One of the most powerful earthquakes in history has hit southern Asia, unleashing a tsunami on Sri Lanka and India and swamping tourist isles in Thailand and the Maldives to kill nearly 9,500 people.
The tsunami — a menacing wall of water — caused death, chaos and devastation across southern Asia on Sunday. The tsunami, up to 10 metres high, was triggered by an 8.9 magnitude underwater earthquake off the Indonesian island of Sumatra.
Emergency services were stretched throughout the region popular with Western tourists flying east for Christmas sunshine. Some areas were totally unprepared and the tourists found themselves flung into the jaws of disaster.
In Sri Lanka, where the death toll was over 3,500, corpses floated in floodwaters, while thousands fled their homes and cars floated out to sea. Idyllic beaches were turned into fields of debris and destruction.
“I think this is the worst-ever natural disaster in Sri Lanka,” N.D. Hettiarachchi, director of the National Disaster Management Centre, said.
The worst-hit area appeared to be the tourist region of the south and east where beach hotels were inundated or swept away.
In Indonesia, where 2,583 people were listed as killed, raging waters dragged villagers out to sea and tore children from their parents’ arms.
The total death toll was nearly 9,500 people at 5.20 p.m. British time.
Wailing relatives gathered around bodies in India, where the death toll was more than 3,000. Beaches were littered with submerged cars and wrecked boats. Shanties on the coast of Madras, where 100 died, were under water.
“The whole area has been turned into a cemetery,” Chellappa, a 55-year-old fisherman in Madras, said.
“This is one of the largest earthquakes ever on record,” Peter Rees, of the International Federation of the Red Cross in Geneva, told CNN television, adding: “The situation in Sri Lanka … is extremely serious.”
“I just couldn’t believe what was happening before my eyes,” Boree Carlsson told Reuters from a hotel 500 metres from Phuket’s Patong beach in Thailand. “As I was standing there, a car actually floated into the lobby and overturned because the current was so strong,” said the 45-year-old Swede.
“Nothing like this has ever happened in our country before,” said Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of Thailand where the death toll was 279.
The earthquake of magnitude 8.9 as measured by the U.S. Geological Survey struck at 7:59 a.m. (00.59 p.m. British time) off Sumatra and swung north with multiple tremors into the Andaman islands.
Pope John Paul said the enormous tragedy made for a sad Christmas.
Sri Lanka appealed to the world for aid, saying that one million people, or 5 percent of its population, were affected.
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 and thousands were homeless.
Television footage showed bodies, including young girls, being thrown into trucks in Madras, capital of Tamil Nadu state.
Hundreds fled to higher ground with pots, pans and other meagre possessions. People carried bodies in hessian sacks to hospitals where dozens of dead already lined the corridors.
In Andhra Pradesh, about 400 fishermen were feared missing and 200 Hindu devotees who had gone to the beach for a holy dip in the morning were feared dead.
Almost 500 tourists were stranded on a rock in the sea off India’s southernmost tip, witnesses said. About 3,000 people were listed as dead.
In the Maldives, none of the thousands of foreign visitors holidaying in the beach paradise, a magnet for honeymooners and well-heeled tourists from around the globe and famed for its world-class scuba diving, was believed to have been killed although some had suffered minor injuries.
Two-thirds of the Maldives capital, Male, was flooded and the international airport, itself lying just a few feet above sea level on an island of its own, was unusable.
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 residents 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. Thousands were injured in Thailand.
Belgian tourist Christian Patauraux said he saw many dead.
“There are a lot of dead bodies and a lot of injured. I’m not sure when the next ferry is coming. Everything has been flattened,” he told Reuters.
Indonesia, an archipelago of 17,000 islands, lies along the Pacific Ring of Fire where plate boundaries intersect and volcanoes regularly erupt.
The worst affected area was Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh province, where 1,400 had been killed. More than 200 prisoners escaped from a jail when the tsunami knocked down its walls.
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.
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.