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Indonesia rushes in aid as death toll from quake, tsunami passes 840

Indonesian authorities are scrambling to get aid and rescue equipment into quake-hit Sulawesi island and are starting to bury some of the more than 800 dead, while shaken survivors flee their ruined homes in search of food and shelter.

Fatalities look certain to rise further as rescuers reach devastated outlying communities

Family members carry the body of a relative to the compound of a police hospital in Palu, Indonesia, on Sunday. The death toll from an earthquake and tsunami is over 800. (Bay Ismoyo/AFP/Getty Images)

Indonesian authorities are scrambling to get aid and rescue equipment into quake-hit Sulawesi island and are starting to bury some of the more than 800 dead, while shaken survivors flee their ruined homes in search of food and shelter.

The confirmed death toll of 844 looked certain to rise as rescuers reached devastated outlying communities hit on Friday by a 7.5 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami waves as high as six metres.

All but 23 of the confirmed deaths were in Palu, a city of about 380,000 at the head of a long, narrow bay on the west coast of Sulawesi island.

Video – See the devastation on Sulawesi island:

Watch scenes of devastation wrought by Friday's earthquake and tsunami on Indonesia's Sulawesi island. 0:55

In the city's Petobo section, the quake caused loose, wet soil to liquefy, creating a thick, heavy mud that caused massive damage. Hundreds of victims were feared to be still buried in the mud, said Indonesian disaster agency spokesperson Sutopo Purwo Nugroho.

On a hill above the city, authorities used an excavator to claw a long, mass grave from the sandy soil and began the burial process Monday as workers carried 18 body bags and laid them in the trench. The site was prepared for more than 300 bodies initially.

A mass grave for victims was built on a hilltop overlooking Palu. (Antara Foto/Muhammad Adimaja via Reuters)

For relatives still trying to identify the bodies of loved ones before burial, it's often 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.

'I can't say how I feel'

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."

Nurul Istiharah, 15, managed to survive after being trapped inside her house when it collapsed, said Novry Wullur, an officer from Indonesia's search and rescue agency. Her mother and niece were dead beside her, and water had left her submerged up to her neck and in danger of drowning. Her legs were finally freed and she was pulled out of the rubble. She was being treated for hypothermia at a hospital.

Indonesian rescuers try to free a 15-year-old earthquake survivor, Nurul Istikhomah, from the flooded ruins of a collapsed house in Palu on Sunday. (Erimacs Wilander/EPA-EFE)

In Palu alone, 60,000 people have been displaced from their homes, according to the disaster agency.

There was also mounting concern over Donggala, a region of 300,000 people north of Palu and close to the epicentre, and two other districts — with a combined population of about 1.4 million.

'Nightmarish' conditions  

Initial reports from Red Cross rescuers who had reached the outskirts of Donggala district were chilling.

"The situation in the affected areas is nightmarish," Jan Gelfand, head of an the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) office in Jakarta said in a statement.

"The city of Palu has been devastated and first reports out of Donggala indicate that it has also been hit extremely hard by the double disaster," Gelfand said.

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 and held out their hands hoping for help from cars streaming out of Palu.

People affected by the earthquake and tsunami walk onto a military plane at Mutiara Sis Al-Jufri Airport in Palu on Monday. (Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters)

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.  The airport has been closed to commercial traffic since the disaster struck Friday night.

Lines of car, several kilometres 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 airport in Palu was closed but reopened Monday in Palu after the earthquake and tsunami (Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)

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.

'No help from the government'

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. 

This mosque in Palu was damaged after the earthquake and tsunami. (Tatan Syuflana/Associated Press)

Indonesian President Joko (Jokowi) Widodo authorized the acceptance of international help, said Nugroho. He said generators, heavy equipment and tents were among the items needed, and the European Union and 10 countries have offered assistance, including the United States, Australia and China.

"We will send food today, as much as possible with several aircraft," Widodo told reporters in the capital of Jakarta, adding that a supply of fuel was also set to arrive.

On Monday, U.S. President Donald Trump offered his "warmest condolences" and said he had dispatched first responders, the military and others to help in the aftermath of the disaster, which he called "a really bad, bad situation." Trump said he would be calling Widodo later in the day.

The earthquake and tsunami were the latest natural disasters to hit Indonesia, which is frequently struck by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis because of its location on the so-called Ring of Fire, an arc of volcanoes and fault lines in the Pacific Basin.

In December 2004, a magnitude 9.1 earthquake off Sumatra island in western Indonesia triggered a tsunami that killed 230,000 people in a dozen countries. More recently, a powerful quake on the island of Lombok killed 505 people in August.

With files from The Associated Press