Lhokseumawe, Indonesia Rescue workers battled to reach isolated coastal towns today on the island of Sumatra nearest the epicenter of the monstrous earthquake that sent tidal waves surging through the region, killing more than 22,500. Indonesian officials said they feared the death toll would climb by several thousand in their country alone.
So far, Indonesia has confirmed 4,991 deaths, with most of them in Aceh province on the northern tip of Sumatra. The quake epicenter was more than six miles under the Indian Ocean seabed less than 100 miles from the Sumatra coast. Most of the coastal region south of the provincial capital of Banda Aceh had not been visited by government officials or rescue teams nearly two days after the disaster.
Late Monday, Indonesian Vice President Yusuf Kalla told the state news agency he thought the toll in his country could climb to 25,000.
"We don't have confirmed data, but I think between 21,000 and 25,000 people (have died)," he said, according to the Antara state news agency.
Purnomo Sidik, national disaster director at the Social Affairs Ministry, said Kalla's prediction was in line with his ministry's estimates.
"Thousands of victims cannot be reached in some isolated and remote areas that cannot be contacted due to lack of communication," he said.
In the provincial capital of Banda Aceh, where rescue efforts were already well under way, the streets were filled with overturned cars and the rotting corpses of adults and children. Shopping malls and office buildings lay in rubble, and thousands of homeless families huddled together in mosques and schools. The minaret of the city's 125-year-old mosque leaned precariously. At least 3,000 people died in the city of 400,000.
Fear of disease looms
The fear of a far higher death toll came as bodies washed up on tropical beaches and piled up in hospitals Monday, raising fears of disease across the 10-nation arc of destruction left by a monster earthquake and walls of water. Thousands were missing and millions homeless.
Humanitarian agencies began what the United Nations said would become the biggest relief effort the world has ever seen.
The disaster could be the costliest in history as well, with "many billions of dollars" of damage, said U.N. Undersecretary Jan Egeland, who is in charge of emergency relief coordination. Hundreds of thousands have lost everything, and millions face a hazardous future because of polluted drinking water, a lack of sanitation and no health services, he said.
More than 12,500 people died in Sri Lanka, nearly 5,000 in Indonesia and 4,000 in India. The International Red Cross, which reported 23,700 deaths, said it was concerned that diseases like malaria and cholera could add to the toll.
Dazed tourists evacuated the popular island resorts of southern Thailand, where the Thai-American grandson of revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej was listed as one of more than 900 people dead. Scores more died in Malaysia, Myanmar, Bangladesh and the Maldives. The waves raced 2,800 miles across the Indian Ocean to Africa, killing hundreds of people in Somalia and three in the Seychelles.
Eight Americans were among the dead, and U.S. embassies in the region were trying to track down hundreds more who were missing.
No warning system
Sunday's massive quake of 9.0 magnitude sent 500-mph waves surging across the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal in the deadliest known tsunami since the one caused by the 1883 volcanic eruption at Krakatoa -- off Sumatra's southern tip -- that killed an estimated 36,000 people.
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A large proportion of southern Asia's dead were children -- as many as half the victims in Sri Lanka, according to officials there. A bulldozer dug a mass grave in southern India for 150 young boys and girls, as their weeping parents looked on.
"Where are my children?" said 41-year-old Absah, as she searched for her 11 youngsters in Banda Aceh, the Indonesian city closest to Sunday's epicenter. "Where are they? Why did this happen to me? I've lost everything."
Officials in Thailand and Indonesia conceded that immediate public warnings of gigantic waves could have saved lives. The only known warning issued by Thai authorities reached resort operators when it was too late. The waves hit Sri Lanka and India more than two hours after the quake.
But governments insisted they couldn't have known the true danger because there is no international system in place to track tsunamis in the Indian Ocean, and they could not afford the sophisticated equipment to build one.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard said he would investigate what role his country could play in setting up an Indian Ocean warning system. The head of the British Commonwealth bloc of Britain and its former colonies called for talks on creating a global early warning system for tsunamis.
Egeland said the issue of creating a tsunami warning system would be taken up during the World Conference on Disaster Reduction set for Jan. 18-22 in Kobe, Japan.
Wails of mourning
For most people near the shores across the region, the only warning Sunday of the disaster came when shallow coastal waters disappeared, sucked away by the approaching tsunami, before returning as a massive wall of water. The waves wiped out villages, lifted cars and boats, yanked children from the arms of parents and swept away beachgoers, scuba divers and fishermen.
In a scene repeated across the region Monday, relatives wandered hallways lined with bodies, searching for loved ones at the hospital in Sri Lanka's southern town of Galle -- one of the worst-affected areas of the hardest-hit nation. People lifted blankets and soaked clothes to look at faces in a stunned hush, broken only occasionally by wails of mourning.
A tractor brought in about 15 corpses of mostly women and children, some wrapped in white plastic sheets, while a Buddhist temple across the street tried to help people find their missing.
"The toll is increasing," said Brig. Daya Ratnayake, a military spokesman. "We are finding more bodies."
Indonesia and Sri Lanka had at least a million people each driven from their homes. Helicopters in India rushed medicine to stricken areas, while warships in Thailand steamed to island resorts to rescue survivors.
In Thailand, the government offered free flights for thousands of Western tourists desperate to leave the southern resorts ravaged by the tsunami. Chaos erupted at Phuket airport as hundreds of tourists, many bandaged and brought to the airport in ambulances, tried to board planes for Bangkok.