Indonesian Earthquake Death Toll Rises To Over 800

Mass burials and prison breaks reported in Sulawesi.

A man rides his motorcycle through the rubble in Palu, Indonesia
Carl Court / Getty Images

Mass burials and prison breaks reported in Sulawesi.

The Indonesian island of Sulawesi is still struggling to recover from a series of earthquakes — and an ensuing tsunami — which has left more than 840 people dead, reports CBS News.

Palu, the capital of Central Sulawesi, was hit by a 7.5 magnitude quake that triggered a tsunami which reached as high as 20-feet in some areas, as previously reported by the Inquisitr. People are suspected to still be trapped under rubble in the regional capital, with rescue crews working through the weekend and into Monday. Indonesian officials believe that there are up to 50 people still trapped under overturned buildings.

With so many dead due to the twin disasters, city officials have begun burying the bodies. Reporters on the scene detail that dozens of body bags were placed in a mass grave in the city. This could be only the beginning of a climbing death toll — given Sulawesi’s unique geography having spawned several remote communities, the death toll is expected to rise above 1000.

335,000 people live in Palu alone, with the population of Sulawesi as a whole estimated at 18.5 million. Tens of thousands are already known to be homeless as a result of the disasters. That figure will also increase with the city of Palu having been almost completely leveled by the quake.

The mass grave that has been dug in the city is 33 feet by 330 feet — and the Indonesian National Disaster Mitigation Agency has said that it could be expanded. Local officials report that 545 bodies are being brought to that grave from just one local hospital, with the burials expected to take place on Monday and Tuesday.

Burials have to happen quickly in Sulawesi, hence the need for the mass grave. The island has a majority Muslim population, and Islam requires burials to happen quickly after death — typically within one day. That requirement makes things difficult for officials and rescue workers during times of disaster, torn between wanting to identify bodies in order to assist stricken families, but also respecting the religious customs of the local population.

All of the victims were photographed before buying buried, with those photographs being publicly posted in the city in order that family members might be able to identify loved ones. This will also allow people to pay their respects at the proper burial site.

Beyond the dead and homeless, local authorities will have another issue on their hands to contend with — 1,200 inmates having escaped from three prisons on the island. Two of those prisons were already over capacity, and one of them — in the secondary city of Donggala — was on fire. Authorities gave prisoners the benefit of the doubt, saying that they likely escaped to save their lives, and added that most of the prisoners were detained for corruption or drug offenses.

Authorities have made finding prisoners the lowest of their priorities, choosing instead to focus on rescuing survivors. One 25-year-old was found in the rubble of a hotel late on Sunday night, giving hope that more will be found.

Indonesia’s government has welcomed international assistance, and with the quakes now calmed down, the main airport in Palu has been opened for emergency relief aircraft to land.