power.
A red and white national flag on a bamboo pole fluttered by one swathe of destruction. Some people poked about the wreckage looking for belongings.
“There has been no help from the government,” said one man who identified himself as Ruslan on the outskirts of Palu.
“We’ve been eating noodles and any snacks that people passing by give us.”
The government says aid, including tonnes of rice, is on the way.
Ruslan said the quake had also disrupted water supplies.
“We’ve got no water. We’re trying to get whatever we can from the pipes,” he said.
A government official said later on Monday a team would be sent to dig new wells.
Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore