Jakarta (AsiaNews) - Gunung Sitoli, capital of Nias Island, has suffered damage for about 80 per cent of its infrastructure, with most buildings collapsing when the 8.7 quake struck at 11:10 pm (4:10 pm GMT). The quake lasted for more than three minutes wiping out homes and lives. Government sources report 2,000 dead.
Christian volunteers were among the first to move in on rescue operations digging the rubbles for survivors and bodies.
Yudha Winarno, a volunteer with Yasayan Kesejahteraan Umum, a Protestant group in Gunung Sitoli, told AsiaNews that dead bodies were scattered around town.
Since morning he has been able to evacuate 27 corpses, finding another 14 in a collapsed church.
In the absence of heavy machinery rescue workers are forced to use their bare hands to move the dead and dig for survivors.
Two emergency fields have been set aside as a temporary morgue, one near the Jami mosque, the other not far from Gunung Sitoli's Grand Mosque.
"We Christians have permission to use the space [for] humanitarian purposes," Yudha Winarno said.
Local authorities said that the death toll is bound to rise. Nias Island, 700,000 residents, is world-famous for its surf and its surfers. But now much of the island has been destroyed, including the island's two main cities of Gulung Sitoli and Teluk Dalam.
"The situation in Teluk Dalam," said Herman Laiya, a local government official, "is really bad. Almost 80 per cent of the city has been destroyed".
Road links have been cut and the only way to deliver rescue aid is through the air.
When yesterday the government sounded an earthquake and tsunami alert more than 10,000 fled into the night fearing a repeat of the deadly wave of December 26 that killed almost 300,000 people. Although the alert was cancelled three hours later people have escaped far from the coast.
Nuns at the Stella Maris church took care of the many thousands who found refuge in the religious building. Herman Laiya himself found sanctuary in the church. "We are in great despair," he said. "People are under stress because of repeated aftershocks".
Gunung Sitoli and Teluk Dalam have become ghost towns. A Protestant church, which was used as a place of refuge for a few hours, was eventually abandoned when fear of a tsunami drove people inland.
Buildings that survived the initial quake are so badly damaged that will have to be demolished.
Nias Island and its capital are without power, telephone, and transportation fallen lines making movement difficult on roads. Rescue teams from Medan and Jakarta brought by air had to travel on bulldozer.
Tahi Bonar Silahai, President Susilo's special envoy, arrived with a team of doctors and nurses. Speaking to the press he said that according to local authorities "80 per cent of the infrastructure has been destroyed and at least 500 homes flattened with many victims still under the rubbles."
President Susilo, who cancelled an official visit to Australia scheduled for the next few days, said that he would visit Nias tomorrow or the next day.