Nearly a week after Indonesia quake, hope fades for missing

Nearly a week after Indonesia quake, hope fades for missing

She lay inside a medical tent in the stifling midday heat, wincing in pain at the deep gashes and cuts that covered her body. But all Anisa Cornelia could think about was the love of her life — the man she was supposed to marry this month.

She had not seen him since a deadly tsunami smashed into the Indonesian city of Palu last week, separating the pair possibly forever as they strolled along a sandy beach at twilight.

“Where is my fiancé? Please, do you have any news?” the badly bruised 22-year-old pleaded as medical staff came to check on her in the courtyard of Palu’s main hospital.

“Everyone is still searching for him,” replied Dr. Andi Sengrengrele, pursing her lips in sympathy. “You have to be patient, OK?”

One week after a magnitude 7.5 quake spawned a deadly tsunami on the island of Sulawesi, countless people have yet to find their loved ones — both survivors and the dead.

French rescuers join their Filipino counterparts as they check for survivors as night falls at the heavily damaged Mercure hotel after a massive earthquake and tsunami hit Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, Oct. 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

As of Thursday, the government put the death toll at 1,424, with 113 people missing. Many families, though, never registered their losses with police. It’s also unknown how many might have drowned, been swept out to sea or were swallowed up in two of Palu’s neighborhoods where the quake turned the ground into quicksand-like soil.

Lisda Cancer, who heads the local police’s Department of Victim Identification, said about 600 of the bodies buried in mass graves in Palu alone were unclaimed. Until Wednesday, authorities had been photographing them in hopes that relatives could identify them later.

“But we had to stop because the corpses we’re recovering now have decayed too much,” Cancer said. “They’ve become a public health hazard, and the new instructions are to bury them immediately.”

The disaster has overwhelmed local authorities. On Thursday, a private ambulance brought the corpse of one man who had been found in the road to two hospitals, including the one where Cornelia was being treated. Both facilities turned them away.

An injured man is brought to the hospital as one woman cries after learning about her daughter's death in a massive earthquake and tsunami in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, Oct. 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

Anisa Cornelia rests as she lies inside a medical tent after being injured in a massive earthquake and tsunami in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, Oct. 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

Before the vehicle drove away, a woman in a red headscarf who had been searching for her missing daughter for a week began weeping. Hospital staff said they had received her body, but had released it for burial already in one of Palu’s mass graves.

Cornelia said she met her fiancé, 25-year-old Iqbal Nurdiansyah, seven years earlier through friends at school. She was attracted to his warm personality, his bushy eyebrows and his handsome face.

Three years ago, he took her to her favorite restaurant, on Palu Bay, and proposed. A two-week wedding ceremony was set to begin Oct. 15, culminating in a reception at a hotel called the Swiss Bell, which also overlooked the beach.

On Sept. 28, the couple was walking along the sandy shore after an early dinner with eight members of Nurdiansyah’s family. Nurdiansyah remarked how beautiful the sunset was, and he organized a group photo.

Then, suddenly, the ground shook under their feet.

People who had been playing volleyball and relaxing in cafes along the shore began screaming, “Earthquake! Earthquake!”

 People survey the shopping mall damage following earthquakes and a tsunami in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, Sept. 30, 2018. (AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana)

People survey the shopping mall damage following earthquakes and a tsunami in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, Sept. 30, 2018. (AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana)

As terrifying as the tremor was, Cornelia and her husband-to-be thought they had escaped the disaster unharmed.

Shortly afterward, though, she heard a roar and turned to see a huge wave rushing toward them — the largest she had ever seen in her life. All of them began to run. The last time she saw Nurdiansyah, he was trying to scoop up two of his young nieces to save them.

Cornelia, who could not swim, swallowed salt water as she was sucked beneath the powerful wave and flipped upside down, “left and right, like a spinning ball.”

Miraculously, she was still somewhere on the beach, largely unscathed and able to stand up. But then a second wave struck, this one lower and much faster. The wall of water dragged her at least a kilometer (mile) inland, shredding her entire body — head to toe — among smashed blocks of concrete, broken wooden planks and swirling garbage.

When the water finally began to retreat, she found herself alone — pinned between a metal fence and the stage of a soccer field. A man helped her up and she limped in the darkness, past smashed cars that had been thrown onto piles of debris and a naked man whose clothes had been ripped off by the waves.

Of the nine others who had been on the beach with her that day, only one is known to have survived — a 5-year-old niece of Nurdiansyah. Two others have been confirmed dead, while six are still missing.

At the hospital Thursday, Cornelia’s 44-year-old mother, Ray Djangaritu, tried to console her.

Friends had searched hospitals without luck, but maybe he was taken to another city as other wounded survivors had been, she said. Cellphone networks have been down or limited for much of the week, making it hard to communicate. “I believe he’s still alive,” she said.

Tears seeping from her eyes, Cornelia held onto that hope.

“I still want to marry him, even if God returns him with a disability, no hands or blindness,” she said. “I can see for him, as long as I am healthy.”


A boy injured during the tsunami is carries by his relative at a makeshift hospital in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, Oct. 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Fauzy Chaniago)

People line up to board an Indonesian Air Force cargo plane at Mutiara Sis Al-Jufri airport as they try to go out of Palu, Central Sulawesi Indonesia, Oct. 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana)

 A girl looks at her injured father as he lies on a hospital bed after a massive earthquake and tsunami hit Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, Oct. 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

A girl looks at her injured father as he lies on a hospital bed after a massive earthquake and tsunami hit Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, Oct. 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

 People sit outside Mutiara Sis Al-Jufri airport damaged by a powerful earthquake and tsunami in Palu, Central Sulawesi Indonesia, Oct. 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana)

People sit outside Mutiara Sis Al-Jufri airport damaged by a powerful earthquake and tsunami in Palu, Central Sulawesi Indonesia, Oct. 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana)

 A woman cries as she uses the recovered mobile phone of her daughter who was killed in the earthquake at Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia on Oct. 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

A woman cries as she uses the recovered mobile phone of her daughter who was killed in the earthquake at Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia on Oct. 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

A man put beverages he scavenged from an abandoned warehouse into a sack at an earthquake and tsunami-affected area in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia Indonesia, Oct. 3, 2018. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)

A man holds bottles of body lotions he scavenged from an abandoned warehouse at an earthquake and tsunami-affected area in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia Indonesia, Oct. 3, 2018. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)

 A man climbs by a bridge that was destroyed in the massive earthquake and tsunami that hit Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, Oct. 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

A man climbs by a bridge that was destroyed in the massive earthquake and tsunami that hit Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, Oct. 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

Residents react as they recover the body of a tsunami victim at a village heavily damaged by Friday's tsunami in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia Indonesia, Oct. 3, 2018. (AP Photo/Fauzy Chaniago)

 Residents react as rescuers recover the body of a tsunami victim in a village heavily damaged by Friday's tsunami in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia Indonesia, Oct. 3, 2018. (AP Photo/Fauzy Chaniago)

Residents react as rescuers recover the body of a tsunami victim in a village heavily damaged by Friday's tsunami in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia Indonesia, Oct. 3, 2018. (AP Photo/Fauzy Chaniago)

 A lone tree stands in the debris from structures that were wiped out after a massive earthquake and tsunami hit Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

A lone tree stands in the debris from structures that were wiped out after a massive earthquake and tsunami hit Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)


Text from the AP news story, Nearly a week after Indonesia quake, hope fades for missing, by Todd Pittman and Niniek Karmini.

Photos by Aaron Favila, Fauzy Chaniago, Tatan Syuflana and Dita Alangkara.

Associated Press journalist Andi Jatmiko contributed.