With many missing, some remote areas still unreachable and more than 1,000 people injured in the 5.6 magnitude quake, the death toll is likely to rise.
Hospitals near the epicentre on the densely populated island of Java were already overwhelmed. Patients hooked up to IV drips lay on stretchers and cots in tents set up outside, awaiting further treatment.
Indonesia is frequently hit by earthquakes, many much stronger than Monday’s natural disaster whose magnitude would typically be expected to cause light damage. But experts said the shallowness of the quake and inadequate infrastructure contributed to the severe damage, including caved-in roofs and large piles of bricks, concrete, and corrugated metal.
The quake was centred on the rural, mountainous Cianjur district, where one woman said her home started “shaking like it was dancing”.
“I was crying and immediately grabbed my husband and children,” said Partinem, who like many Indonesians only goes by only one name. The house collapsed shortly after she escaped with her family.
“If I didn’t pull them out, we might have also been victims,” she said, gazing over the pile of broken concrete and timber.
More than 2.5 million people live in Cianjur district, including about 175,000 in the main town of the same name. The quake struck at a depth of 6.2 miles and also caused panic in the capital, Jakarta, about a three hour-drive away, where high-rise buildings swayed and some people fled their homes.
National Disaster Mitigation Agency head Suharyanto, who uses one name, told reporters 1,083 people were injured and at least 151 missing. However, not all of the dead have been identified, so it is possible that some of the bodies pulled from the rubble are people on the missing list.
Rescue operations were focused on about a dozen locations in Cianjur, where people are still believed trapped, said public works and housing spokesman Endra Atmawidjaja. “We are racing against time to rescue people,” he said.
Initial rescue attempts were hampered by damaged roads and bridges and power outages, and a lack of equipment to help move the heavy rubble.
By Tuesday, power supplies and phone communications had begun to improve, and Atmawidjaja said seven excavators and ten large trucks had been deployed from neighbouring areas to clear roads.
In the village of Cijedil, the quake triggered a landslide that blocked streets and buried several houses, said Henri Alfiandi, chief of the National Search and Rescue Agency.
“We are maximising operations at several points where it is suspected that there are still casualties,” he said. “Our team is also trying to reach remote areas.”
Many of the dead were public school students who had finished classes for the day and were taking extra lessons at Islamic schools when the buildings collapsed, West Java Governor Ridwan Kamil said.
More than 13,000 people whose homes were heavily damaged were taken to evacuation centres, he said, though thousands spent the night in the open amid fears of aftershocks.
Cargo trucks carrying food, tents, blankets and other supplies from Jakarta arrived in temporary shelters early on Tuesday. Outside the Cianjur Regional Hospital, hundreds waited for treatment.
“I was working inside my office building – the building was not damaged, but as the quake shook very strongly, many things fell. My leg was hit by heavy stuff,” said Dwi Sarmadi, who works for an Islamic educational foundation in a neighbouring district.
He was waiting near a tent outside the hospital after some overwhelmed clinics were unable to see him. Many people were arriving in a worse condition.
Hasan, a construction worker who uses one name, was also taken to the hospital.
“I fainted, it was very strong,” he recalled. “I saw my friends running to escape from the building. But it was too late to get out and I was hit by the wall.”
President Joko Widodo visited Cianjur on Tuesday and pledged to rebuild infrastructure, including the main bridge connecting Cianjur to other cities, and to provide government assistance up to 50 million rupiah (£2,500) to each resident whose house was damaged.
“On behalf of myself and on behalf of the government, I would like to express my deep condolences to the victims and their families in this Cianjur earthquake,” he said after visiting survivors in shelters on a football field.
The country of more than 270 million people is frequently struck by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis because of its location on the arc of volcanoes and fault lines in the Pacific Basin known as the “Ring of Fire”.
In February, a magnitude-6.2 earthquake killed at least 25 people and injured more than 460 in West Sumatra province. In January 2021, a magnitude-6.2 earthquake killed more than 100 people and injured nearly 6,500 in West Sulawesi province.
A powerful Indian Ocean quake and tsunami in 2004 killed 230,000 people in a dozen countries, most of them in Indonesia.