A 7.5 magnitude earthquake struck Indonesia on Saturday killing around 850 people and decimating the regional capital of Palu. 25-year-old Kiwi pilot, Andrew Todd, was situated about 40 miles south of the epicentre when the quake and proceeding tsunami struck. He is one of two Kiwis understood to be in the Sulawesi area and his airline, Susi Air, is now assisting the Indonesian military's rescue efforts. He spoke exclusively with the Ashburton Guardian in between flights.

The sun was setting in the small town of Masamba and Andrew Todd had just decided on fried chicken for dinner when it happened.

Kiwi pilot Andrew Todd was situated around 240 kilometres south of the epicentre when the quake and proceeding tsunami struck. Photo / Andrew Todd
Kiwi pilot Andrew Todd was situated around 240 kilometres south of the epicentre when the quake and proceeding tsunami struck. Photo / Andrew Todd

He and three other pilots were relaxing around the dining table at their crew house when the clock struck 6.02pm and the rumbles began.

Cupboards rattled, water sloshed around the cooler, and the dining room light swung from side to side like a pendulum.

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"It wasn't just a sharp jolt," he said,

"It just sort of built up slowly. And it went on, for at least 60 seconds."

He said it was difficult to stand, let alone walk.

"I've felt some good quakes living in Wellington... this was way, way worse."

When the movement stopped and silence fell across the small town, the four pilots, all unharmed, searched for phone signal to see if their fellow Susi Air staff were okay.

"We found out that the situation up north in Palu was pretty bad - even worse than where we were. Palu has skyscrapers and a lot had gone down."

Palu, a seaside city of 335,000 residents, also had the threat of tsunamis to consider.

Damage from the earthquake in Indonesia. Photo / Andrew Todd
Damage from the earthquake in Indonesia. Photo / Andrew Todd

Alarms sounded out and city residents began to make their way inland. 34 minutes later the alarm was cancelled and many made their way back towards the seaside. But it was 10 minutes too soon.

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Waves up to three metres smashed through the town, wiping out homes, temples and hundreds of lives.

"Later that evening was when we started hearing reports of it being bad, really bad," Todd said.

As dawn broke over Indonesia the following day, the four pilots were contacted by Susi Air and put on standby.

They were advised that they would heading to Palu themselves to help out with the rescue effort, and would be flying there as soon as the runway at Palu Airport was deemed safe enough to land on.

The airport's control tower had also collapsed, and a 21-year-old air traffic controller had attempted to jump to safety and died. Roof panels and damaged equipment had tumbled down inside the terminals and deep cracks had torn across the tarmac. As with the rest of Palu, there is still no running water or electricity.

The damage was huge. Photo / Andrew Todd
The damage was huge. Photo / Andrew Todd

Todd's first task was to take two local reporters to Palu and pick up several Susi Air ground crew members from the airport. From 8000 feet, he has been able to see the full extent of the devastation.

"Whole mountains have changed shape," he said.

Steep terrain, once speckled with small villages, are now scarred with hundreds of huge landslides. From the air, he said, you can see dust rising into the air as aftershocks create more slips.

"It usually takes a few days to get to some of those villages. Now that they are cut off we can only assume there's a lot of damage that we don't know about yet," he said.

Closer to Palu, the shoreline has visibly shifted and palm trees are lying flat. Once-green paddocks now shine brown with dirty water and huge suburbs have been consumed by liquefaction. Cities lay in rubble ruins, dotted with emergency camps.

Damage from the earthquake. Photo / Andrew Todd
Damage from the earthquake. Photo / Andrew Todd

Todd has since made frequent trips to Palu Airport, from a new base at Mamuju. He has been dropping off hundreds of kilograms worth of medical supplies and emergency food at a time and described the situation beyond the airport gates as "pretty dire".

Thousands of refugees have been queuing up in 30-40 degree heat to be evacuated in military planes.

"You can see families sheltering under fire trucks, sharing bottles of water, desperate to get out. It's pretty sad."

Todd does not know how long he will be helping out, nor what he will be asked to do each day, but said it will no doubt be a "massive clean-up effort".

"We're just taking it as it comes."

- Ashburton Guardian