The death toll after a powerful quake and tsunami struck central Indonesia has risen to 384 as rescuers scrambled to reach the stricken region.
Photographs from Palu, home to around 350,000 people on the coast of Sulawesi island, showed partially covered bodies on the ground near the shore, the morning after tsunami waves 1.5 metres (five feet) high slammed into the city.
The tsunami was triggered by a strong quake that brought down several buildings and sent locals fleeing for higher ground as a churning wall of water crashed into Palu.
Dramatic video footage filmed from the top floor of a parking ramp in Palu, nearly 80km from the quake’s epicentre, showed waves of water bring down several buildings and inundate a large mosque.
The shallow 7.5 magnitude tremor was more powerful than a series of quakes that killed hundreds on the Indonesian island of Lombok in July and August.
There was no official death toll, but the head of the country’s search and rescue agency Muhammad Syaugi told AFP that local staff had found a large number of dead.
“Many dead bodies, but the exact number we don’t know. We found at 2am many dead bodies in Palu,” he said.
Thirty of the dead and several injured people had been taken to a nearby hospital, the facility’s director told local media.
“There are 30 dead at our hospital. And cases where we need to operate or need specialists to handle 12, head trauma nine,” Komang Adi Sujendra told Metro TV.
People living hundreds of kilometres from the epicentre reported feeling the massive shake, which came hours after a smaller jolt killed at least one person in the same part of the country.
The quake hit just off central Sulawesi at a depth of 10km just before 1100 GMT, the US Geological Survey said. Such shallow quakes tend to be more destructive.
“There are reports that many buildings collapsed in the earthquake,” national disaster agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said.
“Residents panicked and scattered out of their homes.”
Pictures supplied by the agency showed a badly damaged shopping mall in Palu where at least one floor had collapsed onto the storey below, while other photographs showed major damage to buildings and large cracks across pavements.
Search and rescue teams have been dispatched to hard-hit areas, Nugroho said.
The main airport in Palu was shut after the tsunami struck and was expected to stay closed for at least 24 hours, complicating any disaster relief efforts.
Friday’s tremor was centred 78km north of Palu, the capital of Central Sulawesi province, but was felt in the far south of the island in its largest city Makassar and on the neighbouring island of Kalimantan, Indonesia’s portion of Borneo Island.
The initial tremor, which was followed by a series of powerful aftershocks, struck as evening prayers were about to begin in the world’s biggest Muslim majority country on the holiest day of the week, when mosques are especially busy.
Quakes of similar magnitude can cause great damage to poorly built or badly designed structures, including the toppling of chimneys, columns and walls, according to USGS.
Indonesia is one of the most disaster-prone nations on earth.
It lies on the Pacific “Ring of Fire”, where tectonic plates collide and many of the world’s volcanic eruptions and earthquakes occur.
Earlier this year, a series of powerful quakes hit Lombok, killing more than 550 people on the holiday island and neighbouring Sumbawa.
Some 1,500 people were injured and about 400,000 residents were displaced after their homes were destroyed.
Indonesia has been hit by a string of other deadly quakes including a devastating 9.1 magnitude tremor that struck off the coast of Sumatra in 2004.
That quake triggered a tsunami that killed 220,000 throughout the region, including 168,000 in Indonesia.
The disaster was the world’s third biggest quake since 1900, and lifted the ocean floor in some places by 15m.