23,000 killed as tsunami sweeps across Asia
There was no warning. As the sun began to climb into a cloudless sky, the people of Banda Aceh were going about their lives in this city on the north-western tip of Sumatra, Indonesia. It was early morning when the first gigantic wall of water hit.
Those that heard the rumble of water rang the radio stations in panic. They had lived all their lives in the area, but they knew this earthquake was a bad one. "The ground was shaking for a long time," said Yayan Zamzani. "It must be the strongest earthquake in the past 15 years," he said. But it was worse. Much worse.
The people of Banda Aceh found themselves directly in the path of a massive tsunami, a vast sea wave caused by an earthquake underneath the ocean. Within moments they were fighting for their lives as the vast torrent of water surged through their homes. Many died instantly, others were swept out to sea. The quake, six miles beneath the seabed, was one of the worst in memory. It measured 9.0 on the Richter scale and was the fourth most powerful since 1900, with its epicentre under the seabed off Sumatra.
Within minutes hundreds of buildings had collapsed, shops and homes were swept away by a 30ft surge. Electricity supplies failed and the area's telephone network crashed. Thousands of people emerged from their homes and places of work in a state of panic. The word went out that they should get to higher ground. But still the sea rose.
A little way down the coast in Sigli the wave arrived moments later. The beach town has remained popular with foreign surfers despite the persistent Islamic insurgence which has rendered the region largely off-limits to tourists and threatened the Indonesian government's lucrative oil and gas fields there.
Witnesses reported the sea level was rising at a worryingly fast rate. Local officials feared that fresh water dams could burst as inland rivers began to surge.
Communications across the whole of the north-west of the largest of Indonesia's 17,000 islands began to fold. The airport was closed and towns and cities began to empty.
The Meteorological and Geophysics Agency in Jakarta downplayed the scale of the quake. Officials insisted it had reached a magnitude of only 6.4 on the Richter scale and located it 100 miles below ground. By this time large waves were being reported along the entire northern coast.
In northern Sumatra's capital, Medan, there was panic as strong tremors were felt. People ran out of their houses in terror. At Lhokseumawe, the main street was deluged with 3ft of water. A similar pattern emerged as buildings were destroyed and people abandoned their belongings and properties to begin the trek to higher ground. Military trucks, more used to dealing with hidden insurgents, now began leading the local population to safety.
Within 30 minutes of the first wave, hospitals began to treat the injured. Seventeen casualties arrived at one hospital, among them a man whose leg had been severed by falling debris from a house.
The first deaths followed as it was reported that 21 children, all below the age of 10, were swept from their parents' arms as they waded to safety. In Banda Aceh, nine bodies were recovered, five of them children. They were just the first of many thousands who lost their lives.
In Papua province Indonesia's President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, was visiting victims affected by an earthquake there only last month. He expressed his "deep concern" at the disaster. There was no let-up, however, and 10 powerful aftershocks rocked the province.
Thailand was the second country to report disaster. Its south-eastern resorts were crammed with Western holidaymakers enjoying Christmas breaks. In Phuket, the tourist playground of five-star resorts, waves 15ft high crashed into the lobbies of the seafront hotels. Trucks and cars were washed into the hotel lobbies, smashing through windows and walls.
In the bustling Thai capital of Bangkok, some 1,240 miles from the epicentre of the quake, buildings swayed. The 24-storey Charoenkrung Pracharat hospital was evacuated. Some patients were moved in to the streets still in their hospital beds, some hooked up to oxygen tanks. Terrified residents in apartment buildings reported hearing loud cracking noises and rumblings. They streamed out into the city's thundering traffic. Aftershocks were felt as far north as Chaing Mai, the trekking capital of northern Thailand.
The flooding in Phuket was mirrored in Phang-Nga province. First casualty reports suggested 100 injured. They were woefully optimistic. The first confirmed deaths came here four people drowned. Many more were feared swept out to sea. Survivors took refuge on rooftops while in neighbouring Krabi two Thais, one a child, and a foreigner were confirmed killed when a wave struck their house.
In Phuket, Boree Carlsson, a 45-year-old Swedish hotel worker, escaped death by grabbing hold of a pillar in a hotel lobby as the furniture was sucked out by the water around him. "As I was standing there, a car actually floated into the hotel lobby and overturned because the current was so strong," he said.
Rumours proliferated that the island was going to be hit by another wave, causing panic among those that had survived. Electricity and water supplies were severed. The Thai Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, announced that the southern provinces of Krabi and Pang-nga had also been hit, but not as badly as Phuket. He ordered the evacuation of areas hit by the tsunami.
Casualties in Phuket had already mounted fast and officials were battling to comprehend the scale of the disaster that had befallen them. The Watcharat hospital was filled to capacity within two hours, mainly with injured foreigners brought from hotels on the popular Kamala and Patong beaches. Police reported that 30 boats filled with tourists have been lost at sea. There was little hope that the flimsy converted fishing vessels each one thought to be carrying several dozen backpackers could have survived the mountainous seas. Flights to and from the island were immediately suspended leaving hundreds of tourists stranded on Phi Phi island, made famous as the location for the filming of The Beach, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. It was feared many tourists and local workers had been killed as 200 bungalows at two resorts were swept out to sea. Eyewitness accounts from holidaymakers began to emerge. "Suddenly this huge wave came, rushing down the beach, destroying everything in its wake," said Simon Clark, a 29-year-old photographer from London who was vacationing on Koh Ngai island near Krabi with his girlfriend, Caroline Barton, 25, also from London. "People that were snorkelling were dragged along the coral and washed up on the beach, and people that were sunbathing got washed into the sea," he said.
Thai officials confirmed that several foreign divers were killed while exploring the Emerald cave off the country's southern coast. They were among 70 visiting the beauty spot a cave where the water is turned emerald by sunshine shining through a hole in the top of the rock. Several dozen more foreign divers were reported missing in the area.
The third country to report the impact of the tsunami was Malaysia. Situated just across the narrow Strait of Malacca from Sumatra, the high-rise condominiums of the northern tourist island of Penang were badly shaken. Building owners checked their properties for damage as police in Penang reported tourists missing after being swept away by huge waves while swimming or riding on jetskis off Penang Island. More deaths were reported in the mainland state of Kedah. Malaysia's Deputy Prime Minister, Najib Razak, addressed the nation. An emergency plan was activated to move people from vulnerable and affected areas. In Singapore, light tremors were reported across the country. There was mass panic as high-rise buildings swayed as the quake hit.
Three hours after Indonesia was hit, the Chittagong geophysical observatory in Bangladesh reported an earthquake measuring 7.36 on the Richter scale. The quake, thought to be a powerful aftershock, was centred on the Andaman Islands at a depth of six miles below the surface. Local seismologists said they lacked the equipment to locate the centre of the quake. But its effects were being felt throughout the region. Elsewhere in the delta nation of 140 million people, further rumbles were reported in southern and western regions as well as in the capital, Dhaka, which has a population of 11 million. Crops were flattened while two children were drowned when a boat with 15 tourists on board capsized in high waves off Kuakata, a resort south of Dhaka.
In Sri Lanka, 1,000 miles west of the epicentre, the southern beach resorts were enjoying their busiest time of the year. But as the first waves came ashore it was clear there was going to be major destruction and loss of life. The chairman of the luxury John Keells hotel group reported five of his resorts seriously damaged. Initial estimates suggested 3,000 people had been displaced from their homes. The figure soon rose to 100,000 but tripled again within hours. Six villages were immediately confirmed as flattened.
As the toll continued to grow, army and navy rescue teams were deployed. Half the navy's eastern fleet was mobilised to look for survivors. In Colombo flash floods shut the busy port, its main building submerged as thousands of workers were forced to flee, many of them in lorries, while huge waves pounded the sea walls.
Sri Lanka's President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who was on holiday in Britain, appealed for international assistance, declaring a national emergency. Witnesses reported seeing the bodies of children entangled in wire mesh used to protect seaside homes south of Colombo. Victims were sucked into the sea as they dashed to retrieve beached fish bought ashore by the first waves, survivors said.
Gemunu Amarasinghe described the scene. "There were rows and rows of women and men standing on the road and asking if anyone has seen their family members. I also saw people bringing in bodies from the sea beaches and placing them on roads and covering with them with sarongs. The first waves brought in fish and when the waves went down some of the fish remained. Some residents went to get them when the second waves hit," he said.
A BBC reporter, Roland Buerk, was near the southern town of Galle: "We were swept along for a few hundred metres, trying to dodge the motorcycles and the refrigerators and the cars that were coming with us.
"Most people have gone up on to higher ground, fearful of another wave. Rumours are that another one might be coming and people are trying to get up on to the hills."
Doctors evacuated pregnant women from maternity wards near Galle, as others fled houses submerged under several feet of muddy water. Witnesses saw corpses floating in floodwaters, while thousands fled their homes in the hard-hit eastern port of Trincomalee. Cars floated out to sea.
In Colombo, slum areas close to rivers and waterways were flooded, though the rest of the capital remained largely unscathed. The Tamil Tigers' website TamilNet reported many parts of the guerrillas' territory badly affected. Two hundred inmates escaped from the southern Matara prison.
The sun loungers on the Maldives, the winter resort of choice for some of the world's wealthiest tourists, were also doing brisk trade when the tsunami struck there.
The nation's 1,192 atolls, already under threat from rising sea levels, were packed with tourists. It was here that the first British victim was confirmed a man who suffered a heart attack as he saw a huge wave come towards him at the White Sand Beach resort in South Ari. He was among 285 tourists on the beach at the time the wave came ashore. Jetties were swept away and boathouses destroyed As in all the other affected countries, warnings proliferated that there could be another wave within 12 hours.
For several hours the Maldives was cut off from the rest of the world. One journalist reached a hotel worker by telephone but he was too frightened to talk.
The islands just 3 feet above sea level had been hit by a 4ft wave. President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who has spent most of his 26 years in power warning of impending disaster caused by climate change, appealed for international assistance and declared a national emergency. The international airport was by now unusable. Two-thirds of the capital Male, whose cramped white-washed houses were home to 75,000 people, was immediately sunk. Contact with the outlying atolls and their 225,000 inhabitants was also lost. Boats sent to help find survivors and bring the injured to medical help put the country's already stretched resources under yet more pressure.
It was only 30 minutes after the first tremors were felt in Indonesia that mild tremors were reported in southern India. The tremors lasted more than a minute. All along the coast, beach houses were washed away as waves sent them crashing on to roads. Boats were smashed as sea conditions worsened and water levels continued to rise. Police cordoned off the beach area but sea water began to seep into the coastal towns of Nellore and Vishakhapatnam in southern Andhra Pradesh.
Hospitals again began to fill and vast areas of land were submerged. Residents in multi-storey buildings rushed out of their homes after being jolted awake in the eastern states of Orissa and West Bengal and the southern states of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.
But it emerged that Tamil Nadu had been worst hit, the state's northern city of Madras, and its fishermen, had borne the brunt of the devastation.
More than 2,500 fishermen had made their homes in the low-lying areas of the city. They were right in the path of the wave, which hit a 620-mile stretch of India's eastern seaboard. Bodies began to wash ashore at Marina beach in Madras. "I felt like I was on a train. I turned around and I saw that a small glass table with a flower vase was shaking," said Rajani Unni. "We saw people rushing away from fishermen's colonies lining the beach. Women were wailing and crying."
Elliot's Beach was evacuated of 2,000 fishermen causing serious traffic jams. But it was too late for hundreds more now reported missing as the Indian navy trawled the waters between Vishakhapatnam and Nellore.
Almost 500 tourists were stranded on a rock in the sea off the country's southernmost tip, Kanyakumari. Holidaymakers had taken the ferry to the Vivekananda Rock memorial to see the sun rise. Services were halted soon after the tourists landed because of choppy seas.
In Andhra Pradesh, 32 people including 15 children were immediately swept away as they took part in a Hindu bathing ritual to mark the full moon.
All along the coast, the sound of wailing filled the air and the beaches grew to resemble open-air mortuaries. Locals removed the bodies in hessian sacks. The children's cries were the most pitiful. "Where are my mummy and daddy?" cried nine-year-old Bhuvaneswari, whose parents were swallowed by the sea at Manginapudi beach near Machilipatnam, about 200 miles from the state capital, Hyderabad.
Meanwhile the islands of the Indian Ocean took massive hits. The number of dead and missing on India's Andaman and Nicobar islands began to soar. Estimates suggested up to 1,000 were dead or missing, the number climbing all the time. Many more were reported dead in Kerala state, another popular tourist destination.
Throughout the day, further countries felt the force of the quake. The Cocos Islands, a remote outpost of Australian territory, were hit by a small wave. The Australian government set up a hotline for worried relatives while emergency services were put on standby in the sparsely populated north-west.
In Burma, 10 people were killed when a bridge collapsed in the coastal town of Kawthaung, close to the Thai border. State television confirmed the quake had hit, but did not give details of the extent of the damage. Thai scientists said they had detected an earthquake measuring 6.4 there.
The effects spread to Africa's Indian Ocean coast. Countries stretching from the horn of Africa down as far south as Tanzania were also hit. In the Seychelles, low-lying coastal roads were flooded. Kenya's tourist beaches were closed at Mombasa and Malindi.
As the day closed, world leaders paid their respects to their dead. The US President George Bush sent his condolences on the "terrible loss of life". He promised to work with the United Nations to help those hit by the disaster.
In Sri Lanka it was confirmed that 100,000 had been affected. Ten Britons were being treated in hospital in Phuket and there were nearly 400 dead. In Tamil Nadu 3,000 were killed, a similar number in Sri Lanka.
In Indonesia, more than 4,000 people had lost their lives. Many more were left homeless. At one hospital in Lhokseumawe, the bodies of at least six children were laid on stretchers in morgues. The local television showed a screaming mother hugging and kissing her dead child.
A health ministry official was shown reading the latest update on the death toll. "We are still waiting for more numbers," he said. "It will surely rise."
STATES OF EMERGENCY
With more than 23,000 dead and thousands more missing, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India, Thailand and the Maldives have declared states of emergency. More than one million are displaced and governments across the region have appealed for disaster relief. The fallout from the destruction reaches as far as east Africa.
Many tour operators cancelled package flights to the region and were flying out empty planes to bring thousands of stranded tourists home.
With many cancelling holidays, the Foreign Office is now advising against any travel to the Maldives and to the affected parts of Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, Malaysia and Bangladesh. The Foreign Office has set up an emergency number 020 7008 0000 for anyone concerned about a missing relative or friend.