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Indonesian airport employee lauded as hero for sacrificing self to save plane

Anthonius Gunawan Agung stayed in air traffic control tower as colleagues fled to ensure passenger jet could take off before quake-tsunami hit

Damage to the Mutiara Sis Al Jufri airport is seen in Palu, in Indonesia's Central Sulawesi province, on September 30, 2018, following the deadly September 28 earthquake and tsunami. (AFP Photo/Adek Berry)
Damage to the Mutiara Sis Al Jufri airport is seen in Palu, in Indonesia's Central Sulawesi province, on September 30, 2018, following the deadly September 28 earthquake and tsunami. (AFP Photo/Adek Berry)

An Indonesian air traffic controller is being posthumously hailed as a hero for refusing to leave his post despite devastating earthquakes so that he could guide a passenger jet safely off the ground.

Twenty-one-year-old Anthonius Gunawan Agung was on duty in the air traffic control tower at Palu’s Mutiara SIS Al-Jufrie airport when a series of earthquakes struck the city in Sulawesi island on Friday.

Officials say he refused to leave his post until he got an Batik Air plane off the ground, while his colleagues who were not handling aircraft departed.

“When the quake happened, he was giving clearance to Batik Air to take off and waited for the plane to be safely airborne before finally leaving the ATC cabin tower,” said AirNav Indonesia spokesman Yohanes Harry Sirait.

After Flight 6231 was safely in the air as the quakes became ever-stronger, culminating in a 7.5 magnitude jolt and tsunami. At least 832 people are confirmed dead.

Eventually, Agung jumped from the top of the crumbling four-story tower in a desperate bid to escape, breaking his leg and suffering serious internal injuries.

He was taken to a nearby hospital where he received basic treatment, but died before a helicopter could arrive to transport him to a better-equipped facility.

The company will raise Agung’s rank by two levels as a sign of appreciation for his extraordinary dedication, AirNav said in a statement.

Local station Metro TV was among those who hailed Agung’s “heroic act.”

The Indonesian archipelago sits on the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” where tectonic plates collide and many of the world’s volcanic eruptions and earthquakes occur.

This aerial picture shows the remains of a ten-story hotel in Palu in Indonesia’s Central Sulawesi province on September 30, 2018, after it collapsed following a strong earthquake in the area. (AFP Photo/Azwar)

Separately, an early warning system that might have prevented some deaths in the tsunami had been stalled in the testing phase for years.

The high-tech system of seafloor sensors, data-laden sound waves and fiber-optic cable was meant to replace a system set up after an earthquake and tsunami killed nearly 250,000 people in the region in 2004. But inter-agency wrangling and delays in getting just 1 billion rupiah ($69,000) to complete the project mean the system hasn’t moved beyond a prototype developed with $3 million from the US National Science Foundation.

“To me this is a tragedy for science, even more so a tragedy for the Indonesian people as the residents of Sulawesi are discovering right now,” said Louise Comfort, a University of Pittsburgh expert in disaster management who has led the US side of the project, which also involves engineers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and Indonesian scientists and disaster experts.

“It’s a heartbreak to watch when there is a well-designed sensor network that could provide critical information,” she said.

After a 2004 tsunami killed 230,000 people in a dozen countries, more than half of them in the Indonesian province of Aceh, a concerted international effort was launched to improve tsunami warning capabilities, particularly in the Indian Ocean and for Indonesia, one of world’s most earthquake and tsunami-prone countries.

Part of that drive, using funding from Germany and elsewhere, included deploying a network of 22 buoys connected to seafloor sensors to transmit advance warnings.

A sizeable earthquake off Sumatra island in 2016 that caused panic in the coastal city of Padang revealed that none of the buoys costing hundreds of thousands of dollars each were working. They’d been disabled by vandalism or theft or just stopped working due to a lack of funds for maintenance.

The backbone of Indonesia’s tsunami warning system today is a network of 134 tidal gauge stations augmented by land-based seismographs, sirens in about 55 locations and a system to disseminate warnings by text message.

People survey the damage of the shopping mall following earthquakes and a tsunami in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, on September 30, 2018. (AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana)

When the 7.5 quake hit just after 6 p.m. Friday, the meteorology and geophysics agency issued a tsunami alert, warning of potential for waves of 0.5 to 3 meters (2 to 10 feet). It ended the warning at 6:36 p.m. That drew harsh online criticism, but the agency’s head said the warning was lifted after the tsunami hit. It’s unclear exactly what time tsunami waves rushed into the narrow bay that Palu is built around.

“The tide gauges are operating, but they are limited in providing any advance warning. None of the 22 buoys are functioning,” Comfort said. “In the Sulawesi incident, BMKG (the meteorology and geophysics agency) canceled the tsunami warning too soon, because it did not have data from Palu. This is the data the tsunami detection system could provide.”

Adam Switzer, a tsunami expert at the Earth Observatory of Singapore, said it’s a “little unfair” to say the agency got it wrong.

“What it shows is that the tsunami models we have now are too simplistic,” he said. “They don’t take into account multiple events, multiple quakes within a short period of time. They don’t take into account submarine landslides.”

Whatever system is in use, he said, the priority after an earthquake in a coastal area should be to get to higher ground and stay there for a couple of hours.

Experts say the prototype system deployed offshore from Padang — a city extremely vulnerable to tsunamis because it faces a major undersea fault overdue for a massive quake — can provide authoritative information about a tsunami threat within 1 to 3 minutes. That compares with 5 to 45 minutes from the now defunct buoys and the limited information provided by tidal gauges.

The Associated Press first reported on the system in January 2017, when the project was awaiting Indonesian funding to lay the cables. Since then, agencies involved have suffered budget cuts and the project bounced back and forth between them.

A December 2017 quake off the coast of Java close to Jakarta reignited interest and the geophysics agency made getting funding a priority. In July, the Ministry of Finance in July approved funding to purchase and lay the cable.

People survey the damage of the shopping mall following earthquakes and a tsunami in Palu, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, on September 30, 2018. (AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana)

Since the 2004 tsunami, the mantra among disaster officials in Indonesia has been that the earthquake is the tsunami warning and signal for immediate evacuation. Not everyone is convinced a tsunami detection system is essential.

The fact that people were still milling around Palu’s shoreline when waves were visibly approaching shows the lessons of earlier disasters haven’t been absorbed.

“This points to the failing to do appropriate training and to develop trust so that people know exactly what to do when an alert is issued,” he said. “In our project in Bandung, we’re finding a similar unwillingness to prepare for something that seems unlikely.”

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