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Anatomy of A Cataclysm: Science of The Tsunami

Tens of thousands of people in the coastal lands of Sumatra, the nearest landfall, had no chance. The waves likely hit within 15 minutes of the quake and were so massive -- they were estimated to hit land with the force of 100,000 tons of water for every five feet of beachfront -- no warnings would have helped. The rush of water could have been 30 feet or higher.

One astonishing example of the power of the water is from footage taken three miles inland. It shows no classic surfer's wave, but a furious onrush of black water, filled with tons of debris, chewing up everything in its path. And that's at the three-mile mark of slowing down.

The tsunami's aftermath on Thailand's Phi Phi Island: What started as a ripple grew exponentially higher. (Luis Enrique Ascui -- Reuters)

In Thailand, the waves came ashore an hour later.

"Out of nowhere it was like a Class IV, Class V rapids just started moving up like freestanding waves coming towards us with a bigger wall behind it. That's when everyone started screaming 'Run!' " says Tom Travers, a restaurant owner in Kamala Beach, Thailand, who videotaped some of the destruction.

Could some of the loss of life in Thailand and even farther away in Sri Lanka -- where more than 40,000 were killed -- have been prevented?

This show certainly seems to think so.

The Indian Ocean has no early warning system, as the Pacific does. Key players in the special are seismologists in Hawaii -- in a different ocean, thousands of miles away -- who knew far more about the earthquake than did anyone in the Indian Ocean.

So, perhaps, smart people in labs can design systems to save more people the next time around, be it in 10 years or 100.

But if there is any lesson to be drawn from the tsunami, and tonight's special, it is that of the ages. Pompeii, Krakatoa, the tsunami of 2004, to make no mention of hurricanes and floods and tornadoes: We live at the mercy of the planet.

Sometimes, she has no mercy at all.

Wave That Shook the World (one hour) airs at 8 tonight on Channels 22 and 26. Interactive information is available at www.pbs.org/nova/tsunami. Chat with seismologist Tom Heaton, featured in the program, at 3 p.m. tomorrow at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

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