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Indonesia Quake Toll Soars Past 500

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CNN: Another strong earthquake rocked Indonesia early Thursday as the Southeast Asian nation was reeling from an earlier jolt that killed more than 500 people and caused widespread destruction.

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The 6.8 magnitude quake Thursday hit South Sumatra at 8:52 a.m. local time (9:52 p.m. Wednesday ET), about 89 miles (143 kilometers) from Bengkulu, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said. The earlier quake Wednesday was 7.6 magnitude.

At least 529 people were dead and more than 500 were injured, said Tugiyo Bisri, spokesman for the Indonesian Social Affairs Ministry's Crisis Center said Thursday. The worst hit was the West Sumatra capital of Padang, where 376 people perished, he said.

Officials had little information on those who were missing and feared the death toll would climb into the thousands. Rustam Pakaya, the head of the Ministry of Health's crisis center said that thousands of people may be trapped by collapsed buildings and houses.

Officials were expecting casualties to surpass those of the massive Yogyakarta earthquake three years ago, given the intensity and the spread of the damage this week. The second temblor Thursday only magnified the scope of the disaster.

The second quake was on a smaller scale than the first, said meteorology official Fauzi, who uses only one name. There were no damage reports yet.

In May 2006, a 6.3 magnitude quake centered in the central Java city of Yogyakarta quake killed more than 5,000 people and triggered fears of an eruption of a nearby volcano.

Wednesday's quake struck around 5 p.m., about 33 miles (53 kilometers) from Padang, a city of more than 800,000 people.

It reduced buildings to rubble. People used hammers, chisels and even bare hands to dig through debris for survivors and belongings. Staff at a local hospital treated the injured outside the semi-collapsed building as bodies of the dead lay in makeshift morgues.

The earthquakes caused widespread power and phone outages, making it difficult for authorities and aid organizations to evaluate damage.

"The situation is quite devastating," said Amelia Merrick, the operations director for World Vision Indonesia.

"Bridges have gone down, phone lines are in total disrepair; it's difficult for us to assess the situation," she said. The organization had said it would send assessment teams to the area Thursday morning.

"We know there's no electricity tonight ... many of the families will be spending the night outdoors, in pitch black. I'm very afraid of what might happen next," she said, referring to the possibility of aftershocks.

State-run Antara news agency cited Pakaya as saying he had received reports that part of a hospital had collapsed and that people were buried under the debris.

Wayne Ulrich, the Red Cross disaster management coordinator in Indonesia, said hundreds of houses were damaged, the extent still unclear.

"We have concerns that a hospital has been partially damaged; a market has caught on fire; the airport was closed down for inspection because of the fear if they landed any planes," it might cause problems, Ulrich said.

He said access to the affected areas was obstructed in parts.

It's "blocked by all kinds of problems: frightened people out in the streets, cars, and people trying to get out of the city ..."

The earthquake was felt in nearby cities, such as Medan and Bengkulu, where people panicked and ran outside in search of higher ground, fearing a tsunami.

But it was also felt as far away as Singapore and Malaysia.

"I did feel the tremor in office today somewhere between 5-6 p.m.," said Ratna Osman, who works in a single-story office building in Petaling Jaya, just outside Malaysia's capital Kuala Lumpur.

"I asked [a co-worker] if there's an earthquake somewhere -- either that or I was hallucinating."

"At first, I thought the chair I was sitting on had a screw loose or something," Osman said.

The region is accustomed to earthquakes, and locals have been taught to identify safe places in case of a tsunami, according to Sean Granville-Ross, the Mercy Corps country director for Indonesia.

"We hope that preparation is now paying off," he said.

But if many homes have been destroyed, people may be spending the night with no shelter, he said.

Earlier this month, an earthquake in West Java killed 57 people.

Indonesians trying to find out more about the quake flooded the Internet, including Twitter. Some expressed concern for relatives and friends in Padang.

"Dear God, please send down your angels to hug and protect my grandpa in Padang," said one Twitter post.

The Web site for one of Indonesia's main newspapers, The Jakarta Globe, crashed for a while, partly as a result of the heavy traffic from people trying to find out about the quake, the paper said in a Twitter post.

Aid agencies kicked into gear to help those in need.

"We had aid ready because this area of Indonesia is susceptible to this type of tragedy," said Jane Cocking, humanitarian director for Oxfam. "Communications with the quake-zone are difficult and we are hoping for the best but having to plan for the worst."

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued a tsunami watch for Indonesia, India, Thailand and Malaysia, but canceled it soon after.

The quake did generate a tsunami just under one foot high, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said.

On Tuesday, a magnitude 8.0 quake-triggered tsunami killed at least 111 people in the Samoan islands and Tonga.

The tsunami waves swept across a wide swath of the Pacific Ocean, killing dozens and flattening or submerging villages.

The U.S. Geological Survey declined to say whether the two quakes were linked. "The simple answer is we can't speculate on a connection," said Carrieann Bedwell of the USGS. "Both are in highly seismic areas."

The epicenters of the two temblors are about 4,700 miles (7,600 kilometers) apart.

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