COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - With bodies splayed over once-pristine beaches in Sri Lanka, Thailand, India and other South Asian countries hit by Indian Ocean tsunamis, the estimated death toll surpassed 23,000 yesterday, and authorities indicated it could double.
Dazed and weeping survivors began taking stock of their losses from Sunday's catastrophe. In India, they buried victims in mass graves amid fears of disease. In Indonesia, some of the dead dangled from trees, where they had been deposited by 30-foot waves. The rampaging water washed away entire villages, capsized boats and sucked cars and trucks out to sea.
"We basically saw the town disappear in front of us," said Nick Hanbury, 48, a Briton who was vacationing in the Sri Lankan resort town of Galle when a giant wave struck.
Relief officials launched a huge international aid effort. Though neither the magnitude-9 earthquake beneath the ocean floor nor the resulting sea surge were the largest in history, "the effects may be the biggest ever because many more people live in exposed areas than ever before," United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland said in New York.
He warned that the cost of the disaster could be in "the many billions of dollars" and appealed to other countries to give generously to forestall diseases that could threaten the lives of millions of survivors.
The tsunami struck without warning and took the lives of rich and poor, local residents and tourists, even a member of the Thai royal family. Poomi Jensen, 21, the Thai-American grandson of King Bhumibol Adulyadej and a former resident of San Diego, was last seen on a personal watercraft off the popular Thai resort area of Krabi. His body was found later by rescue workers, Reuters news agency reported.
Other reports said a disproportionate share of the dead appeared to be children.
"Many women and children died because they could not run fast enough," said Jur Mahali, 29, as he stood near a spot in Kadaymani, Indonesia, where he said three children perished. He and his parents escaped by running to high ground.
Near the city of Cuddalore, in southern India, a bulldozer dug a mass grave for 150 boys and girls as their weeping parents looked on.
European tourists began returning home with horror stories. Pat Faragher of London arrived shoeless at Heathrow with her husband, Bill, having survived after a huge wave blasted through the glass door of their hotel room in Sri Lanka. "We have lost everything - no passports, no papers. All our belongings were swept away," she told reporters. "But we're alive."
The quake struck just before 7 a.m. Sunday, 155 miles southeast of the city of Banda Aceh on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. As the sea floor buckled, a colossal surge of water radiated out, reaching the speed of a passenger jet before eventually striking land. Although scientists around the globe knew of the quake immediately and recognized that it could pose a danger, officials in the region did not warn coastal dwellers, who were taken by surprise.
"Everyone was just taking their normal Sunday morning. You never expect a 30-foot wave to come and destroy you," said Prasad Punchihewa, who works in Colombo for SriLankan Airlines. "It's just devastating, and all this happening to innocent, poor people."
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies put the 10-nation death toll at 23,710, but said nearly 5,000 people were missing and that the number of dead would surely rise. The Swiss organization said that millions of people had been displaced or lost their homes.
Authorities in the stricken countries offered their own counts of the dead: 12,500 in Sri Lanka, 7,000 in India, about 5,000 in Indonesia, more than 900 in Thailand, 60 in Malaysia, 43 in the Maldives, 34 in Myanmar, three in the Seychelles and two in Bangladesh. Hundreds were reported killed in Somalia - 3,000 miles from the quake's epicenter.
But Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla said the toll in his country alone could reach 25,000, Reuters reported.
Eight Americans were believed to be among the dead. Norwegians, Britons, Italians, Swedes, Danes, Australians, Japanese and others were also killed. Israel reported hundreds of its citizens unaccounted for.
Relief workers from the United Nations, the Red Cross and numerous countries began flooding into the devastated region, and appeals went out for money, medicine and other aid.
The U.S. Agency for International Development dispatched 21 people to assess the disaster and decide what kind of assistance will be needed. USAID has stored emergency supplies in the Philippines and the United Arab Emirates and is shipping out items that will be needed, including water bladders, plastic sheeting for temporary shelters and food, said Ed Fox, assistant administrator for the agency.