Dec. 26, 2004
by CHAMINTHA THILAKARATHNA
CYBER DIVER News Network
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (26 Dec 2004) -- Soldiers searched for bodies in treetops, families wept over the dead lined up on beaches and rescuers scoured coral isles for missing tourists as Asia counted the cost on Monday of a tsunami that killed at least 12,600.
Idyllic palm-fringed beaches across southern Asia were transformed into scenes of death and devastation by the waves unleashed by the world's biggest earthquake in 40 years that struck off the Indonesian island of Sumatra early on Sunday.
"Death came from the sea," Satya Kumari, a construction worker living on the outskirts of the former French enclave of Pondicherry, India, told Reuters. "The waves just kept chasing us. It swept away all our huts. What did we do to deserve this?"
The wall of water up to 30 feet tall flattened houses, hurled fishing boats onto coastal roads, sent cars spinning through swirling waters into hotel lobbies and sucked sunbathers and fishermen off beaches and out to sea.
"We are not well equipped to deal with a disaster of this magnitude because we have never known a disaster like this," Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who declared a national disaster and appealed for donor aid, said from holiday in Britain.
It was the worst natural disaster to hit Sri Lanka in recorded history. Officials placed the death toll at 4,500 and said that figure could rise substantially as troops recovered bodies dragged out to sea or smashed on golden beaches.
Indonesian soldiers searched for bodies in tree tops and in the wreckage of homes smashed by the tsunami, triggered by the 9.0 magnitude earthquake that struck off the coast of northern Sumatra island killing at least 4,448 people there.
Many of the dead were children and elderly who drowned in waters churning with huge rocks, logs and the remains of homes.
"It smells so bad, fishy. The human bodies are mixed in with dead animals like dogs, fish, cats and goats," said marine colonel Buyung Lelana, head of an evacuation team in Lhokseumawe in Sumatra's Aceh province.
"There are still a lot of bodies under the wreckage of collapsed houses and in rivers and swamps that we have not yet evacuated. Most of them are children and their mothers," he said.
International aid agencies rushed staff, equipment and money to the region, warning that bodies rotting in the water were already beginning to threaten the water supply for survivors.
The Geneva-based International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said it was seeking 7.5 million Swiss francs ($6.5 million) for emergency aid funding.
BATTERED BY ROCKS
"Many of the dead bodies were found in houses. Their heads were cracked, probably battered by rocks," said Mustofa, mayor of Bireuen regency on the north coast of Sumatra.
Hundreds of thousands left homeless in Sri Lanka and fearing another devastating wave sheltered in temples and schools.
In the seaside town of Kalutara, holidaymakers staying at a seafront luxury hotel described a 8-foot wall of water crashing onto the coast.
"We were sitting by the water when people started shouting a wave was coming in," said visiting British car salesman Richard Freeman. "We left everything behind and ran inside."
The southern coastal town of Galle, a major industrial hub famed for its historic fort, was submerged by a 30-foot wave. Frightened residents spent the night on roofs.
Officials said more than 500,000 people were left homeless.
On India's southeast coast, thousands of villagers huddled inside emergency shelters, too scared to sleep in case of another tsunami. Up to 3,300 people have been reported dead in the area.
"I could see dead bodies all around and the devastation is of colossal proportions," Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayaram Jayalalithaa said after touring the worst hit areas of her state.
Rows and rows of dead bodies were lined up on the floor inside hospitals, in corridors and in the grounds of government buildings. Distraught mothers checked the bodies of young boys and girls looking for their missing children.
"I have been waiting for my husband and brother since yesterday," wept 38-year-old Narasamma as she stood on a beach near Mypadu, a fishing hamlet 375 miles south of Hyderabad, capital of southern Andhra Pradesh state.
"I am not sure they will come back as I can see wrecked boats floating in the water," she said. On the horizon, the wreckage of wooden fishing boats dotted the sea.
TOURIST ISLE DEVASTATED
The tourist islands and beaches of southern Thailand were directly in the path of the wave that had killed up to 400. On the main Patong tourist beach in Phuket, plastic chairs lay scattered, hotels and restaurants were wrecked and small speed boats had been rammed into buildings. "I was sitting on the first floor of a bar, not far from the beach, watching cricket," said Australian tourist, Stephen Dicks, 42. "And suddenly all these people came screaming from the beach.
"I looked around and saw a massive wall of water rushing down the street. It completely wiped out the ground floor of my bar ... It happened very fast, in a matter of minutes."
In Los Angeles, the head of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said U.S. officials who detected the undersea quake tried frantically to get a warning out about the tsunami.
But there was no official alert system in the region, said Charles McCreery, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's center in Honolulu.
"It took an hour and a half for the wave to get from the earthquake to Sri Lanka and an hour for it to get ... to the west coast of Thailand and Malaysia," he said.
"We tried to do what we could. We don't have contacts in our address book for anybody in that part of the world," he said.
The earthquake was the world's biggest since 1964 and the fourth-largest since 1900.
The tsunami was so powerful it smashed boats and flooded areas along the east African coast, 3,728 miles away.
In the Maldives, where thousands of foreign visitors were holidaying in the beach paradise, damage appeared to be limited.
With communications cut to remote areas, it was impossible to assess the full scale of the disaster, aid agencies said.
The Indian air force was trying to reach the remote Nicobar and Andaman archipelagos near the heart of the quake.
The United States said it would offer "all appropriate assistance." The European Union (news - web sites) pledged 3 million euros ($4 million).
A tsunami, a Japanese word that translates as "harbor wave," is usually caused by a sudden rise or fall of part of the earth's crust under or near the ocean.
It is not a single wave, but a series of waves that can travel across the ocean at speeds of more than 500 miles an hour. As the tsunami enters the shallows of coastlines in its path, its velocity slows but its height increases.
A tsunami that is just a few centimeters or meters high from trough to crest can rear up to heights of 30 to 50 meters as it hits the shore, striking with devastating force.