Indonesia's Grim Search for Disaster Victims Nears Its End

The official death toll rose to 2,073 as of Thursday, with most of the fatalities in Palu

Indonesia's search for victims buried in neighborhoods annihilated by an earthquake and tsunami is nearing its end almost two weeks after the double disasters hit the remote city of Palu in central Sulawesi.

Authorities had said the official search and rescue effort would end Thursday with prayers in areas of the city such as Balaroa, Petobo and Jono Oge where the force of the quake liquefied soft soil and tore apart neighborhoods.

But the national disaster agency's spokesman, Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, told a news conference it would continue for one more day after requests from families of the missing.

He said it will take two years for the region to rebuild and recover.

The agency said the official death toll had risen to 2,073 as of Thursday, with most of the fatalities in Palu.

Officially, 680 people are missing but officials have acknowledged the number could be several thousand because hundreds of homes were sucked into the earth.

Save the Children's affiliated organization in Indonesia said there could be as many as 1,500 children missing.

Selina Sumbung, the organization's chief, said the end of the search mission is accepted with a "heavy heart."

"Children are particularly vulnerable in disasters, and to think that so many will never have the chance to grow up is heart-breaking," she said in a statement.

Central Sulawesi Gov. Longki Djanggola said the disaster relief period, due to expire on Saturday, was extended by two weeks to Oct. 26.

Firefighters, soldiers and other personnel searched the rubble Thursday in a last push to find victims. They also burned debris and excavators dug into the tangled remains of buildings.

Heavy equipment hasn't been able to operate in neighborhoods where the earth turned to mud, hampering the search effort, and many bodies have decomposed beyond recognition due to the tropical heat.

Miles (kilometers) of coastline were trashed by the tsunami that followed the Sept. 28 quake, with houses swept off their foundations, trucks crumpled and numerous ships beached.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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