Dam Bursts Near Indonesian Capital, Killing 58

 

 
 
 

Ali Kotarumalos | | Friday, March 27, 2009


CIRENDEU, Indonesia -- Torrential rain caused a colonial-era dam to burst outside the Indonesian capital early Friday, sending a wall of muddy water crashing into a densely packed neighborhood and killing at least 58 people.

The flood left scores missing and submerged hundreds of homes. Rescuers used rubber rafts to pluck bodies from streets that were transformed into rivers littered with motorcycles, chairs and other debris.

Officials predicted that the death toll would rise and delivered more than 100 body bags to the scene.

"I'm devastated," said Cholik, 21, crying as he sat next to the body of his 54-year-old mother. His brother-in-law also was killed and his 1-year-old niece was missing.

"I wasn't home last night. ... I should have been there to save them," he said.

The earthen dam, built in 1933 when Indonesia was still under Dutch rule, surrounded a man-made lake in Cirendeu on the southwestern edge of Jakarta. It collapsed just after 2 a.m. when most people were sleeping, sending 70 million cubic feet (2 million cubic meters) of water cascading into homes and leaving the lake almost completely drained.

Several survivors said it felt like they'd been hit by a "mini-tsunami."

Water levels were so high in some places that people waited on rooftops for rescuers. Telephone lines were toppled and cars swept away, some ending up hundreds of feet (meters) from where they'd been parked.

By mid-afternoon, hundreds of victims gathered at nearby Muhammadiyah University, which was transformed into a makeshift morgue. Many were wailing as soldiers and police brought in bodies, covering them in white sheets of plastic.

Cecep Rahman, 63, lost his wife, son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter in the disaster.

"I heard a crashing sound and looked out my window," he choked. "The tide was so strong, like a tsunami. They were swept away. ... There was nothing I could do."

Health Ministry Crisis Center chief Rustam Pakaya and rescue teams at the scene said at least 58 people were killed and more than 400 houses submerged, some in water 10-feet- (about three-meters-) deep.

A 9-year-old girl was found unconscious on one rooftop after the water receded, but she died on the way to a hospital, said rescuer Toni Suhartono, adding the child's parents and sister were among dozens still missing.

The powerful current carried some bodies several miles (kilometers), uprooted trees and completely demolished homes, leaving only the foundations standing.

For many, the walls of water spawned by the dam collapse triggered memories of the much more devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed 230,000 people, more than half of them on Indonesia's westernmost island of Sumatra.

The Ministry of Public Works said it will investigate what caused the disaster.

But Wahyu Hartono, a former official at the ministry, said the 40-foot- (about 15-meter-) high dam had been poorly maintained in recent years because of budget shortfalls.

After four hours of heavy rain the spillway overflowed and the base gave way.

"We need to find a way to take better care of these Dutch-era dams and dikes," he said. "Otherwise, there will be more problems like this in the future."

Seasonal downpours cause dozens of landslides and flash floods each year in Indonesia, a nation of 235 million, where many live in mountainous areas or near fertile plains.

More than 40 people were killed in the capital after rivers burst their banks two years ago. Critics said rampant overdevelopment, poor city planning and clogged drainage canals were partly to blame.

Associated Press reporters Niniek Karmini, Zakki Hakim and Anthony Deutsch in Jakarta contributed to this report.




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