JAKARTA, Indonesia – A powerful earthquake jolted eastern Indonesia early Monday, killing at least two people, damaging hundreds of homes and briefly triggering a region-wide tsunami warning, officials said as they surveyed the damage.
The 7.5-magnitude quake struck off the coast of Sulawesi island in the middle of the night, sending thousands fleeing homes, hotels and even hospitals. Some grabbed the hands of crying children and clutched onto their most valuable possessions.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the temblor hit 85 miles from the nearest city of Gorantalo and was centered 16 miles beneath the sea. Two strong aftershocks followed, one measuring 5.5 and the other 5.1.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center initially warned that the massive quake had the potential to generate a destructive tsunami along coasts within 600 miles. Frightened Sulawesi residents refused to return indoors long after a local alert was lifted, many sleeping in the hills.
In late 2004, a massive earthquake off Sumatra island, to the west, triggered a tsunami that battered much of the Indian Ocean coastline and killed or left missing more than 230,000 people — 160,000 of them in Indonesia alone. And last year, a tsunami off Java island killed nearly 5,000.
By morning, officials were starting to get a better sense of the destruction.
Rustam Pakaya, the head of the Health Ministry's Crisis Center, said at least two people died, 37 were injured and more than 200 homes were damaged, some of them completely crumpled.
Robert Bano, a Gorantalo resident, said the quake shook his house for more than two minutes, knocking paintings from the wall. He grabbed his crying children and ran outside, joining neighbors and friends.
A few guests streaming from Paradiso Hotel were so afraid they fainted, the official news agency Antara reported.
A witness in the city of Poso said patients from at least one hospital were evacuated.
Indonesia is prone to seismic upheaval due to its location on the so-called Pacific "Ring of Fire," an arc of volcanos and fault lines encircling the Pacific Basin.