Mentawai Islands hit by Tsunami

Tuesday, October 26, 2010 -- A group of Australian surfers were forced to climb trees to escape a tsunami triggered by an earthquake off the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

The surfers, from the Gold Coast and Sydney, were on two charter boats near the the Mentawai islands when a  7.7-magnitude earthquake struck off the west coast of Indonesia on Monday (3.42am today, NZ time).

The quake triggered a tsunami alert - reportedly removed before the wave struck - and sent residents fleeing.

Jamie Gray, a spokesman for The Perfect Wave Surf Travel which organised the surfing trip, said two charter boats - the Midas and Freedom - collided when the tsunami shifted the boats off their anchors.

One of the boats burst into flames during the collision, before the surfers were washed into the jungle, he said.

He said most of the surfers were from the Gold Coast, while several others were from Sydney. New Zealand surfers are also understood to be in the area.

Mr Gray told Radio 3AW in Australia that Tom Plummer - who heads up SurfAid International in the island chain - had sent his boat Dabora to pick-up Midas passengers who had hit the boat Freedom, which caught on fire.

"Obviously, the tsunami has come along and shifted the boats off anchor. They anchor off Macaron Bay there and they ran into each other. I don't know how one of the boats has lit up.

"By the looks of things, they've all been sort of washed into the jungle area and they've all climbed trees."

His emails said everyone seemed to be okay, "but I can't get hold of them via phone so obviously until I speak to them the concern will be there."

Australian Rick Hallett has told the Nine Network he was on his charter boat with guests when the wall of water rolled into their bay in the Mentawai Islands.

He said it picked up one boat and pitched it towards theirs, which burst into flames and exploded.

The 7.5-magnitude quake struck at a depth of 15 kilometres off Sumatra island, said the US Geological Survey.

The 9.42 pm quake (0342 NZ time) triggered a tsunami warning that sent thousands of panicked residents fleeing to high ground. There were no immediate reports of damage or injuries from the tsunami - or quake -but witnesses reported people were carried 200 metres inland and scrambled up trees as the wall of water hit.

At least five towns in the provinces of Bengkulu and West Sumatra were badly jolted, officials and witnesses said, as were the nearby Mentawai islands.

"Every was running out of their houses," said Sofyan Alawi, a resident in the city of Padang, adding that roads leading to surrounding hills were quickly jammed with cars and motorcycles.

"We kept looking back to see if a wave was coming," said 28-year-old resident Ade Syahputra.

There were no immediate reports of damage or casualties , said Ade Edward, a disaster management agency official.

Indonesia, the world's largest archipelago, is prone to earthquakes and volcanic activity due to its location on the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire.