YOGYAKARTA, Indonesia - A powerful earthquake flattened homes and buildings in central Indonesia early Saturday, killing more than 2,500 people and injuring thousands more in the country’s worst disaster since the 2004 tsunami.
The magnitude 6.2 quake struck near the ancient city of Yogyakarta 250 miles east of the capital, Jakarta, around dawn as many people slept, causing death and damage in several nearby towns.
TV footage showed damaged hotels and government buildings, and several collapsed buildings. Roads and bridges were destroyed, hindering efforts to get the wounded to hospitals. Some phone lines also were cut.
“It felt really powerful, and the whole building shook,” said Narman, a receptionist at a hotel in Yogyakarta. “Everyone ran from their rooms.”
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono ordered the army to help evacuate victims, as panicked residents ran into the smoldering streets, many clutching young children. He said he would head to the disaster zone in Central Java province later Saturday.
Rising death toll
Nine hours after the quake struck, the number of dead stood at 2,517, said Direvan, an official in the Social Affairs Ministry’s task force office, with two-thirds of the fatalities occurring in the devastated district of Bantul.
“The numbers just keep rising,” said Arifin Muhadi of the Indonesian Red Cross, adding that nearly 2,900 people were hurt.
In the chaos that followed the quake, rumors of an impending tsunami sent thousands of people on Java fleeing to higher ground in cars and motorbikes. But Japan’s Meteorological Agency said there was no danger of a killer wave.
Doctors struggled to care for hundreds of injured people lying on plastic sheets, straw mats and even newspapers outside the overcrowded hospitals, some hooked to intravenous drips dangling from trees.
“We need help here,” said Kusmarwanto of Bantul Muhammadiyah Hospital, the closest hospital to the quake’s epicenter, adding that his hospital alone had 39 bodies.
“There so many casualties. Houses ... are flattened. Many people still need to be evacuated,” he said.
At nearby Dr. Sardjito Hospital, health officials tallied 60 dead, but more bodies were lined up in the hallway and some family members were taking them home before they could be added to the official toll.
“We have hundreds of injured people, our emergency care unit is overwhelmed,” said Heru Nugroho.
The quake cracked the runway in Yogyakarta’s airport, closing it to aircraft until at least Sunday while inspections take place, Transport Minister Hatta Radjasa said.
Officials said they did not know yet if the 9th century Buddhist temple, considered one of the seven wonders of the world, was affected in the quake.
In hardest hit Bantul district, Subarjo, a 70-year-old food vendor, was sobbing next to his dead wife, his house destroyed.
“I couldn’t help my wife ... I was trying to rescue my children, one with a broken leg, and then the house collapsed. I couldn’t help my wife,” he said weakly.
“I have to accept this as our destiny, as God’s will,” he added.
The quake’s epicenter was close to Mount Merapi, which has been rumbling for weeks and sending out large clouds of hot gas and ash.
Activity increased on Saturday, with one eruption that came soon after the quake sending debris some 2 miles down its western flank, but Bambang Dwiyanto of the Energy and Mineral Ministry said the two events did not appear to be directly related.
Almost all people had already been evacuated away from the volcano’s danger zone, and there were no reports of injuries as a result of the eruption.
Indonesia, the world’s largest archipelago, is prone to seismic upheaval due to its location on the so-called Pacific “Ring of Fire,” an arc of volcanos and fault lines encircling the Pacific Basin.
A magnitude 9.1 earthquake on Dec. 26, 2004, under the sea off the coast of Indonesia’s Sumatra Island triggered a tsunami that killed more than 131,000 people in Aceh province, and more than 100,000 others in nearly a dozen other countries.