Asia’s death toll soars above 58,000
December 28, 2004
BANDA ACEH, Indonesia – Desperate refugees foraged for coconuts or looted food on battered Sumatra island Tuesday, as the number killed in a mammoth earthquake and tsunami soared above 58,000 and tens of thousands still were missing. Grieving survivors buried their dead by hand, trying to ward off an epidemic that the U.N. health agency warned could double the toll yet again.
Across a dozen countries, millions of people whose homes were swept away or wrecked by raging walls of water Sunday struggled to find shelter.
“My mother, no word! My sisters, brothers, aunt, uncle, grandmother, no word!” yelled a woman at a makeshift morgue in Lhokseumawe, Indonesia. “Where are they? Where are they? I don’t know where to start looking.”
Along India’s southeastern coast, hospital teams stood by to help the injured, but three days after the disaster still spent most of their time tabulating the dead as ambulances hauled in more bodies. A French cultural center in Thailand’s capital provided clothes and food for tourist families left with nothing when the sea battered southern beach resorts.
One of the most dramatic illustrations of nature’s force came to light Tuesday when reporters reached the scene of a Sri Lankan train carrying beachgoers that was swept into a marsh by a wall of water Sunday, killing at least 802. Eight rust-colored cars lay in deep pools of water in a ravaged palm grove, torn off wheels and baggage scattered among the twisted rails.
“Is this the fate that we had planned for? My darling, you were the only hope for me,” a young man cried for one of the train victims – his university sweetheart – as Buddhist monks prayed nearby.
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Indonesia’s Health Ministry said in a statement that thousands more bodies were found Tuesday, raising to more than 27,000 the number of confirmed deaths in parts of Sumatra island, the territory closest to the epicenter of the quake that sent tsunami waves rolling across the Indian Ocean. The count did not include a report of 10,000 more dead in the region around one coastal city.
Sri Lanka listed 18,700 people dead, India 4,400 and Thailand 1,500, with the toll expected to rise. A total of more than 300 were killed in Malaysia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, the Maldives, Somalia, Tanzania, Seychelles and Kenya.
Officials had not yet counted the dead in two zones that suffered the brunt of both the earthquake and the tsunami that followed: the west coast of Sumatra and India’s remote Andaman and Nicobar archipelagos just north of Sumatra.
Purnomo Sidik, national disaster director at Indonesia’s Social Affairs Ministry, said 10,000 people had been reported killed in and around Meulaboh, a poor Sumatran town where most people are fishermen or workers on palm oil plantations. In India, police said 8,000 people were missing and feared dead on the two island chains.
Television footage from overflights of Meulaboh and other parts of Sumatra’s west coast showed thousands of homes underwater. Refugees fleeing the coast described surviving on little more than coconuts before reaching Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh province on Sumatra’s northern tip, which itself was largely flattened by the quake.
“The sea was full of bodies,” said one refugee, Sukardi Kasdi, who sailed a small boat to Banda Aceh to seek help for his family in Surang.
He said his family had nothing to eat but coconuts. “I don’t know how long everyone else will survive,” he said.
With aid not arriving quick enough, desperate people in Meulaboh and other towns in Aceh were stealing whatever food they could find, officials said.
“People are looting, but not because they are evil, but they are hungry,” said Red Cross official Irman Rachmat in Banda Aceh.
The flooding uprooted land mines in Sri Lanka – torn for years by a civil war – threatening to kill or maim aid workers and survivors attempting to return to what’s left of their homes.
Aid groups struggled to mount what they described as the largest relief operation the world has ever seen, and to head off the threat of cholera and malaria epidemics that could break out where water supplies are polluted with bodies and debris.