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As deaths mount, desperation grows

By Associated Press
Published December 28, 2004


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GALLE, Sri Lanka - Bodies washed up on tropical beaches and piled up in hospitals Monday, raising fears of disease across a 10-nation arc of destruction left by a monster earthquake and walls of water that killed more than 22,500 people. Thousands were missing and millions homeless.

Humanitarian agencies began what the United Nations said would become the biggest relief effort the world has ever seen.

The disaster could be the costliest in history as well, with "many billions of dollars" of damage, said U.N. Undersecretary Jan Egeland, who is in charge of emergency relief coordination. Hundreds of thousands have lost everything, and millions face a hazardous future because of polluted drinking water, a lack of sanitation and no health services, he said.

More than 12,000 people died in Sri Lanka, nearly 5,000 in Indonesia (where there were portions of western Aceh, where 1-million live, that had not been contacted), and 4,000 in India.

The International Red Cross, which reported 23,700 deaths, said it was concerned that diseases like malaria and cholera could add to the toll.

Dazed tourists evacuated the popular island resorts of southern Thailand, where more than 900 were reported dead. Scores more died in Malaysia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, the Maldives. The waves raced 2,800 miles across the Indian Ocean to Africa, killing hundreds of people in Somalia and three in the Seychelles.

Sunday's massive quake of 9.0 magnitude off the Indonesian island of Sumatra's northern tip sent 500-mph waves surging across the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal in the deadliest known tsunami since the one caused by the 1883 volcanic eruption at Krakatoa - located off Sumatra's southern tip - which killed an estimated 36,000 people.

A large proportion of southern Asia's dead were children - as many as half the victims in Sri Lanka, according to officials there. A bulldozer dug a mass grave in southern India for 150 young boys and girls, as their weeping parents looked on.

"Where are my children?" said 41-year-old Absah, as she searched for her 11 youngsters in Banda Aceh, the Indonesian city closest to Sunday's epicenter. "Where are they? Why did this happen to me? I've lost everything."

In the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, the large downtown park surrounding the city's central mosque was heaped with debris, including the remains of damaged houses and motorcycles. Many people took shelter under the mosque's black onion domes while thousands of others sought refuge in smaller mosques and schools.

Dozens of corpses were laid out on the street, many covered with orange sheets. But with even these sheets in short supply, Indonesian TV showed some victims shrouded with advertising banners that had been yanked from building facades.

Officials in Thailand and Indonesia conceded that immediate public warnings of gigantic waves could have saved lives. The only known warning issued by Thai authorities reached resort operators when it was too late. The waves hit Sri Lanka and India more than two hours after the quake.

But governments insisted they couldn't have known the true danger because there is no international system in place to track tsunamis in the Indian Ocean, and they could not afford the sophisticated equipment to build one.

For most people around the shores across the region, the only warning Sunday of the disaster came when shallow coastal waters disappeared, sucked away by the approaching tsunami, before returning as a massive wall of water. The waves wiped out villages, lifted cars and boats, yanked children from the arms of parents and swept away beachgoers, scuba divers and fishermen.

The Thai navy was called in to help with rescue efforts, and helicopters were reported to have rescued survivors on an island. On Phuket, however, many tourists expressed anger at what they said was a poor response from rescue workers. An enormous wave rushed over the area's beaches about 10 a.m., but the first coast guard and military vessels did not arrive until several hours later to help search for survivors, witnesses said. Local police, however, used personal watercraft to pluck people from the sea.

"I sat on that beach and I watched and waited," said Mark Hayward, a Canadian advertising executive who was vacationing on Karon Beach, on Phuket's west coast. The wave destroyed his hotel. "I never saw a police truck go by. I never saw a fire truck go by. It was three hours before the first vehicle with flashing lights came by."

Hayward said he was particularly incensed when Thai tourism police began announcing that more waves were on the way, three to four hours after the major destruction, something he said contributed to panic. "They made it look like they were on top of it," he said. "They weren't on top of it. There was nothing. People were on their own."

In a scene repeated across the region Monday, relatives wandered hallways lined with bodies, searching for loved ones at the hospital in Sri Lanka's southern town of Galle - one of the worst-affected areas of the hardest-hit nation. People lifted blankets and soaked clothes to look at faces in a stunned hush, broken only occasionally by wails of mourning.

A tractor brought in about 15 corpses of mostly women and children, some wrapped in white plastic sheets, while a Buddhist temple across the street tried to help people find their missing.

In a shattered community of crude wooden shacks next to railroad tracks about 10 miles south of Colombo, families gathered Monday afternoon in front of their former homes, now reduced to scraps of kindling. Some sat listlessly in salvaged furniture as if they had no other place to go, which many, perhaps, did not. The hull of a fiberglass motorboat rested against a shop window.

An even grimmer scene unfolded nearby at the government hospital in Kalutura, where 58 corpses, including three unidentified foreign tourists, lay on the concrete floor of a small, unrefrigerated outbuilding. Among the visitors to the morgue was a Slovakian tour guide who was trying to determine whether any of the three, including one woman still wearing a black bathing suit, had been among her tour group. Masking the stench with a handkerchief over her mouth, she strained to make out any familiar features on the blackened and rapidly decomposing bodies.

"I'm just missing two clients, and I'm trying to find them," said the guide, who declined to give her name.

Indonesia and Sri Lanka had at least a million people each driven from their homes. Helicopters in India rushed medicine to stricken areas, while warships in Thailand steamed to island resorts to rescue survivors.

In Banda Aceh, capital of Aceh province at the northern tip of Sumatra, the streets were filled with overturned cars and the rotting corpses of adults and children. Shopping malls and office buildings lay in rubble, and thousands of homeless families huddled in mosques and schools.

In Thailand, the government offered free flights for thousands of Western tourists desperate to leave the southern resorts ravaged by the tsunami.

Bodies were pulled from roadsides, orchards and beaches at Khao Lak resort, where the Swedish tour operator Fritidsresor said 600 Swedes had not been accounted for.

Jimmy Gorman, 30, of Manchester, England, said he saw 15 bodies on Phi Phi island, one of Thailand's most popular destinations for Westerners.

"Disaster. Flattened everything," Gorman said. "There's nothing left of it."

-- Information from the Washington Post was used in this report.

[Last modified December 28, 2004, 18:24:32]

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