Apia, Samoa Police searched a ghastly landscape of mud-strewn streets, pulverized homes and bodies scattered in a swamp Wednesday as dazed survivors emerged from the muck and mire of an earthquake and tsunami that killed at least 120 in the South Pacific.
Military transports flew medical personnel, food, water and medicine to Samoa and American Samoa, both devastated by a tsunami triggered by an undersea earthquake. A cargo plane from New Zealand brought in a temporary morgue and a body identification team.
Officials expect the death toll to rise as more areas are searched. Among the hardest hit areas was the southeast coast of Samoa, with authorities reporting that several tourist resorts were wiped out.
Survivors fled to higher ground on the islands after the magnitude 8.0 quake struck at 6:48 a.m. local time (12:48 p.m. CDT) Tuesday. The residents then were engulfed by four tsunami waves 15 to 20 feet high that reached up to a mile inland.
The waves splintered houses and left cars and boats — many battered and upside down — scattered about the coastline. Debris as small as a spoon and as large as a piece of masonry weighing several tons were strewn in the mud.
Survivors told harrowing tales of encountering the deadly tsunami.
“I was scared. I was shocked,” said Didi Afuafi, 28, who was on a bus when the giant waves came ashore on American Samoa. “All the people on the bus were screaming, crying and trying to call their homes. We couldn’t get on cell phones. The phones just died on us. It was just crazy.”
With the water approaching fast, the bus driver sped to the top of a nearby mountain, where 300 to 500 people were gathered, including patients evacuated from the main hospital. Among them were newborns with IVs, crying children and frightened elderly people.
A family atop the mountain provided food and water, while clergymen led prayers. Afuafi said people are still on edge and feared another quake.
“This is going to be talked about for generations,” said Afuafi, who lives just outside the village of Leone, one of the hardest hit areas.
On Samoa, the two-hour drive from the Apia airport to the heavily damaged southeast coast initially showed no sign of damage before becoming little more than a link between one flattened village after another. Mattresses hung from trees, and utility poles were bent at awkward angles.
It was clear that tourists were among the casualties, but figures were impossible to get immediately with officials saying they had no solid head count on the number of visitors in the area.
Three of the key resorts on the coast are scenes of “total devastation” while a fourth “has a few units standing on higher ground,” Nynette Sass of Samoa’s National Disaster Management committee told New Zealand’s National Radio on Thursday.
Dr. Ben Makalavea from Apia’s main hospital told the broadcaster that some couples can’t find their children, and fear they may have been washed out to sea. “One woman we saw was so confused that she doesn’t even know where she comes from,” he said.
Makalavea added that the hospital needs nurses, doctors, surgeons and blood to treat the increasing numbers of casualties with broken bones and cuts.
Red Cross relief workers were providing food, clothes and water to thousands of homeless now camping in the wooded hills above the coast. Volunteer Futi Mauigoa said water was already in short supply.
“Tonight they are all going to be back up the hills because the air out here is not really healthy for them,” he said of the rotting stench in the disaster area.