Indonesian man hailed as hero as quake-hit island starts burying dead in mass grave

As death toll rises, authorities prepare to fill vast grave for 1,300

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It was too late for Indonesian air traffic controller Anthonius Gunawan Agung to escape unscathed when the 7.5 magnitude quake and tsunami hit Palu on Friday.

The 21-year-old had been on duty in the air traffic control tower of Sulawesi's Mutiara SIS Al Jufrie airport when the first quakes hit, jolting the island into a state of panic - but not Agung.

The young traffic controller refused to leave his post so he could guide a passenger jet safely off the ground.

When the largest tremor struck, the roof of the four-storey tower collapsed, forcing Agung to jump for a window, breaking a leg, arms and ribs and suffering internal injuries. He died in hospital soon after.

"When the quake happened, he was giving clearance to Batik Air to take off and waited for the plane to be safely airborne before finally leaving the ATC cabin tower," said AirNav Indonesia spokesman Yohanes Harry Sirait.

On Saturday, amidst death and devastation, Agung was posthumously hailed as a hero.

"AirNav's extended family is mourning the passing of the deceased who has shown extraordinary dedication in providing services to realize flight safety," AirNav tweeted on Saturday. Agung was flow to South Sulawesi, to his native Makassar, for his burial.

Local station Metro TV was among those who hailed Agung's "heroic act".

The pilot of the plane on his Instagram page shared a message of gratitude, calling Agung a "guardian angel". "Batik 6231 runway 33 clear for take off," were Agung's last words, he wrote.

Indonesian authorities are struggling to deal with the sheer scale of the disaster that hit the archipelago on Friday.

Volunteers on Monday began burying bodies in a mass grave with space for more than 1,000 people - the official toll puts the number at 832.

Indonesia is no stranger to natural calamities and Jakarta wants to show it can deal with a catastrophe but four days on, contact has still not been made in some more remote areas, medicines are running out and rescuers are struggling with a shortage of heavy equipment as they try to reach survivors calling from underneath collapsed buildings.

President Joko Widodo on Sunday opened the door to international aid agencies and NGOs for life-saving assistance.

Drone footage of the island shows the sheer level of destruction, with countless neighbourhoods razed to the ground - a wasteland of flattened trees, shards of concrete, twisted metal roofing, door frames and mangled furniture.

Officials fear the toll will rise steeply in the coming days and are preparing for the worst, declaring a 14-day state of emergency.

At Poboya – in the hills above the devastated seaside city of Palu – volunteers began to fill a vast grave with the dead, with instructions to prepare for 1,300 victims to be laid to rest.

Authorities hope to stave off any disease outbreak caused by decomposing bodies. A BBC correspondent on the ground on Sunday said the smell of decay was already pungent.

Three trucks arrived stacked with corpses wrapped in orange, yellow and black bags, an Agence France-Presse reporter said. One-by-one they were dragged into the grave as excavators poured soil on top.


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In the Palu suburb of Balaroa, dazed groups of survivors ambled over the wreckage, unclear of where or how to start digging. Among them were three men looking for their younger brother.

Rescuers are racing against the clock and a shortage of equipment to save those still trapped in the rubble, with up to 60 people feared to be underneath one Palu hotel.

Two survivors were rescued from the 80-room Hotel Roa-Roa, Indonesia's search and rescue agency said, and there could be more still alive.

Desperate survivors looted shops for food, water and fuel as police looked on, unwilling or unable to intervene.

"There has been no aid, we need to eat. We don't have any other choice, we must get food," one man in Palu told Agence France-Presse as he filled a basket with goods from a shop.

Meanwhile, government officials said 1,200 inmates fled three prisons in the region.

"I'm sure they escaped because they feared they would be affected by the earthquake. This is for sure a matter of life and death for the prisoners," Ministry of Justice official Sri Puguh Utami said.

Many survivors have spent the past days desperately searching for loved ones while dealing with the trauma of the disaster.

One survivor, Adi, was hugging his wife by the beach when the tsunami struck on Friday. He has no idea where she is now, or whether she is alive.

"When the wave came, I lost her," he said. "I was carried about 50 metres. I couldn't hold anything."

Others have focused their search for loved ones around open-air morgues, where the dead lay in the baking sun – waiting to be claimed and named.

As dire as the situation in Palu is, it was at least clear. In outlying areas, the fate of thousands is still unknown.

NGOs warned the devastated infrastructure was slowing down rescue efforts.

The local airport has been cleared to receive humanitarian and commercial flights, but so far the landing slots have been taken up by Indonesia's military, which is staging its own assistance efforts.

Satellite imagery provided by regional relief teams showed severe damage at some of the area's major ports, with ships forced onto land, quays and bridges trashed and shipping containers thrown around.

A double-arched yellow bridge had collapsed, its ribs twisted as cars bobbed in the water below.

Indonesia, home to 260 million people, is one of the world's most disaster-prone nations.

It lies on the Pacific "Ring of Fire", where tectonic plates collide and many of the world's volcanic eruptions and earthquakes occur.

The Boxing Day, 2004 earthquake triggered a tsunami that killed 220,000 throughout the region, including 168,000 in Indonesia.