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She lay inside a medical tent in the stifling midday heat, wincing in pain at the gashes and cuts that cover her body. But all Anisa Cornelia could think about was the love of her life—the man she was supposed to marry in the coming days.
She had not seen him since a tsunami smashed into an Indonesian island, separating the pair possibly forever as they strolled along a sandy beach at twilight.
“Where is my fiance? Please, do you have any news?” the badly bruised 22-year-old pleaded as medical staff came to check on her in the courtyard of the main hospital in the coastal city of Palu.
“Everyone is still searching for him,” replied Dr. Andi Sengrengrele, pursing her lips in sympathy. “You have to be patient, OK?”
On September 28, a 7.5 magnitude earthquake struck the northern Indonesian island of Sulawesi.
Within three minutes of the quake, a wall of water from the ocean swept away buildings and people in coastal cities attempting to escape the effects of the earthquake.
Disaster officials said the wave could have been 20 feet or higher based on a man who survived by climbing a tree. A tsunami warning issued after the quake predicted waves of up to 10 feet.
Palu’s location at the end of a narrow, 6-mile-long bay worsened the tsunami’s effects.
“When water comes into a horseshoe-shaped area like that, instead of the wave increasing just because the ocean is getting shallow, you also have the bowl effect, where the waves are going to reflect off the shoreline around it,” Jess Phoenix, a U.S. geologist who has studied in Indonesia, told BBC News. The effect doubled the size of the tsunami by the time it reached land.
The earthquake and subsequent tsunami left countless people desperate to find their loved ones—either alive or dead.
The government counted more than 2,000 dead after the twin disaster. They eventually called off rescue efforts after two weeks, leaving around 5,000 still missing. Many likely drowned, were swept out to sea, or were swallowed up in two Palu neighborhoods where the ground liquefied as the quake’s shaking condensed loose, wet soil into mud. Some bodies were buried as deep as 10 feet.
Lisda Cancer, who heads the local police’s Department of Victim Identification, said about 600 of the bodies buried in mass graves in Palu alone were unclaimed. Authorities had been photographing them in hopes that relatives could identify them later.
“But we had to stop because the corpses we’re recovering now have decayed too much,” Dr. Cancer said. “They’ve become a public health hazard, and the new instructions are to bury them immediately.”
The areas affected by the disaster, which now look like vast wastelands, will be turned into memorial parks to remember the victims, and survivors will be relocated to safer locations.
The quake and tsunami destroyed more than 65,000 homes and buildings, and displaced more than 70,000 people. Thousands are still living in temporary shelters and tents across Palu.
Miss Cornelia said she met her fiance, 25-year-old Iqbal Nurdiansyah, seven years earlier through friends at school. She was attracted to his warm personality, his bushy eyebrows and his handsome face.
Three years ago, he took her to her favorite restaurant, on Palu Bay, and proposed. A two-week wedding ceremony was set to begin October 15, culminating in a reception at a hotel called the Swiss Bell, which also overlooked the beach.
On September 28, the couple was walking along the sandy shore after an early dinner with eight members of Mr. Nurdiansyah’s family. Mr. Nurdiansyah remarked how beautiful the sunset was, and he organized a group photo.
Then, suddenly, the ground shook under their feet.
People who had been playing volleyball and relaxing in cafes along the shore began screaming, “Earthquake! Earthquake!”
As terrifying as the tremor was, Miss Cornelia and her husband-to-be thought they had escaped the disaster unharmed.
Shortly afterward, though, she heard a roar and turned to see a huge wave rushing toward them—the largest she had ever seen in her life. All of them began to run. The last time she saw Mr. Nurdiansyah, he was trying to scoop up two of his young nieces to save them.
Miss Cornelia, who could not swim, swallowed salt water as she was sucked beneath the powerful wave and flipped upside down, “left and right, like a spinning ball.”
Somehow she found herself still somewhere on the beach, largely unscathed and able to stand up. But then a second wave struck, this one lower and much faster. The wall of water dragged her at least a mile inland, shredding her entire body—head to toe—among smashed blocks of concrete, broken wooden planks and swirling garbage.
When the water finally began to retreat, she found herself alone—pinned between a metal fence and the stage of a soccer field. A man helped her up and she limped in the darkness, past smashed cars that had been thrown onto piles of debris and a naked man whose clothes had been ripped off by the waves.
Of the nine others who had been on the beach with her that day, only one is known to have survived—a 5-year-old niece of Mr. Nurdiansyah. Two others have been confirmed dead, while six are still missing.
At the hospital, Miss Cornelia’s 44-year-old mother, Ray Djangaritu, tried to console her.
Friends had searched hospitals without luck, but maybe he was taken to another city as other wounded survivors had been, she said. Cellphone networks had been down or limited for much of the week, making it hard to communicate. “I believe he’s still alive,” she said.
Tears seeping from her eyes, Miss Cornelia held onto that hope.
“I still want to marry him, even if God returns him with a disability, no hands or blindness,” she said. “I can see for him, as long as I am healthy.”