Indonesian rescuers use drones, sniffer dogs as tsunami death toll tops 400

At least 429 people have been killed and thousands of residents had to move to higher ground.

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By The Associated Press and Reuters

LABUAN, Indonesia — Christmas celebrations traditionally filled with laughter and uplifting music were replaced by somber prayers for tsunami victims in an area hit without warning following a volcanic eruption, leaving more than 420 people dead and thousands homeless in disaster-prone Indonesia.

Pastor Markus Taekz said Tuesday that his Rahmat Pentecostal Church in the hard-hit area of Carita did not celebrate with joyous songs this year. Instead, only about 100 people showed up for the Christmas Eve service, which usually brings in double that number. Many congregation members had already left the area for the capital, Jakarta, or other locations away from the disaster zone.

"This is an unusual situation because we have a very bad disaster that killed hundreds of our sisters and brothers in Banten," Taekz said, referring to the province on Java island. "So our celebration is full of grief."

Church leaders called on Christians across Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, to pray for victims of the tsunami.

The death toll climbed to 429 on Tuesday, with more than 1,400 people injured and at least 128 missing after the tsunami in the Sunda Strait slammed into parts of western Java and southern Sumatra islands on Saturday night, said Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman for Indonesia's Disaster Mitigation Agency.

A tsunami survivor sits on a pile of debris Monday as she salvages items from the location of her house in Sumur, Indonesia.Fauzy Chaniago / AP

Tati Hayati, a housewife, said she was enjoying the full moon near the beach with 10 other people when the disaster hit.

"There was no sign of a tsunami when we were at the beach. The sea didn't recede," she recalled. "It was calm and bright with the full moon."

When she spotted high, fast-moving waves launching toward the shore, she ran to her car and managed to get inside. But she couldn't outrun it. The car was struck by three waves, breaking out the back window and filling the vehicle with gushing water.

"We were locked inside. The car was swaying in the waves and we thought we would all die," she said. "We almost could not breathe and I almost gave up when I groped the key in the water and managed to open the door, and the water began to recede. We got out of the car and ran to safety."

Thick ash clouds continued to spew from Anak Krakatau, a volcanic island where a crater collapse at high tide on Saturday sent waves smashing into coastal areas on both sides of the Sunda Strait between the islands of Sumatra and Java.

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Rescuers used heavy machinery, sniffer dogs, and special cameras to detect and dig bodies out of mud and wreckage along a 60-mile stretch of Java's west coast and officials said the search area would be expanded further south.

"There are several locations that we previously thought were not affected," said Yusuf Latif, spokesman for the national search and rescue agency.

"But now we are reaching more remote areas...and in fact there are many victims there," he added.

The vast archipelago, which sits on the Pacific "Ring of Fire," has suffered its worst annual death toll from disasters in more than a decade.

Earthquakes flattened parts of the island of Lombok in July and August, and a double quake-and-tsunami killed more than 2,000 people on a remote part of Sulawesi island in September.

It took just 24 minutes after the landslide for waves to hit land, and there was no early warning for those living on the coast.

Authorities and experts have warned of further high waves and advised residents to stay away from the shoreline.

"Since Anak Krakatau has been actively erupting for the past several months, additional tsunamis cannot be excluded," said Dr. Prof Hermann Fritz, from the Georgia Institute of Technology in the United States.

Military troops, government personnel and volunteers continued searching along debris-strewn beaches. Rescue efforts were hampered by heavy rainfall and low visibility.

Yellow, orange and black body bags were laid out where victims were found, and weeping relatives identified the dead. Many searched for missing loved ones at hospital morgues.

One team used sniffer dogs to search for survivors at the beach club where a tsunami washed away an outdoor stage where the Indonesian rock band Seventeen were performing at a party for about 200 guests.

The band's lead singer located the body of his dead wife after posting emotional posts on social media, vowing that he would not leave her.

Destruction was visible along much of the coastline, where waves of up to six feet crushed vehicles, lifted chunks of metal, felled trees, wooden beams and household items and deposited them on roads and rice fields.

In 1883, the volcano then known as Krakatoa erupted in one of the biggest blasts in recorded history, killing more than 36,000 people in a series of tsunami, and lowering the global surface temperature by one degree Celsius with its ash. Anak Krakatau is the island that emerged from the area in 1927, and has been growing ever since.

Villagers walk through debris caused by a tsunami in Carita, Banten province, Indonesia, on Monday.Ulet Ifansasti / Getty Images

Saturday's high waves isolated hundreds of people on Sebesi island, about seven miles volcano.

"We are completely paralyzed," Syamsiar, a village secretary on the island, told Metro TV, calling for food and medicine.

The timing of the disaster over the Christmas season evoked memories of the Indian Ocean tsunami triggered by an earthquake on Dec. 26, 2004, which killed 226,000 people in 14 countries, including more than 120,000 in Indonesia.

Food, water, blankets, and medical aid has started arriving in the area.

District chief Atmadja Suhara said he was helping to care for 4,000 refugees, many of them homeless.

"Everybody is still in a state of panic," he said. "We often have disasters, but not as bad as this."

"God willing," he said, "we will rebuild."