Sumatra Quake Causes Panic and Casualties


APOWERFUL 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit the island of Sumatra early on Wednesday, triggering widespread panic and tsunami warnings but causing no major damage.

The quake struck Aceh province at the northern tip of Sumatra, an area devastated by the massive Asian tsunami of 2004, and set off wave alerts for waters off Sumatra and Thailand.

Seventeen people were injured, four critically, when houses collapsed near the epicentre of the quake in Sinabang, on Simeulue Island off the northwestern coast of Sumatra, officials said.

Residents of Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, said they felt the earth shudder with frightening intensity for about a minute at around 5:15am.

Many fled their homes or piled on to motorcycles to head inland in fear of destructive waves, but a tsunami warning issued by the Indonesian government was lifted about two hours later.

“I was sleeping when the quake struck. I woke up my wife and my two kids and all of us hopped onto the motorcycle and headed to higher ground,” said Agus, 30, who lost his mother and two siblings in the 2004 disaster.

“I saw my neighbours were all panicking too. It brought back bad memories of the 2004 tsunami… I don’t want to go back yet because my house is too near the sea.”

The quake struck at a depth of 46 kilometres, according to the US Geological Survey. Indonesian geologists said the epicentre was 60 kilometres southeast of Sinabang.

Electricity was down in Banda Aceh but mobile phones were working.

The people of Aceh are still traumatised by memories of December 26, 2004, when the Indian Ocean surged over the northern tip of Sumatra after a 9.3-magnitude quake split the seabed to the island’s west.

Indonesia was the nation hardest hit, with at least 168,000 people killed out of more than 220,000 who lost their lives across the region.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said sea level readings indicated a tsunami was generated in waters off Sumatra but it was not destructive.

The threat was assumed to have passed two hours after the quake, although shipping and coastal structures still faced the danger of strong currents, it added.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono expressed relief that the quake did not produce a killer wave.

“Thank God the quake didn’t cause a tsunami and the damage was minimal,” he told reporters before leaving for a regional summit in Vietnam.

The National Disaster Warning Centre in Thailand issued a tsunami warning for the Andaman Coast, where an estimated 5,400 people were killed in 2004, but cancelled the alert when only small waves were generated by quake.

Indonesia sits on the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” where the meeting of continental plates causes high volcanic and seismic activity.

The Indo-Australian and Eurasian tectonic plates converge off the western coast of Sumatra and scientists believe it is only a matter of time before a major catastrophe strikes the area again.

“The quake was due to a collision of the Indo-Australian and Eurasia plates, the same as in 2004,” Indonesian geophysics and meteorology agency official Suharjono said.

“There’s still instability at the plate boundaries. We can’t predict if another big quake will happen here after today but we’ll continue to monitor the situation.”

He said there had been at least four aftershocks.

A 7.6-magnitude quake killed about 1,000 people in the port of Padang, western Sumatra, in September last year.

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