Posted: 26 October 2010 1635 hrs
JAKARTA - At least 23 people are dead and scores missing, including nine Australians, after a powerful earthquake hit Indonesia's west coast and triggered a tsunami, officials said Tuesday.
The 7.7-magnitude earthquake, which struck in the Mentawai Islands area west of Sumatra late Monday, caused waves as high as three metres (10 feet) that damaged residential areas in several islands.
A tsunami warning was issued after the quake and a group of Australian visitors reported that their boat was destroyed by a "wall of white water" crashing into a bay.
Rick Hallet, an Australian who operates a boat-chartering business in Sumatra, said he had 15 people on board his vessel in a bay off the islands when the quake struck.
"We felt a bit of a shake underneath the boat... then within several minutes we heard an almighty roar... I immediately thought of a tsunami and looked out to sea and that's when we saw the wall of white water coming at us," he said.
Arlyno, an official from the Disaster Management Agency, told AFP that 23 people were killed in the Mentawai islands and that 167 people had gone missing.
While remote, the Mentawai Islands are popular with tourists, especially surfers.
Health Ministry Crisis Centre head Mudjiharto, who goes by one name, said the waves reached three metres high and waters swept as far as 600 metres inland on South Pagai island, one of the Mentawai chain.
"Eighty percent of buildings in Muntei village have been damaged by the waves and many people are missing there," Mudjiharto said.
He said medical personnel were on their way to the hardest-hit areas.
Rescuers launched a hunt for a boat believed to be carrying a group of nine Australians which has been missing since the quake.
"We are sending a boat and a chartered plane to search for the boat," said Andrew Judge of SurfAid International.
It was reportedly not equipped with a satellite telephone but SurfAid's Dave Jenkins said its Australian captain Chris Scurrah had "been around here for a long time. He knew to contact in if he could. So that's why we're extra concerned."
The undersea quake hit at 9:42pm (1442 GMT) at a depth of 20.6 kilometres (12.8 miles), 240 kilometres west of Bengkulu on Sumatra island and 280 kilometres south of Padang, the US Geological Survey said.
"A significant tsunami was generated by this earthquake," said the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center. The warning was later withdrawn after the danger of further waves had passed.
The first tremor was followed by strong magnitude 6.1 and 6.2 aftershocks several hours later.
Hallet recounted his group's ordeal when the quake struck, with some climbing trees to survive.
"The bay we were in was several hundred metres across and the wall of white water was from one side to the other, it was quite scary," he told Fairfax Radio Network.
Another boat was anchored next to them, he said.
"The wave picked that boat up and brought it towards us and ran straight into us and our boat exploded, caught on fire, we had a fireball on the back deck and right through the saloon within seconds.
"I ordered everyone up to the top deck to get as high as possible, then the boat exploded and we had to abandon ship," he told Australia's Nine Network.
The group jumped into the water, some of them being swept 200 metres inland, and took shelter by climbing trees, waiting for 20 minutes to half an hour until the surges passed.
Eventually all the group, nine of whom were Australian, were accounted for, he said.
Residents reported shaking as far away as the West Sumatran provincial capital of Padang when the main quake struck.
Indonesia sits on the Pacific "Ring of Fire," where the meeting of continental plates causes high volcanic and seismic activity, and the archipelago is frequently struck by powerful earthquakes.
A 7.1-magnitude quake off the north coast of Papua in June killed 17 people and left thousands homeless.
The 2004 Asian tsunami -- triggered by a 9.3-magnitude quake off Sumatra --
killed at least 168,000 people in Indonesia alone.
A 7.6-magnitude quake killed about 1,000 people in the port of Padang on September 30 last year.