Indonesian Quake Toll Surges Above 1200

Indonesian President Joko Widodo has summoned more rescuers to find victims of a devastating earthquake and tsunami with the official death toll rising above 1200 and looting raising fears of growing lawlessness.

Most of the dead have been from Palu, 1500 km northeast of Jakarta but some remote areas have been cut off since Friday's 7.5 magnitude quake triggered tsunami waves, leading to fears the toll could soar.

"There are some main priorities we must tackle and the first is to evacuate, find and save victims who've not yet been found," Widodo told a disaster recovery meeting on the west coast of Sulawesi island on Tuesday.

He said he had ordered the national search and rescue agency to send more police and soldiers into affected districts, some cut off by destroyed roads, landslides and downed bridges.

Two Indonesian men (front) search for a family members at their damaged house in the Balaroa village in Palu, Indonesia's Central Sulawesi on October 1, 2018 (ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images)

The official death toll surged to 1234, the national disaster agency said.

The Red Cross said the situation was "nightmarish" and workers venturing into one cut-off area, Donggala, a region of 300,000 people north of Palu and close to the epicentre, indicated it had been hit "extremely hard".

Four badly hit districts have a combined population of about 1.4 million.

In Palu, tsunami waves as high as six metres smashed into the beachfront, while hotels and shopping malls collapsed in ruin and some neighbourhoods were swallowed up by ground liquefaction.

Source: Reuters

Among those killed were 34 children at a Christian bible study camp.

The government has ordered aid supplies to be airlifted in but there's little sign of help on Palu's shattered streets and survivors appeared increasingly desperate.

According to witnesses, one shop was cleared by about 100 people, shouting, scrambling and fighting each other for items including clothes, toiletries, blankets and water.

At least 20 police at the scene did not intervene. The government has played down fears of looting saying disaster victims could take essential goods and shops would be compensated later.

People salvage a motorcyle in Palu, Indonesia's Central Sulawesi on September 30, 2018, following the September 28 earthquake and tsunami. - The death toll in Indonesia's quake-tsunami disaster nearly doubled to more than 800 on September 30, as ill-equipped rescuers struggled to reach scores of trapped victims, health officials resorted to mass burials and desperate residents looted shops for food and water. (Photo by ADEK BERRY / AFP) (Photo credit should read ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images)

Rescuers in Palu held out hope they could still save lives.

"We suspect there are still some survivors trapped inside," the head of one rescue team, Agus Haryono, said at the collapsed seven-storey Hotel Roa Roa.

About 50 people were believed caught inside when it was brought down.

About nine bodies have been recovered from the ruins and three rescued alive.

People drive past a washed up boat and collapsed buildings in Palu on October 1, 2018, after an earthquake and tsunami hit the area on September 28. - Mass graves were being readied on October 1 for hundreds of victims of the Indonesian quake and tsunami as authorities battled to stave off disease and reach desperate people still trapped under shattered buildings. (Photo by JEWEL SAMAD / AFP) (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

A particular horror in several areas in and around Palu was liquefaction, which happens when soil shaken by an earthquake behaves like a liquid.

About 1700 houses in one neighbourhood were swallowed up.

Before-and-after satellite pictures show a largely built-up neighbourhood just south of Palu's airport seemingly wiped clean of all signs of life by liquefaction.

Elsewhere, on the outskirts of Palu, lorries brought 54 bodies to a mass grave dug in sandy soil.