Asia Quakes' Tsunamis Kill More Than 8,000
By LELY T. DJUHARI, Associated Press Writer
JAKARTA, Indonesia - The world's most powerful earthquake in 40 years struck deep under the Indian Ocean off the west coast of Sumatra on Sunday, triggering tidal waves up to 20 feet high that obliterated villages and seaside resorts in six countries across southern and southeast Asia. At least 8,000 people were killed in the devastation.
Tourists, fishermen, homes and cars were swept away by walls of water that rolled across the Bay of Bengal, unleashed by the 8.9-magnitude earthquake. The tsunami waves barreled nearly 3,000 miles across the ocean to Africa, where at least nine people were killed in Somalia.
In Sri Lanka, 1,000 miles west of the epicenter, more than 3,000 people were killed, the country's top police official said; that number, however, does not include the 1,500 deaths reported by rebels who control part of the country.
Nearly 2,500 were reported dead in Indonesia, and about 2,300 along the southern coasts of India. At least 289 were confirmed dead in Thailand, 42 in Malaysia and 2 in Bangladesh.
But officials expected the death toll to continue to rise, with hundreds reported missing and all communications cut off to towns in the Indonesian island of Sumatra that were closest to the epicenter. Hundreds of bodies were found on various beaches along India's southern state of Tamil Nadu, and more were expected to be washed in by the sea, officials said.
The rush of tsunami waves brought sudden disaster to people carrying out their daily activities on the ocean's edge. Sunbathers on the beaches of the Thai resort of Phuket were washed away. A group of 32 Indians — including 15 children — were killed while taking a ritual Hindu bath to mark the full moon day. Fishing boats, with their owners clinging to their sides, were picked up by the waves and discarded.
"All the planet is vibrating" from the quake, said Enzo Boschi, the head of Italy's National Geophysics Institute. Speaking on SKY TG24 TV, Boschi said the quake even disturbed the Earth's rotation.
The U.S. Geological Survey (news - web sites) measured the quake at a magnitude of 8.9. Geophysicist Julie Martinez said it was the world's fifth-largest since 1900 and the largest since a 9.2 temblor hit Prince William Sound Alaska in 1964.
The epicenter was located 155 miles south-southeast of Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh province on Sumatra, and six miles under the seabed of the Indian Ocean. There were at least a half-dozen powerful aftershocks, ranging in magnitude from almost 6 and 7.3.
On Sumatra, the quake destroyed dozens of buildings — but as elsewhere, it was the wall of water that followed that caused the most deaths and devastation.
Tidal waves leveled towns in Aceh province on Sumatra's northern tip. An Associated Press reporter saw bodies wedged in trees as the waters receded. More bodies littered the beaches.
Health ministry official Els Mangundap said 1,876 people had died across the region, including some 1,400 in the Aceh provincial capital, Banda Aceh. Communications to the town had been cut.
Relatives went through lines of bodies wrapped in blankets and sheets, searching for dead loved ones. Aceh province has long been the center of a violent insurgency against the government.
The worst known death toll so far was in Sri Lanka, where a million people were displaced from wrecked villages. Some 20,000 soldiers were deployed in relief and rescue and to help police maintain law and order. Police chief, Chandra Fernando said at least 3,000 people were dead in areas under government control.
An AP photographer saw two dozen bodies along a four-mile stretch of beach, some of children entangled in the wire mesh used to barricade seaside homes. Other bodies were brought up from the beach, wrapped in sarongs and laid on the road, while rows of men and women lined the roads asking if anyone had seen their relatives.
"It is a huge tragedy," said Lalith Weerathunga, secretary to the Sri Lankan prime minister. "The death toll is going up all the time." He said the government did not know what was happening in areas of the northeast controlled by Tamil Tiger rebels.
The pro-rebel www.nitharsanam.com Web site reported about 1,500 bodies were brought from various parts of Sri Lanka's northeast to a hospital in Mullaithivu district, 170 miles northeast of the capital, Colombo.
About 170 children at an orphanage were feared dead after tidal waves pounded it in Mullaithivu, the Web site said.
No independent confirmation of the report was available, but TamilNet — another pro-rebel Web site — said some guerrilla territory was badly hit. "Many parts ... are still inaccessible and it was difficult to provide damage estimates or death tolls there," it said.
In India, beaches were turned into virtual open-air mortuaries, with bodies of people caught in the tidal wave being washed ashore.
"I was shocked to see innumerable fishing boats flying on the shoulder of the waves, going back and forth into the sea, as if made of paper," said P. Ramanamurthy, 40, who lives in Kakinada, a town in Andra Pradesh state.
The huge waves struck around breakfast time on the beaches of Thailand's beach resorts — probably Asia's most popular holiday destination at this time of year, particularly for Europeans fleeing the winter cold — wiping out bungalows, boats and cars, sweeping away sunbathers and snorkelers, witnesses said.
"Initially we just heard a bang, a really loud bang," Gerrard Donnelly of Britain, a guest at Phuket island's Holiday Inn, told Britain's Sky News. "We initially thought it was a terrorist attack, then the wave came and we just kept running upstairs to get on as high ground as we could."
"People that were snorkeling were dragged along the coral and washed up on the beach, and people that were sunbathing got washed into the sea," said Simon Clark, 29, a photographer from London vacationing on Ngai island.
On Phuket, Somboon Wangnaitham, deputy director of the Wachira Hospital, said one of the worst hit areas was the populous Patong beach, where at least 32 people died and 500 were injured.
Another survivor on Phuket was Natalia Moyano, 22, of Sydney, Australia, who was being treated for torn ligaments.
"The water kept rising. It was very slow at first, then all of a sudden, it went right up," Moyano said. "At first I didn't think there was any danger, but when I realized the water kept rising so quickly, I tried to jump over a fence, but it broke."
On Phi Phi island — where "The Beach" starring Leonardo DiCaprio was filmed — 200 bungalows at two resorts were swept out to sea.
"I am afraid that there will be a high figure of foreigners missing in the sea and also my staff," said Chan Marongtaechar, owner of the PP Princess Resort and PP Charlie Beach Resort.
Some 200 seriously injured people, most of them foreigners, were evacuated by helicopter from the island after dark, said Maj. Gen. Winai Nilasri of the Border Patrol Police. He said the island, which was crammed with tourist facilities, was without electricity.
There was no tsunami threat for western North America or Hawaii, according to the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center.
Scientists said the catastrophic death toll across the region might have been reduced if India and Sri Lanka had been part of an international warning system designed to advise coastal communities that a potentially killer wave was approaching. The system relies on a network of earthquake seismic sensors and tidal gauges attached to buoys in the oceans.
Indonesia, a country of 17,000 islands, is prone to seismic upheaval because of its location on the margins of tectonic plates that make up the so-called the "Ring of Fire" around the Pacific Ocean basin.
The Indonesian quake struck just three days after an 8.1 quake struck the ocean floor between Australia and Antarctica, causing buildings to shake hundreds of miles away but no serious damage or injury.
Quakes reaching a magnitude 8 are very rare. A quake registering magnitude 8 rocked Japan's northern island of Hokkaido on Sept. 25, 2003, injuring nearly 600 people. An 8.4 magnitude tremor that struck off the coast of Peru on June 23, 2001, killed 74.
___ Associated Press reporters Dilip Ganguly and Gemunu Amarasinghe in Colombo, Sri Lanka, K.N. Arun in Madras, India, and Sutin Wannabovorn in Phuket, Thailand, contributed to this report.