Aceh earthquake: 54 dead and dozens feared trapped in Indonesia

At least 54 people died and dozens were feared trapped in collapsed buildings after a powerful earthquake struck off Indonesia’s Sumatra island at dawn on Wednesday.

Search and rescue teams in Aceh province, an area previously devastated by a massive quake and tsunami on Dec. 26, 2004, used tractors to shift the rubble in attempts to reach people buried in their houses.

The shallow 6.5-magnitude quake hit just north of the small town of Reuleuet, according to the US Geological Survey (USGS). There was no tsunami alert.

Major General Tatang Sulaiman said 52 people died in Pidie Jaya, the district closest to the epicentre of the undersea quake. Another two people died in neighbouring Bireuen district.

Local authorities said there was an urgent need for excavation equipment and emergency supplies. And President Joko Widodo announced he had instructed his chief of staff to fly immediately to Aceh to monitor the situation.

The quake struck at 5 am local time (2200 GMT Tuesday) as the predominantly Muslim region prepared for morning prayers, local officials said.

Images on television and social media showed cracked roads, collapsed buildings and downed electricity poles. At least five aftershocks were felt in the hours after the initial quake.

“There isn’t enough medical staff around,” said the Red Crescent’s Muklis, who like many Indonesians uses one name, told TVOne.

The national disaster mitigation agency says 78 people have suffered serious injuries.

Said Mulyadi, deputy district chief of Pidie Jaya, said seven children were among the dead, with a local hospital overwhelmed by the number of people arriving with injuries.

“The hospital here couldn’t take the patients, so we sent some to the neighbouring district,” he said.

Local resident Hasbi Jaya, 37, said his family was asleep when the shaking started.

“We immediately ran outside the house but it crumbled. Everything from the roof to the floor collapsed, and was destroyed,” he said.

“I looked around and all my neighbours’ houses were also completely destroyed.”

Seismologists said the earthquake was felt across much of Aceh province, which was devastated by the 2004 tsunami.

That quake and tsunami killed more than 170,000 people in Indonesia and tens of thousands more in other countries around the Indian Ocean. Aceh was the worst hit region with more than 120,000 people killed.

The USGS upgraded the magnitude to 6.5 from an initial reading of 6.4 and issued a yellow alert for expected fatalities and damage.

“Some casualties and damage are possible and the impact should be relatively localised,” it said.

In the coastal town of Sigli people panicked and fled their houses to seek shelter away from the sea, despite no tsunami alert being issued.

“We are now evacuating to Tijue because we are afraid of a tsunami,” said Nilawati, one of those heading inland.

Indonesia experiences frequent seismic and volcanic activity due to its position on the Pacific “Ring of Fire”, where tectonic plates collide.

Aceh lies on the northern tip of Sumatra island, which is particularly prone to quakes. The last one struck in July.

Selina Sumbung, chairperson of a local partner of Save the Children, said it was still too early to know exactly how severe the humanitarian impact will be. She said roads and ports had been damaged “which may result in further challenges in delivering aid.

“We’re particularly concerned about the impact on children. Earthquakes can be extremely frightening, and children’s psychosocial wellbeing will be an important part of the recovery process,” Sumbung said.

Associated Press and Agence France-Presse contributed to this report

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