Many flee amid new rumors of tsunami

PANGANDARAN, INDONESIA — PANGANDARAN, Indonesia -- The blare of ambulance sirens sparked rumors of a new tsunami yesterday, prompting hundreds of jittery residents to panic and flee for a time to higher ground as the death toll from Monday's devastating wave reached 531.

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. About 275 people remained missing, authorities said. Some might have been pulled out to sea when the 6-foot wave receded.


An earthquake measuring 6.2 struck off the coast of Java yesterday afternoon, causing high-rise buildings to sway again in the capital, Jakarta, as they did during Monday's 7.7-magnitude offshore quake. 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 a primary school. Ridwan Gustiana, a doctor treating victims there, said many children were having trouble breathing because they inhaled sea water as they were swept inland by the wave.


Monday's tsunami struck a year and a half after a much larger tsunami, which also originated in the Indian Ocean, struck a dozen countries and killed as many as 280,000 people, more than half of them on the northern tip of Indonesia's island of Sumatra.

Indonesia has received billions of dollars in international aid after the 2004 tsunami, but it 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 questioned why the warning system has not been installed.

Government officials acknowledge that they received a warning of the tsunami about 15 minutes after the earthquake hit and nearly 45 minutes before the wave struck the coast. But they say they had no effective way to warn the thousands of beach-goers and residents of the coming disaster because warning sirens have not been installed.

Without a warning system in place, residents must decide for themselves when to head for the hills. Yesterday morning, that's what hundreds of residents 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 carrying her baby along the main road.

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

Police officers drove along the road trying to calm down the mob, without success.


"The rumor was triggered by those cars that put on their sirens, like a fire truck 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."

Dinda Jouhana and Richard C. Paddock write for the Los Angeles Times.