JAKARTA, Indonesia – A series of powerful earthquakes hit Indonesia on Wednesday, killing at least three people, damaging hundreds of homes and triggering a brief tsunami warning that sent residents fleeing to high ground. Rescue officials said the death toll could climb, with several hard-hit remote areas yet to be reached.
The 7.0-magnitude quake struck beneath the ocean floor off the northern coast of Papua province at around noon Wednesday, the U.S. Geological Survey said on its website. A series of strong aftershocks followed, the highest measuring 6.4, adding to the widespread panic.
One of the victims was a 5-month-old baby, crushed by rubble when his family house collapsed on Yapen, an island closest to the epicenter, said Priyadi Kardono, spokesman for the National Disaster Management Agency. A woman also was killed, he said, and several people were hospitalized in critical condition.
More than 500 island homes were damaged, he said, many of them badly.
Sumpeno Yuwono, a top search and rescue official, said if reports from village chiefs were correct, almost all houses in nine yet-to-be-reached villages along Yapen’s southern coast also suffered significant damage.
“Some even reported that houses were flattened,” he said, as officials rushed to the area. “If this is true, I think there should be many casualties there.”
Elsewhere, on the island of Biak, hundreds of people ran out of their homes as the ground started to rumble, said resident Yan Pieter Yarangga. Fearing a tsunami, people fled beaches and some raced for high ground. Many did not head back until long after tsunami warnings were lifted.
When the electricity was cut, some women and children screamed in terror, said Sgt. Junaidi, a local police official, who also goes by one name. “Many were crying, they were so afraid.”
The U.S. Geological Survey said the massive quake was centered 18 miles (29 kilometers) beneath the ocean floor and 125 miles (195 kilometers) from Papua.
Several hours earlier, a magnitude-5.3 quake on Sulawesi island, nearly 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) to the west, triggered landslides that seriously damaged at least 50 buildings, including an elementary school, killing one person, said Kardono, the National Disaster Management Agency spokesman.
Indonesia straddles a series of fault lines that make the vast island nation prone to volcanic and seismic activity. A giant quake off the country on Dec. 26, 2004, triggered the Indian Ocean tsunami that killed 230,000 people, half of them in Indonesia’s westernmost province of Aceh.