Jakarta — Almost a week after a quake-tsunami wreaked devastation in central Indonesia, scientists are zeroing in on what they believe caused the highly unusual natural disaster. The 7.5 magnitude earthquake hit off Sulawesi island on Friday and sent destructive waves charging into the coast, reducing buildings in Palu to rubble and sweeping people to their deaths. The city was not regarded as being at high risk of a tsunami and was left grossly unprepared for the catastrophe, which has, so far, claimed more than 1,400 lives with hundreds more injured and missing. Now experts are piecing together the unlikely chain of events which laid waste to Palu.

The quake was a sideways — rather than vertical — movement of tectonic plates, seen as unlikely to generate a tsunami. But after sifting through mounds of data, scientists believe that the powerful tremor occurred over the vast length of a fault line, triggering underwater landslides that caused the tidal waves. “This is an earthq...

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