Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Asia Struggles As Death Toll Hits 44,000

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia - Mourners in Sri Lanka used their bare hands to dig graves Tuesday while hungry islanders in Indonesia turned to looting in the aftermath of Asia's devastating tsunamis. Thousands more bodies were found in Indonesia, dramatically increasing the death toll across 11 nations to around 44,000.

Emergency workers found that 10,000 people had been killed in a single town, Meulaboh, in Aceh province at the northern tip of Sumatra island, the hardest hit region in Indonesia, said Purnomo Sidik, national disaster director at the Social Affairs Ministry.
Another 9,000 were confirmed dead so far in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, and surrounding towns, he said. Along Aceh's hard-hit western coastline, villages were swamped up to the roofs, still unexplored by soldiers combing the area for survivors and dead. Refugees fleeing the area described surviving for days on little more than coconuts before reaching Banda Aceh.
"The sea was full of bodies," said Sukardi Kasdi, who reached the capital from his town of Surang.
With aid not arriving quick enough, desperate residents in Meulaboh and other towns in Aceh — a region that was unique in that it was struck both by Sunday's massive quake and the killer waves that followed — began to loot.
"It is every person for themselves here," district official Tengku Zulkarnain told el-Shinta radio station from the area.
In Sri Lanka, the toll also mounted significantly. Around 1,000 people were dead or missing from a train that was flung off its tracks when the gigantic waves hit. Rescuers pulled 204 bodies from the train's eight carriages — reduced to twisted metal — and cremated or buried them Tuesday next to the railroad track that runs along the coast.
"Is this the fate that we had planned for? My darling, you were the only hope for me," cried one man for his dead girlfriend — his university sweetheart — as Buddhist monks held prayer nearby.
More than 18,700 people died in Sri Lanka, more than 4,400 in India and more than 1,500 in Thailand, with numbers expected to rise. Scores were also killed in Malaysia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, the Maldives. The giant waves raced nearly 3,000 miles to east Africa, causing deaths in Somalia, Tanzania and Seychelles.
And the toll was expected to continue to mount. A police official said 8,000 people were missing and possibly dead in India's remote Andaman and Nicobar Islands, located just north of Sumatra. So far, only 90 people were confirmed dead in the archipelago of 30 inhabited islands. The Indonesian vice president estimated that up to 25,000 could be dead on Aceh's western coastlines, bringing the country's potential toll up to 50,000.
Europeans desperately sought relatives missing from holidays in Southeast Asia — particularly Thailand, where bodies littered the once crowded beach resorts. Near the devastated Similan Beach and Spa Resort, where mostly German tourists were staying, a naked corpse hung suspended from a tree Tuesday as if crucified.
A blond two-year-old Swedish boy, Hannes Bergstroem, found sitting alone on a road in Thailand was reunited with his uncle, who saw the boy's picture on a Web site.
"This is a miracle, the biggest thing that could happen," said the uncle, who identified himself as Jim, after flying from his home country to Thailand to reach Hannes at the hospital were the boy was being treated. The boy's mother and grandmother were missing, while his father and grandfather were reportedly at another hospital.
The vacationing former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl was evacuated by Sri Lankan military helicopter from the hotel he was trapped by flooding in the south of the country. In Thailand, Czech supermodel Petra Nemcova, who appeared on the cover of 2003 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, was injured and her photographer boyfriend Simon Atlee was missing, Atlee's agent said.
So far, more than 80 Westerners have been confirmed dead across the region — including 11 Americans. But a British consulate official in Thailand warned that hundreds more foreign tourists were likely killed in the country's resorts.
Sunday's massive quake of 9.0 magnitude off the Indonesian island of Sumatra sent 500-mph waves surging across the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal in the deadliest known tsunami since the one that devastated the Portuguese capital of Lisbon in 1755 and killed an estimated 60,000 people.
Amid the devastation, however, were some miraculous stories of survival. In Malaysia, a 20-day-old baby was found alive on a floating mattress. She and her family were later reunited. A Hong Kong couple vacationing in Thailand clung to a mattress for six hours.

In Sri Lanka, more than 300 people crammed into the Infant Jesus Church at Orrs Hill, located on high ground from their ravaged fishing villages. Families and childres slept on pews and the cement floor.
"We had never seen the sea looking like that. It was like as if a calm sea had suddenly become a raging monster," said one woman, Haalima, recalling the giant wave that swept away her 5-year-old grandson, Adil.
Adil was making sandcastles with his younger sister, Reeze, while Haalima sat in her home Sunday morning. Haalima said the girl ran to her complaining that waves had crushed their castles, then came screams and water entered the home. "When we looked, there was no shore anymore and no Adil," she said.
Death was so widespread in Sri Lanka that the government waived rules requiring an autopsy before burial. In Muslim villages in the east of the otherwise Buddhist-dominated island, some survivors, lacking shovels, used giant iron forks used for communal cooking and their hands to scrape out graves for several dozen victims, half of them children.
"The toll is going up and I will not be surprised it reaches 20,000 to 25,000," said Nimal Hettiarchchi, director of Sri Lanka's National Disaster Management Center.
Relief workers warned that survivors could face outbreaks of disease, including malaria and cholera. "Our biggest fear at the moment is the shortage of drinking water," said Janaka Gunewardene, a director at Sri Lanka's disaster management center, adding that waterways and well across Sri Lanka's northern, eastern and southern coasts were contaminated, said.
A new danger emerged Tuesday: the floods uprooted land mines in Sri Lanka — a nation torn by a decades-old war with Tamil separatists in the north. The mines now threatened aid workers and survivors, UNICEF said.
The first international deliveries of food were being delivered to ravaged areas, as humanitarian agencies — accustomed to disasters in one or two countries at time — tried to organize to help on an unprecedented geographic scale, across 11 nations.
The disaster could be history's costliest, with "many billions of dollars" of damage, said U.N. Undersecretary Jan Egeland, who is in charge of emergency relief coordination.
A dozen trucks loaded with more than 160 tons of rice, lentils and sugar sent by the U.N. World Food Progam, left Tuesday from Colombo for Sri Lanka's southern and eastern coasts, and a second shipment was planned for overnight.
UNICEF officials said about 175 tons of rice arrived in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, and six tons of medical supplies were to arrive by Thursday. Helicopters in India rushed medicine to stricken areas. In Sri Lanka, the Health Ministry dispatched 300 physicians to the disaster zone by helicopter.

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