JAKARTA: Captain pilot Ricosetta Mafella knew something was wrong in Palu but had no idea that what he felt on the runway and what he saw along the coast of Palu and Donggala in Central Sulawesi province was a 7.4-magnitude earthquake, which triggered a tsunami.
The Batik Air flight 6231 with 148 people on board was rolling on the runway when he sensed an unusual rocking movement during the last seconds before he took off at 6:02 p.m. local time from Mutiara Sis Al Jufri airport.
“I asked permission from the air traffic controller to take off and the tower responded: 'Batik Air 6231 runway 33 clear for take off.' When I reached 1,500 feet altitude, I contacted the tower again but there was no response,” Mafella told Arab News.
“As I took off, I looked out of the window and saw something strange happening on the sea along the coast of Palu and Donggala. There were about five large round white waves forming a row along the coast. I had no idea what they were. Something strange was happening but I tried to think positively.”
As he flew higher to 8,000 feet, he saw there were already about eight round, white waves with a radius that kept getting longer.
“It was like a row of white plates you put on a table, but in reality they were really large, round waves on the sea. I saw them all during seven minutes after we took off and before we changed our direction,” he said.
When the flight arrived in Makassar, South Sulawesi province, an hour later, he learned that a powerful earthquake and a tsunami had hit Palu and the “white plates” he saw on the sea were rolling waves that had formed owing to submarine landslides caused by the quake.
“Apparently those were the initial waves that later turned into a tsunami,” he said, adding that it was a breathtaking sight he could never forget.
He also learned that the air traffic controller who gave clearance for his flight to take off, Anthonius Gunawan Agung, had died from internal injuries and broken legs after jumping off the tower that was swaying in the quake.
“When he didn’t respond after I called him again at 1,500 feet high, I thought he was taking a break,” Mafella said.
The pilot described Agung as his “guardian angel” for keeping him and the other 147 people on board safely airborne, and dedicated a “wing of honor” to him.
Meanwhile, down in the coastal area of Palu, Suwarman Caco, a community neighborhood chief in Besusu Barat sub-district was sleeping in his house when the quake struck.
“The ground was shaking really hard. I was thrown here and there as I tried to get out of the house with my wife. My children and my grandchildren were nowhere to be seen,” Caco told Arab News, adding that he was reunited with them later in the evening at 11 p.m.
Since his house, which remains intact, is 300 meters away from Talize Beach, Caco said he didn’t see the tsunami but heard people screaming “Water, water, water!” 10 minutes after the tremor.
He estimated that more than 200 people from his neighborhood were on the beach as they were going to attend the opening of the Palu Nomoni Festival on the beach. The festival’s opening was scheduled for 8:30 p.m. and by the time the quake struck, people were already arriving.
Caco said that according to people who saw the tsunami, the dark-watered waves were seven meters high and swept the beach with a thundering sound within 10 minutes of the earthquake.
Five days after the twin disasters hit Palu and the neighboring districts of Donggala, Parigi Moutong and Sigi, the number of casualties has passed 1,000 and the number of people badly injured, missing and displaced has also risen.
National Disaster and Mitigation Agency spokesperson Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said at a press briefing on Tuesday that the number of people who have died in the disaster has reached 1,234, while there were now 799 injured, 99 still missing and 16,367 displaced.
“Some of the casualties have been identified through face recognition and their fingerprints, and they have been buried,” Nugroho said.
At least 65,733 houses are damaged but Nugroho said the authorities still can’t estimate the number of people buried in the rubble of houses on Petobo, Sigi district and Balaroa residential area in Palu, which was built not far from the Palu-Koro fault.