By ANTHONY DEUTSCH, Associated Press Writer
PADANG, Indonesia - Powerful earthquakes struck Indonesia for a third day Friday, terrorizing thousands of people who slept outside in fear of tsunami and falling debris. Seismologists warned that the worst may be yet to come.
The massive 8.4-magnitude quake that shook Southeast Asia on Wednesday has been followed by dozens of strong aftershocks that have killed at least 13 people, damaged hundreds of homes and churned up a 10-foot-high tsunami.
On Friday, the U.S. Geological Survey measured one aftershock jolting the area at magnitude 6.4.
Experts have been predicting a repeat of the massive earthquake that triggered the 2004 Asian tsunami, which killed more than 230,000 people in a dozen Indian Ocean nations. Kerry Sieh of the California Institute of Technology, who has spent decades studying the fault line in the area, said these temblors could be leading up to the big one.
"No one can say whether it will be in 30 seconds or 30 years," Sieh said. "But what happened the other day, I think is quite possibly a sequence of smaller earthquakes leading up to the bigger one."
The wall of water that slammed into several fishing villages along Sumatra island's coast Wednesday swept away nearly a dozen houses, but overall damage was "minimal," Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said after an Air Force aerial survey.
A nine-member U.N. assessment team reached the same conclusion after visiting the area, saying that a major international relief operation was not required, John Holmes, the U.N.'s emergency relief coordinator, said in a statement from New York.
Many people said a public awareness campaign launched after the 2004 tsunami paid off, including warnings issued over mosque speakers and training provided by local officials on how to escape a disaster.
"When the earth started shaking, some people yelled, 'It's time to go up the hill ... let's get going," said Fadil, 35, a father of two, describing how he and hundreds of neighbors watched from above as the 10-foot wave approached. Hundreds of houses were damaged, but no one died.
Elsewhere, however, electricity blackouts prevented some sirens from going off.
The latest quakes — together with the 9.0-magnitude temblor in 2004 and a 8.7 tremor in early 2005 — deeply concern experts.
Indonesia, the world's largest archipelago, with a population of 235 million people, is prone to seismic upheaval due to its location on the "Ring of Fire," an arc of volcanos and fault lines encircling the Pacific Basin.
One major fault, which runs the length of the west coast of Sumatra about 125 miles offshore, is the meeting point of the Eurasian and Pacific tectonic plates, which have been pushing against each other for millions of years. This can cause huge stresses to build up.
"There is a strong indication this foreshadows the big one," said Danny Hillman, an earthquake specialist at the Indonesian Institute of Science. "We all agree there is an 8.5 or stronger earthquake waiting to happen."
That's exactly the fear of residents along Sumatra's western coast, which is expected to bear the brunt of the next disaster. The island was hardest hit by the 2004 tsunami, accounting for nearly two-thirds of the deaths.
In the tiny fishing village of Sungai Pisang, just south of the badly damaged city of Padang, hundreds of people were too scared to return home after the recent tremors sent a large wave washing into their bay.
At a camp pitched on a muddy hillside cemetery, they have been sleeping atop plastic sheets or on the cold ground between graves. A small generator powers a light bulb, hung over branches in the thick tropical undergrowth, but there is little else.
"I am very afraid of another tsunami," said Dasima, a 50-year-old rice farmer who fled with her 7-year-old grandson, Rolin. "We only cook our rice in the town and then return here to eat and sleep. We will stay here until we feel it is safe."