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Indonesia continues search after dam burst kills more than 60

A health official says the death toll may reach 100. The earthen dam collapsed after a reservoir overflowed because of torrential rain.

March 28, 2009|Paul Watson and Dinda Jouhana

JAKARTA, INDONESIA — Rescue workers searched desperately into the early-morning hours today for dozens of missing Indonesians after a dam burst just outside the capital and a wall of mud and water killed more than 60 people as they slept.

"My prediction is we still have many people trapped in there, so the death toll will rise," said Rustam Pakaya, chief of the Health Ministry's crisis center.

"I think the death toll can reach 100," he said. The Associated Press reported that at least 69 were dead.

Torrential rain Thursday raised the level of a reservoir behind the dam to almost 55 yards above capacity, Pakaya said, and "the dam could not hold the water; it was overloaded, and the dam burst around 2 a.m."

At least 31 survivors dragged from the muck and flood water in the town of Cirendeu were rushed to two hospitals in nearby south Jakarta.

Aerial photos showed an enormous hole, hundreds of feet across the earthen dam, as though a giant claw had torn through it.

Subandrio Pitoyo, a public works official, said that because of heavy rain, the water behind Situ Gintung Dam rose so high that it overflowed the earthen wall, collapsing it.

If the dam had been made of concrete, it would have withstood the pressure, he said.

The scene was reminiscent of the 2004 tsunami that wiped out whole villages in Aceh on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, Pakaya said.

The dam collapse flattened houses across a three-mile area where 2,000 to 3,000 people live, he said.

People's belongings and wooden planks splintered by the force of the flash flood lay in heaps along the riverbank Friday afternoon as survivors waded through water several feet deep. Many others took refuge on rooftops.

A man in his early 20s, identified only as Alif, said he woke up as water rushed into his small home about 500 yards from the dam. Within five minutes, the water had reached neck level, he told local television.

He swam to save his parents from the torrent rushing through their bedroom. He found them pinned by dresser drawers but was able to pull them out, break through the roof and push them to safety.

"When we finally were able to put them on top of the roof, I went back inside to get my niece and my younger brother. I was looking for them frantically, but I could not find them. Finally I knew that they did not make it."

Searchers later found the bodies, Alif said, and according to Muslim tradition, they were buried before nightfall the same day.

Emergency crews evacuated hundreds of people, including terrified, weeping children. Others paddled out on makeshift rafts.

As the sun set Friday, high wind and a heavy downpour thrashed Jakarta, the capital, and the surrounding area. The storms have arrived late in Indonesia's annual monsoon season, which usually lasts half the year.

The Jakarta region has a terrible record for flood control, and its 9 million people brace themselves for inundation every five years or so.

In February 2007, an estimated 1 million had to flee their homes after a flood struck roughly half the city, including the central business district. Authorities said piles of trash had clogged spillways that were supposed to channel the water out to sea, and they assured residents that they would improve the flood-control system.

The city's international airport is on low ground that is frequently flooded, forcing authorities to shut down the facility.

After the dam burst Friday, the Health Ministry set up an emergency relief post at Muhammadiyah University in the capital.

But most survivors turned to family members for help, officials said.

Led by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, officials handed out more than 2,000 relief packages.

"We are going to rebuild the dam," the president said. "We will rethink the construction so this will not happen in the future. The maintenance is the responsibility of local government, and the central government will support it."

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paul.watson@latimes.com

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latimes.com/world

Massive flood

More photos of the devastation near Jakarta can be viewed online.

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