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Sea Surges From Massive Quake Kill Over 13,000 Across South Asia

By Alan Sipress and Peter S. Goodman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 27, 2004; Page A01

JAKARTA, Indonesia, Dec. 26 -- A gargantuan earthquake centered off the western end of the Indonesian archipelago unleashed a series of tsunamis Sunday that crashed into coastal towns, fishing villages and tourist resorts from Sri Lanka to India, Thailand and Malaysia, killing more than 13,000 people in at least nine countries and leaving thousands missing.

The 9.0 magnitude quake was the strongest in 40 years and the fourth- most-powerful since 1900, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

A street on the Thai island of Phuket, a popular beach destination, is littered with vehicles and debris after the area was hit by tsunamis. (Karim Khamzin -- AP)

The resulting convulsion in the vast Indian Ocean was felt as far away as East Africa, more than 3,000 miles from the epicenter, where fishermen were stranded and resorts were closed by the surging tides.

Walls of water as high as 30 feet littered the shorelines of southern Asian countries with death and debris. The toll was most devastating along the coasts of Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India, where hundreds of bodies washed back ashore and entire villages were demolished.

The initial quake struck the western end of Indonesia's Sumatra island at 6:58 a.m. local time, flattening buildings and sending a wall of water higher than the tops of coconut palms into the towns and villages in the province of Aceh, witnesses said. The epicenter was located 155 miles southeast of the provincial capital of Banda Aceh and 200 miles west of Medan, Sumatra.

Indonesian Health Ministry officials put the toll in Aceh and the neighboring province of North Sumatra at nearly 4,500 and predicted more victims would be discovered after rescue teams reached remote hamlets cut off by the disaster. In Indonesia, as elsewhere throughout the region, it was impossible to determine the exact toll, which will likely not be known for some time.

In Sri Lanka, about 1,000 miles west of the epicenter, a massive surf struck nearly the entire coast of the island nation. National police reported that at least 6,090 people were killed, many of them on the eastern shore near the port of Trincomalee, as well as in the south. About 170 children were feared lost in an orphanage, the Associated Press reported.

The death toll elsewhere was estimated at 3,000 in India, as many as 1,000 in Thailand, 48 in Malaysia, 10 in Burma, and 32 in the Maldives. In Somalia, on the eastern coast of Africa, at least nine people were reported killed by floodwaters, according to news services. At least two children were killed in Bangladesh.

At least three Americans were among the dead -- two in Sri Lanka and one in Thailand, according to Noel Clay, a State Department spokesman. He said a number of other Americans were injured, but he had no details.

In Aceh, the tsunami "destroyed buildings, homes, markets and streets in almost all coastal areas," said Mauludi, an Indonesian Red Cross worker north of the affected area. He recounted hearing what sounded like repeated explosions coming from the coast. When he left his home to investigate, he spotted a wave towering above the tree line about a mile inland. Military authorities said they expected to retrieve many more corpses from the trees, where they remained after the waters receded.

[More than 1 million people were left homeless in Indonesia, and rescuers on Monday combed seaside villages for survivors, the Associated Press reported.]

More than half the deaths in Indonesia were reported in Banda Aceh, where Tia Andarita, a telephone operator, said she watched from her third-floor office as two buildings collapsed and then seawater surged through the streets. "Many people were panicked and ran away to rescue themselves," she said.

Over the following hours, tsunamis triggered by the sudden, traumatic shift in the seafloor raced across the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal toward coastal communities.

In Sri Lanka, witnesses reported seeing the sea retreat as swiftly as it had struck, leaving corpses floating in the lingering floodwaters and the remains of homes, cars and fishing boats littering the beach. Roads, electricity and telephone lines were severed. Reports that more than 1,000 had died in the rebel-controlled northeast of Sri Lanka were impossible to confirm.

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