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Indonesians Flee as Sirens Spark Fears of New Tsunami

Hundreds in a coastal resort on Java panic and head to higher ground, fearful of a wave similar to the one that followed Monday's quake.

July 20, 2006|Dinda Jouhana and Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writers

PANGANDARAN, Indonesia — The blare of ambulance sirens sparked rumors of a new tsunami Wednesday, prompting hundreds of jittery residents to panic and flee for a time to higher ground.

Searchers continued to pull bodies from the rubble in this coastal resort on Java as survivors returned to the remnants of their homes to see what they could salvage.

At least 531 people died Monday in the devastating wave and about 275 people remained missing, Indonesian authorities said. Some may have been pulled out to sea when the 6-foot wave receded.

A magnitude 6.2 earthquake struck off the coast of Java on Wednesday afternoon, causing high-rise buildings to sway in the capital, Jakarta, as they did during the magnitude 7.7 offshore quake Monday. However, there were no reports of another giant wave striking land.

In Pangandaran, a popular resort town about 170 miles southeast of Jakarta, thousands of people took refuge in temporary camps inland, including 1,100 at an elementary school.

Ridwan Gustiana, a doctor treating victims there, said many children were having breathing problems because they had inhaled seawater as they were swept inland by the wave.

The tsunami struck a year and a half after a much larger one. The December 2004 tsunami, which also originated in the Indian Ocean, hit a dozen countries and killed more than 220,000 people, more than half of them on the northern tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

Indonesia has received billions of dollars in international aid but has yet to set up a promised tsunami warning system that might have alerted Pangandaran residents.

Many survivors said they did not feel Monday's earthquake or notice the sudden drop in sea level that precedes a tsunami. Some wondered why a warning system was not in place.

Government officials acknowledge that they were alerted by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center and Japan's Meteorological Agency about 15 minutes after the earthquake and nearly 45 minutes before the wave struck the coast.

But they say they had no effective way to warn the thousands of beachgoers and residents because tsunami sirens have not been installed.

Without a warning system, residents must decide for themselves when to head for the hills.

On Wednesday morning, that's exactly what hundreds of people did when ambulance sirens sounded and someone began shouting that a tsunami was coming.

"I heard people screaming, 'Water! Water!' and everyone was running away from the beach," said Liah, 28, who ran along the main road, carrying her baby.

"I was so scared," said Liah, who, like many Indonesians, uses one name. "I just wanted to get away as soon as possible."

Police officers drove along the road trying to calm the mob, but to no avail.

"The rumor was triggered by those cars that put on their sirens, like a firetruck and ambulance," said Hermanto, the local police chief.

"It's easy to panic people in a situation like this. We checked the water, and there was nothing. The waves were just regular waves.

"It was only rumor. I have told everyone not to put their siren on."

Jouhana reported from Pangandaran and Paddock from Singapore.

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