A massive earthquake struck Indonesia on Wednesday, triggering a tsunami in the town of Padang and warnings for much of the Indian Ocean region, authorities said. The quake caused tall buildings to sway in at least four countries.
A wave of up to 9 feet was reported to have hit Padang about 20 minutes after the quake, said Suhardjono, an official with Indonesia's meteorological agency, who goes by only one name.
"Communication has been difficult since then," he said.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center also reported that a small tsunami hit Padang.
Residents in Bengkulu - the Sumatran town closest to the epicenter, where at least one building was demolished - said the quake triggered panic and that people ran inland.
"Everyone is running out of their houses in every direction," according to Wati Said, who spoke by cell phone standing outside her house. "We think our neighborhood is high enough. God willing, if the water comes, it will not touch us here."
"Communication is cut, we can't call out," she added. "I don't know how you contacted us. Everyone is afraid."
The temblor could also be felt in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, 375 miles away, where office workers streamed down the stairwells of tall, swaying buildings.
Some people in high-rises in neighboring Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand also felt the quake.
The U.S. Geological Survey said the underwater quake had a preliminary magnitude of 7.9 and hit at about 6:10 p.m. (7:10 a.m. EDT). It was centered 80 miles southwest of Sumatra island at a depth of 18.6 miles.
"Earthquakes of this size have the potential to generate a widespread destructive tsunami that can affect coastlines across the entire Indian Ocean Basin," the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said, warning that waves could hit Indonesia and Australia within an hour, and Sri Lanka and India within three hours.
It lifted the alert for Indonesia about two hours later.
In India, officials said nothing was felt in the remote Andaman and Nicobar islands, some of which are just 150 miles north of Sumatra.
The Indian government issued a tsunami alert for the islands, and officials were telling local authorities to take precautions on the far-flung islands, said Dharam Pal, the regional relief commissioner.
Indonesia, the world's largest archipelago, 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.
In December 2004, a massive earthquake struck off Sumatra island and triggered a tsunami that killed more than 230,000 people in a dozen countries, including 160,000 people in Indonesia's westernmost province of Aceh.