By John Nedy
PADANG, Indonesia (Reuters) – A major earthquake struck off the city of Padang on the coast of Indonesia’s Sumatra island on Wednesday, damaging houses, toppling bridges and starting fires.
The quake caused widespread panic across the city of 900,000 people, but it was not immediately clear if there were any casualties because most phone lines were down. TV footage showed devastation, with piles of rubble and smashed houses.
The 7.6 magnitude quake was felt around the region, with some high-rise buildings in Singapore, 440 km (275 miles) to the northeast, evacuating staff. Office buildings also shook in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center canceled an earlier tsunami alert.
“Hundreds of houses have been damaged along the road. There are some fires, bridges are cut and there is extreme panic here,” said a Reuters witness in the city, who also said broken water pipes had triggered flooding.
His mobile phone was then cut off and officials said power had been severed in the city. A resident called Adi later told Indonesia’s Metro Television there was devastation around him.
“For now I can’t see dead bodies, just collapsed houses. Some half destroyed, others completely. People are standing around too scared to go back inside. They fear a tsunami,” said Adi.
“No help has arrived yet. I can see small children standing around carrying blankets. Some people are looking for relatives but all the lights have gone out completely.”
Online news agency Detik.com said a hospital and a large market had also been damaged in the city.
Sumatra is home to some of the country’s largest oil fields as well as its oldest and smallest liquefied natural gas terminal, although there were no immediate reports of damage to those facilities.
Padang, the capital of Indonesia’s West Sumatra province, sits on one of the world’s most active fault lines along the “Ring of Fire” where the Indo-Australia plate grinds against the Eurasia plate to create regular tremors and sometimes quakes.
A 9.15 magnitude quake, with its epicenter roughly 600 km (373 miles) northwest of Padang, caused the 2004 tsunami which killed 232,000 people in Indonesia’s Aceh province, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, and other countries across the Indian Ocean.
The depth of Wednesday’s earthquake was 85 km (53 miles), the United States Geological Survey said. It revised down the magnitude of the quake from 7.9 to 7.6.
A series of tsunamis earlier on Wednesday smashed into the Pacific island nations of American and Western Samoa, and Tonga killing possibly more than 100 people, some washed out to sea, destroying villages and injuring hundreds.
LONG HELD FEARS
Geologists have long said Padang may one day be destroyed by a huge earthquake because of its location.
“Padang sits right in front of the area with the greatest potential for an 8.9 magnitude earthquake,” said Danny Hilman Natawidjaja, a geologist at the Indonesian Science Institute, in February.
“The entire city could drown” in a tsunami triggered by such a quake, he warned.
Several earthquake-prone parts of the country hold tsunami practice drills, and the national disaster service sends alerts via telephone text messages to subscribers.
But some experts have long said Indonesia needs to do more to reduce the risk of catastrophe.
Padang needed to invest in better infrastructure, including more roads and other escape routes, said Hugh Goyder, a consultant for the United Nations’ International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, earlier in the year.
“The road goes parallel to the coast, which means it’s difficult in some areas to get away from the coast,” Goyder said, adding that in one part of the city, the only escape route was a narrow bridge.
(Additional reporting by Telly Nathalia, Ed Davies and Sunanda Creagh in Jakarta; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Dean Yates)