Death climbs following tsunami

September 30, 2009 9:22:42 PM PDT
Police searched a ghastly landscape of mud-strewn streets, pulverized homes and bodies scattered in a swamp Wednesday as dazed survivors emerged from the muck and mire of an earthquake and tsunami that killed at least 120 in the South Pacific. Military transports flew medical personnel, food, water and medicine to Samoa and American Samoa, both devastated by a tsunami triggered by an undersea earthquake. A cargo plane from New Zealand brought in a temporary morgue and a body identification team.

SLIDESHOW: Photos from the Samoas following the tsunami

Officials expect the death toll to rise as more areas are searched. Among the hardest hit areas was the southeast coast of Samoa, with authorities reporting that several tourist resorts were wiped out.

Survivors fled to higher ground on the islands after the magnitude 8.0 quake struck at 6:48 a.m. local time (1:48 p.m. EDT; 1748 GMT) Tuesday. The residents then were engulfed by four tsunami waves 15 to 20 feet (4 to 6 meters) high that reached up to a mile (1.5 kilometers) inland.

The waves splintered houses and left cars and boats - many battered and upside down - scattered about the coastline. Debris as small as a spoon and as large as a piece of masonry weighing several tons were strewn in the mud.

Survivors told harrowing tales of encountering the deadly tsunami.

"I was scared. I was shocked," said Didi Afuafi, 28, who was on a bus when the giant waves came ashore on American Samoa. "All the people on the bus were screaming, crying and trying to call their homes. We couldn't get on cell phones. The phones just died on us. It was just crazy."

With the water approaching fast, the bus driver sped to the top of a nearby mountain, where 300 to 500 people were gathered, including patients evacuated from the main hospital. Among them were newborns with IVs, crying children and frightened elderly people.

A family atop the mountain provided food and water, while clergymen led prayers. Afuafi said people are still on edge and feared another quake.

"This is going to be talked about for generations," said Afuafi, who lives just outside the village of Leone, one of the hardest hit areas.

On Samoa, the two-hour drive from the Apia airport to the heavily damaged southeast coast initially showed no sign of damage before becoming little more than a link between one flattened village after another. Mattresses hung from trees, and utility poles were bent at awkward angles.

It was clear that tourists were among the casualties, but figures were impossible to get immediately with officials saying they had no solid head count on the number of visitors in the area.

Three of the key resorts on the coast are scenes of "total devastation" while a fourth "has a few units standing on higher ground," Nynette Sass of Samoa's National Disaster Management committee told New Zealand's National Radio on Thursday.

Dr. Ben Makalavea from Apia's main hospital told the broadcaster that some couples can't find their children, and fear they may have been washed out to sea. "One woman we saw was so confused that she doesn't even know where she comes from," he said.

Makalavea added that the hospital needs nurses, doctors, surgeons and blood to treat the increasing numbers of casualties with broken bones and cuts.

Red Cross relief workers were providing food, clothes and water to thousands of homeless now camping in the wooded hills above the coast. Volunteer Futi Mauigoa said water was already in short supply.

"Tonight they are all going to be back up the hills because the air out here is not really healthy for them," he said of the rotting stench in the disaster area.

At Sale Ataga village, more than 50 police, some wearing masks to filter out some of the growing stench of decay in the steamy conditions, searched for bodies underneath uprooted trees and palms piled up at the foot of a mountain.

Tony Fauena, a 29-year-old taro farmer, said the bodies of his 35-year-old niece and her 6-month-old son were found Tuesday but four other family members were still missing. "We don't know if the rest are under there or released out to sea," he said.

Faletolu Senara Tiatia said nine family members including his sister had been confirmed dead and more than 20 others, including aunts and cousins, were missing from the Lalomanu village area - epicenter of the devastation on Samoa's Upolu Island south coast.

"I'm very sad, it's the worst nightmare of my life," Tiatia told the Christchurch Press newspaper Thursday as he packed to fly to Samoa for the funerals.

Suavai Ioane was rattled by the violent earthquake that shook Voutosi, a village of 600 people. But he didn't have much time to calm down. Ioane was carried by a wave about 80 yards (meters) inland. He knew he was lucky to be alive; eight bodies were found in a nearby swamp.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii said it issued an alert, but the waves got to the islands so quickly that residents only had about 10 minutes to respond. Another system designed to alert aid agencies suffered a hardware malfunction that delayed notification, but that did not affect island residents.

The quake was centered about 120 miles south of the islands of Samoa, which has about 220,000 people, and American Samoa, a U.S.

territory of 65,000.

Another strong underwater earthquake rocked western Indonesia Wednesday, briefly triggering a tsunami alert along the Indian Ocean. The 7.6-magnitude quake toppled buildings, cut power and triggered a landslide on Sumatra island, and at least 75 people were reported killed. Experts said the seismic events were not related.

Hampered by power and communications outages, officials in the South Pacific islands struggled to determine casualties and damage.

Samoa National Disaster Management committee member Filomina Nelson told New Zealand's National Radio the number of dead in her country had reached 83 - mostly elderly and young children. At least 30 people were killed on American Samoa, Gov. Togiola Tulafono said.

Authorities in Tonga, southwest of the Samoas, confirmed at least seven dead and three missing, according to Tongan government spokesman Lopeti Senituli. He said the waves practically flattened two of the island's three villages. The government dispatched a boat with supplies to the island to help its more than 1,000 residents.

In Pago Pago, the streets and fields were filled with debris, mud, overturned cars and boats. Several buildings in the city - just a few feet above sea level - were flattened. Power was expected to be out in some areas for up to a month and officials said some 2,200 people were in seven shelters across the island.

The waves lifted a building housing a hardware store and carried it inland across a two-lane highway. Crews later found the two employees in the debris.

"To me it was like a monster - just black water coming to you.

It wasn't a wave that breaks, it was a full force of water coming straight," said Luana Tavale, a territorial government employee.

"It was scary, like I'm going to get you."

Reinforcements were on the way, including a Navy frigate and two huge Air Force cargo planes soon to leave from Hawaii.

A Coast Guard C-130 plane loaded with aid and carrying Federal Emergency Management Agency officials flew from Hawaii to American Samoa's capital of Pago Pago, where debris had been cleared from runways so emergency planes could land. President Barack Obama declared a major disaster for American Samoa.

English said the temporary morgue and the body identification team were sent to Samoa after local officials expressed concern "about the growing death toll." Australian officials say they will send an air force plane carrying 20 tons of humanitarian aid, as well as aid officials and medical personnel to Samoa.

Hundreds of people bombarded American Samoa's radio stations with requests to announce the names of their missing loved ones. Broadcasters urged listeners to contact their families immediately.

In Carson, Calif., High Chief Loa Pele Faletogo, president of the Samoan Federation of America, comforted Samoans in the U.S. who came to him seeking news of their relatives. The chief said he learned the body of one of his cousins, in her 60s, was found floating along the shore.

65 employees at the National Park of American Samoa were accounted for, said Holly Bundock, spokeswoman for the National Park Service's Pacific West Region in Oakland, Calif. The park service has 13 permanent workers and between 30 and 50 volunteers, depending on the time of year.

The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs said three Australians were among the dead. The British Foreign Office said one Briton was missing and presumed dead.

While the earthquake and tsunami were big, they were not as large as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed more than 230,000 in a dozen countries across Asia.

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