When 147 People Were Fleeing A Tsunami On A Plane, A 21-Year-Old Man Made The Ultimate Sacrifice

Image: Twitter/Lukwesa Burak / ABC News

At first, it may have been like any other Friday at work for Anthonius Gunawan Agung. As an air traffic controller at Mutiara Sis Al Jufri Airport in Palu, Indonesia, it was the 21-year-old’s job to clear planes for take-off. But as the next aircraft sat on the runway, the control tower started to shake violently around him.

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Palu is located on the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia. It is situated around 1,030 miles northeast of the country’s capital, Jakarta. The city’s roughly 336,300 residents enjoy an often pleasant climate due to its location being sheltered by mountains. However, the region’s idyllic settings mask a grave danger for its residents. The threat of earthquakes.

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Anyone who was in Palu on Friday, September 28, 2018, will likely have the date etched into their memory forever. It wasn’t, however, due to the festivities taking place that evening in celebration of the city’s anniversary. At around 6pm that night, events took a devastating turn for many.

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As locals prepared for a beach festival in Palu, a huge earthquake hit the area. The quake had a magnitude of 7.5. For perspective, that places it between The Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake at 7.9, and another 6.9 magnitude tremor that occurred in the city in 1989, killing 67 and causing over $5 billion in damage.

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The epicenter of the Palu earthquake lay around 50 miles away in the mountains of the Donggala Regency of Central Sulawesi. And if the quake itself wasn’t devastating enough, a tsunami followed in Palu that washed away coastal buildings and any inhabitants that stood in its path.

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It’s estimated that the tsunami carried a speed of around 800mph. It was a force, then, that easily destroyed anything in its path. Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, a spokesman for the Indonesian National Board for Disaster Management described the moment. “When the [tsunami] threat arose […], people were still doing their activities on the beach and did not immediately run and they became victims.”

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The combined death toll of the earthquake and tsunami is estimated to exceed over 2,200 in Palu and the surrounding areas, according to the Indonesian National Board for Disaster Management. And with confusion surrounding the tsunami warning, many simply didn’t have time to run. Others, however, scrambled to safety and were lucky that their lives were spared.

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Indonesian National Board for Disaster Management spokesman Nugroho described how the fast-moving tsunami crumpled buildings in its path. But he also noted how some had climbed 20-foot trees to escape the danger. Meanwhile, one airline pilot witnessed the disaster unfold from the cockpit of his aircraft.

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Ricosetta Mafella is a pilot for the Indonesian airline Batik Air. He described watching the tsunami forming in the ocean below him shortly after take-off from Palu’s Mutiara Sis Al Jufri Airport. He told the BBC in October 2018, “I saw it was a wave moving in a circle with a huge radius. It was getting bigger and bigger but I didn’t know what it was.”

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It soon became clear that Mafella had successfully managed to steer himself and all 147 of his crew and passengers away from an unfolding disaster below. Just a few short minutes before the deadly waves began forming, Mafella was on the runway at the airport awaiting clearance for take-off.

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Palu had experienced a series of foreshocks throughout the day. One tremor even registered a magnitude of 6.1. What locals didn’t know, however, is that those shocks were building up to the main event that hit the area at around 6pm that evening. It would hit just as Mafella prepared to get his aircraft off the ground.

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“I was rushing to leave,” Mafella explained to the BBC. “There was a voice in my head that told me just get out of here immediately. I told my crew and the ground crew to speed up.” The 44-year-old pilot knew he was in trouble and feared his crew and passengers were in serious danger.

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The only person left working in the airport’s control tower that evening was 21-year-old Anthonius Gunawan Agung. As the earthquake struck, the building began to shake violently and cracks started to form in the walls. Everyone in the tower had already ran to safety. Agung, meanwhile, stayed on.

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Agung felt he still had work to do and he wasn’t leaving the control tower until Mafella’s plane had left the ground. As soon as the young traffic controller uttered the words, “Batik 6321 clear for take-off,” Mafella got his aircraft airborne. Back on the ground, however, Agung was in serious trouble.

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Once Agung had cleared the aircraft to take to the skies, he tried to make his way out of the crumbling building. His exit route, however, was blocked. In a desperate situation with the tower close to collapse, Agung took drastic action. He made a jump to safety from the fourth floor.

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When Agung hit the ground he broke his leg and the impact caused other internal injuries. Airport workers rushed their colleague to a nearby hospital. But after an assessment, staff confirmed he would receive better care elsewhere. Doctors prepared Agung for a helicopter transfer to another city.

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The efforts of hospital staff, however, were in vain. Agung succumbed to his injuries the following morning before the helicopter arrived to transfer him. Meanwhile, Mafella, the pilot of Batik 6321, remained unaware of what had happened as his aircraft soared into the air above Palu.

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After spotting the odd patterns in the ocean below, Mafella tried to contact the control tower, only to find a dead connection. He told the BBC, “I tried calling the air traffic controller a few times to tell him that I saw something, but there was no answer.” He later learned the news from an air traffic controllers’ WhatsApp group.

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The earthquake tore huge cracks into the runway at Mutiara Sis Al Jufri Airport. Air Navigation Indonesia spokesman Yohannes Sirait is sure that Agung saved many lives that day. He told ABC Australia, “He gave clearance for this flight, and if he left his post before the plane was airborne, hundreds of people inside the plane might be in danger.”

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Meanwhile, Air Navigation Indonesia’s corporate secretary Didiet KS Radityo praised Agung’s incredible efforts. He said to the Jakarta Post, “Agung dedicated himself to his job until the end of his life and did not leave the control tower until the plane took off.” Pilot Mafella also praised the young air traffic controller. “I think he did a very heroic action, he did his job professionally, and I think he should be honored,” he told Reuters. “I call him my guardian angel.”

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