Tsunamis turn Pacific paradise into hell


A spotter aircraft circled the ocean looking for bodies, dropping smoke flares to pinpoint their location for a boat to collect. Within an hour five were hauled ashore and the aircraft proceeded with its gruesome search. The death toll stood at 146 in Samoa, but officials said it was rising, with hundreds missing. Some 20 villages were destroyed in Samoa and scores flattened in nearby American Samoa.  “We’ve seen pick-up trucks carrying the dead ... back to town,” said New Zealand tourist Fotu Becerra. “We were shocked when we saw the first one but after three hours, it seemed normal.”

Four powerful tsunamis generated by a huge undersea quake crashed into Samoa and American Samoa on Tuesday, destroying in minutes a paradise of palm trees, resorts and pristine beaches.

The waves, at least 6 metres high, ripped buildings apart and washed people out to sea, some still sleeping in their beds, survivors said. One mother watched in horror as her three children playing in the sand were swept away. Many died after being crushed by debris swirling in the floodwaters.

Two refrigerated shipping containers, on grass behind the main hospital in the Samoan capital Apia, served as makeshift morgues after the hospital morgue could accept no more corpses.

Along the southern coast of Samoa’s main island Upolu, which bore the brunt of the tsunamis, palm trees had nearly all been flattened, snapped like twigs by the force of the ocean. A layer of mud and sand covered many shattered buildings and boats and cars hung from trees, as survivors scavenged the debris. Sione Lousiale Kava, petroleum officer for the American Samoa government, said whole villages had disappeared.

US President Barack Obama declared a major disaster in American Samoa, where more than 20 people have been killed, and ordered federal aid to help the recovery.
Pago Pago resident Joey Cummings said buildings were not just destroyed, but had vanished, washed away by the waves. “The harbour area where the radio station was looks like a bomb went off,” Cummings told US television.

In the mountains behind the beaches men banged gas cylinders, like the church bells that call this deeply religious island to church on Sunday, to warn of the danger approaching. Police drove along roads calling residents to go to higher ground.

Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi said it was fortunate that the tsunami struck in daylight. “If it had come in the dark and the tide was high, the number of people who died would be much higher,” he said.

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