Teams face grim search for survivors


POSTED: Thursday, October 01, 2009

APIA, SAMOA » Police searched a ghastly landscape of mud-swept streets, pulverized homes and bodies scattered in a swamp yesterday as dazed survivors emerged from the muck of an earthquake and tsunami that killed at least 149 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.

“;To me it was like a monster—just black water coming to you. It wasn't a wave that breaks, it was a full force of water coming straight,”; said Luana Tavale, an American Samoa government employee.

Survivors fled to higher ground after the magnitude-8.0 quake struck at 6:48 a.m. local time 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 scattered about the coastline.

“;I was scared. I was shocked,”; said Didi Afuafi, 28, who was on a bus when the giant waves came ashore. “;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, 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 on the mountain provided food and water, while clergymen led prayers. Afuafi said people were 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.

Samoa National Disaster Management committee member Filomina Nelson told New Zealand's National Radio the number of dead in her country had reached 110—mostly elderly and young children. At least 30 people were killed on American Samoa, Gov. Togiola Tulafono said.

Officials on the island of Tonga said today that nine people had been confirmed killed on the northern island of Niuas, and four critically injured people had been flown out for treatment. Two of the island's three villages were destroyed.

;[Preview]    Local Samoan Groups Pull Together

News about those dead and missing hung heavy at a meeting of Samoan Community and Church Leaders.

Watch ]


On Samoa, the two-hour drive from the Apia airport to the heavily damaged southeast coast became little more than a link between flattened villages. Mattresses hung from trees, and utility poles were bent at awkward angles.

It was clear that tourists were among the casualties, but officials said they had no solid 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 yesterday.

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.

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 in short supply as a rotting stench filled the air.

“;Tonight they are all going to be back up in the hills because the air out here is not really healthy for them,”; he said.