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7,500+ Dead as Quake, Tsunami Devastate Asia
2004 12 26

By Simon Gardner - Reuters

6,300 Dead as Quake, Tsunami Devastate Asia

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (Reuters) - The world's biggest earthquake in 40 years hit south Asia Sunday, unleashing a tsunami that crashed into Sri Lanka and India and swamped tourist isles in Thailand and the Maldives, killing more than 6,300 people.

A wall of water up to 30 feet high triggered by the 8.9 magnitude underwater earthquake off the Indonesian island of Sumatra caused death, chaos and devastation.

"Nothing like this has ever happened in our country before," Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said.

Sri Lanka, where officials put the death toll at 2,200, appealed for emergency international aid. One million people, or 5 percent of the population, were affected, officials said. The death toll in India was about 2,000 and in Indonesia over 1,800.

Pope John Paul said the enormous tragedy saddened Christmas.

Two-thirds of the Maldives capital, Male, was flooded and officials voiced anxiety for the fate of dozens of low-lying, palm-ringed coral atolls crowded with tourists from around the world for the Christmas holiday season.

India feared a devastating toll along its southeastern coast. In the state of Tamil Nadu alone, a government official said at least 1,625 had been killed. Rescuers were searching for hundreds of missing fishermen. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh put the armed forces on alert.

The earthquake of magnitude 8.9 as measured by the U.S. Geological Survey struck at 7:59 a.m. off Sumatra and swung north with multiple tremors into the Andaman islands.

In Thailand, at least 257 people had been killed and more than 1,000 injured, officials said.

In popular holiday islands off southern Thailand, emergency workers rescued about 70 Thai and foreign divers from the famed Emeral Cave and several dozen were found and evacuated from around other islands, officials said.

Two Thais were killed at Emeral cave, a major attraction for divers who have to swim underwater to its tiny beach and water illuminated by sunshine pouring through a hole in the roof.

Officials said more than 600 tourists and locals were being evacuated by air and sea from Ko Phi Phi, the tiny island made famous by the 2000 film "The Beach" starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

The Thai government ordered the evacuation of stricken coastal areas, which included popular beach resorts on the islands of Phuket and Krabi.


The earthquake was the world's biggest since 1964, said Julie Martinez, geophysicist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Golden, Colorado.

"It is multiple earthquakes along the same faultline."

It was the fifth-largest earthquake since 1900, she said.

"These big earthquakes, when they occur in shallow water, ... basically slosh the ocean floor ... and it's as if you're rocking water in the bathtub and that wave can travel basically throughout the ocean," USGS geophysicist Bruce Presgrave said.

In Sri Lanka, thousands fled the worst tsunami in living memory, scrambling to higher ground for fear of another wave.

"The army and the navy have sent rescue teams; we have deployed over four choppers and half the navy's eastern fleet to look for survivors," military spokesman Brigadier Daya Ratnayake said.

The worst-hit area appeared to be the tourist region of the south and east where beach hotels were inundated or swept away.

"Our naval base in Trincomalee is underwater and right now we are trying to manage the situation there while rescuing people," said navy spokesman Jayantha Perera.

In the low-lying Maldives, President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was to declare a national disaster in the archipelago whose coral atolls are a magnet for tourists from around the world, said chief government spokesman Ahmed Shaheed.

"The damage is considerable," Shaheed said. "The island is only about three feet (one meter) above sea level and a wave of water four feet high swept over us."

The international airport was unusable, he said.

"It is a very bad situation. It is terrible," Shaheed said.

"As you know it is the peak tourist season. We are trying to get reports from those areas. The whole of the Maldives is a tourist area so we are just hoping and praying."

The world's worst tsunami in recent history struck on July 17, 1998, when three waves ripped through Papua New Guinea's northwest coast, killing 2,500.


At least 483 people were killed Sunday on Indonesia's Sumatra island where the wave washed people out to sea and tore children from their parents' arms, officials said.

Indonesia, an archipelago of 17,000 islands, lies along the Pacific Ring of Fire where plate boundaries intersect and volcanoes regularly erupt. To the north in Thailand, officials reported one wave 16 to 32 feet high hit hotel-lined beaches on Phuket.

"It happened in cycles. There would be a surge and then it would retreat and then there would be a next surge which was more violent and it went on like that," Paul Ramsbottom, a Briton on holiday in a Phuket beach bungalow, told BBC World TV.

"Then there was this one almighty surge. I mean literally this was the one which was picking up pickup trucks and motorcycles and throwing them around in front of us," he added.

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