`Extraordinary calamity'

Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India devastated

Millions are left homeless

Walls of water sweep coasts without warning

December 27, 2004|By Kim Barker | Kim Barker,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

NEW DELHI, India - The world's strongest earthquake in 40 years sent walls of water crashing into Indian Ocean shorelines yesterday, killing more than 13,000 people in at least eight countries, from vacationers celebrating Christmas on Thailand's beaches to villagers fishing off the coast of India.

The powerful earthquake, with a magnitude of 9.0, hit off the Indonesian island of Sumatra just before 7 a.m. It was the strongest in 40 years and the fourth-largest in a century. The major damage was caused not by the quake itself, but by the huge tsunamis hours later. Witnesses reported walls of water up to 30 feet high that battered Asian shores and even reached the East African nation of Somalia, more than 3,000 miles from the quake's epicenter.

More than 1 million people were driven from their homes in Indonesia alone, and rescuers combed seaside villages for survivors. The Indian air force used helicopters to rush food and medicine to stricken shore areas. And in Sri Lanka, 20,000 soldiers were deployed to help with rescue operations.

The earthquake hit at 6:58 a.m.; the tsunamis came up to 2 1/2 hours later, without warning, on a morning of crystal blue skies. Sunbathers and snorkelers, cars and cottages, fishing boats and even a lighthouse were swept away.

Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India each reported thousands dead, and Thailand, a Western tourist hot spot, said hundreds were dead and thousands missing. Deaths were also reported in Malaysia, the Maldives and Bangladesh.

"It's an extraordinary calamity of such colossal proportions that the damage has been unprecedented," said Chief Minister Jayaram Jayalalithaa of India's Tamil Nadu, a southern state that reported 1,705 dead, many of them strewn along beaches, virtual open-air mortuaries. "It all seems to have happened in the space of 20 minutes. A massive tidal wave of extreme ferocity ... smashed everything in sight to smithereens."

Towns in Indonesia were leveled. A prison in Sri Lanka was mostly washed away. Ships were whipped about like toy boats. Flip-flops and sandals floated in the ocean near Thailand.

"People were getting hit by debris, cars, trapped against buildings," said Conrad Dzwonkieiwcz, an American tourist vacationing on Phuket island, Thailand's most popular beach getaway. "I saw one person [who] just disappeared into the water. When the water washed up, the sunbathers were overcome by it. At least a dozen were washed into the sea."

The Indonesian quake, the largest since a 9.2-magnitude temblor rattled Alaska in 1964, even disturbed the Earth's rotation, said Enzo Boschi, the head of Italy's National Geophysics Institute.

"All the planet is vibrating," Boschi told SKY TG24 TV.

Communications were cut off throughout much of the affected areas, limiting an accurate assessment of the damage and death toll. An unknown number were missing, including many vacationers celebrating the holidays. At least three Americans were killed, a State Department spokesman said.

A firm count will be "very hard to know, because there could be many people on more obscure islands," said Jakrapob Penkai, a spokesman for the Thai government.

The earthquake's epicenter was just off Indonesia's island of Sumatra and 6 miles below the seabed of the Indian Ocean, along the so-called Ring of Fire, where volcanoes regularly erupt. It was followed by aftershocks stretching to the north, near India's Andaman and Nicobar islands in the Indian Ocean.

Tsunamis fanned out from the epicenter and crashed through the Bay of Bengal, across Southeast and South Asia.

The region has no tsunami warning system such as the one along the Pacific Rim, which could have saved thousands of people, earthquake experts said.

At least 4,448 people died in Indonesia, 430 were confirmed dead in Thailand, 48 in Malaysia, 32 in the Maldives, nine in Somalia and two in Bangladesh. More than 2,300 perished along the southern coasts of India.

So far, the highest death toll is in Sri Lanka, about 1,000 miles west of the epicenter, where at least 5,000 died. The homes of more than 1 million people were damaged or destroyed.

"It is a huge tragedy," Lalith Weerathunga, secretary to the Sri Lankan prime minister, told the Associated Press. "The death toll is going up all the time."

Officials reported that at least 3,000 people died in Sri Lanka's government-controlled areas. Weerathunga added that the government does not know what happened in the northeast area of the country, controlled by the rebel Tamil Tigers. On Web sites, the Tigers said that 1,500 people died in rebel areas. The Tigers' political wing appealed for international aid.

There was no warning. Gemunu Amarasinghe, an Associated Press photographer in Sri Lanka, said he saw young boys rushing to catch fish that had been left on the beach by the first wave.

"But soon afterward, the devastating second series of waves came," he said, and he climbed on the roof of his car. "In a few minutes, my Jeep was under water. The roof collapsed.

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