Mourners in Sri Lanka used their bare hands to dig graves today while hungry islanders in Indonesia turned to looting in the aftermath of Asia's devastating tsunamis.
BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — Mourners in Sri Lanka used their bare hands to dig graves today while hungry islanders in Indonesia turned to looting in the aftermath of Asia’s devastating tsunamis. Thousands more bodies were found in Indonesia, dramatically increasing the death toll across 11 nations to more than 52,000.
Indonesia’s Health Ministry said in a statement that more than 27,000 people were confirmed killed in parts of Sumatra island, the territory closest to the epicenter of Sunday’s earthquake, which sent a giant tsunami rolling across the Indian Ocean.
But the ministry said it had not yet counted deaths along the inundated and shattered towns of Sumatra’s western coast, which soldiers and rescue workers were unable so far to reach — including the district of Meulaboh, where earlier the head of another agency estimated that 10,000 people were killed.
When those regions are included in the ministry count, the death toll could rise dramatically yet again.
TV footage from overflights of Meulaboh and other parts of the west coast showed thousands of homes underwater. Refugees fleeing the coast described surviving for days 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 Sukardi Kasdi, who reached the capital from his town of Surang.
The west coast of Sumatra, facing Sunday’s epicenter, took the brunt of both the quake and the killer waves. With aid not arriving quick enough, desperate residents in Meulaboh and other towns in Aceh began to loot, officials said.
“People are looting, but not because they are evil, but they are hungry,” said Red Cross official Irman Rachmat in Banda Aceh.
In Sri Lanka, the toll also mounted. Workers pulled 802 bodies out of a train that was flung off its tracks when the gigantic waves hit. Two hundred of the bodies — unclaimed by relatives — were buried today in a mass grave next to the tracks, which had been lifted and twisted like a roller coaster by the raging water.
“Is this the fate that we had planned for? My darling, you were the only hope for me,” cried one man for his dead girlfriend — his university sweetheart — as Buddhist monks held prayer nearby.
More than 18,700 people died in Sri Lanka, more than 4,400 in India and more than 1,500 in Thailand, with numbers expected to rise. Scores were also killed in Malaysia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, the Maldives. The giant waves raced nearly 3,000 miles to east Africa, causing deaths in Somalia, Tanzania and Seychelles.
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And there were still zones of death where officials could not get a precise count. Sumatra’s west coast was one — another was India’s remote Andaman and Nicobar Islands, located just north of Sumatra. So far, only 90 people were confirmed dead in the archipelago of 30 inhabited islands, but a police official said 8,000 people were missing and possibly dead.
Europeans desperately sought relatives missing from holidays in Southeast Asia — particularly Thailand, where bodies littered the once crowded beach resorts. Near the devastated Similan Beach and Spa Resort, where mostly German tourists were staying, a naked corpse hung suspended from a tree today as if crucified.
A blond two-year-old Swedish boy, Hannes Bergstroem, found sitting alone on a road in Thailand was reunited with his uncle, who saw the boy’s picture on a Web site.
“This is a miracle, the biggest thing that could happen,” said the uncle, who identified himself as Jim, after flying from his home country to Thailand to reach Hannes at the hospital were the boy was being treated. The boy’s mother and grandmother were missing, while his father and grandfather were reportedly at another hospital.
The vacationing former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl was evacuated by Sri Lankan military helicopter from the hotel he was trapped by flooding in the south of the country. In Thailand, Czech supermodel Petra Nemcova, who appeared on the cover of 2003 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, was injured and her photographer boyfriend Simon Atlee was missing, Atlee’s agent said.
So far, more than 80 Westerners have been confirmed dead across the region — including 11 Americans. But a British consulate official in Thailand warned that hundreds more foreign tourists were likely killed in the country’s resorts.
Sunday’s massive quake of 9.0 magnitude off the Indonesian island of Sumatra sent 500-mph waves surging across the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal in the deadliest known tsunami since the one that devastated the Portuguese capital of Lisbon in 1755 and killed an estimated 60,000 people.
Amid the devastation, however, were some miraculous stories of survival. In Malaysia, a 20-day-old baby was found alive on a floating mattress. She and her family were later reunited. A Hong Kong couple vacationing in Thailand clung to a mattress for six hours.
In Sri Lanka, more than 300 people crammed into the Infant Jesus Church at Orrs Hill, located on high ground from their ravaged fishing villages. Families and childres slept on pews and the cement floor.
“We had never seen the sea looking like that. It was like as if a calm sea had suddenly become a raging monster,” said one woman, Haalima, recalling the giant wave that swept away her 5-year-old grandson, Adil.
Adil was making sandcastles with his younger sister, Reeze, while Haalima sat in her home Sunday morning. Haalima said the girl ran to her complaining that waves had crushed their castles, then came screams and water entered the home. “When we looked, there was no shore anymore and no Adil,” she said.
Death was so widespread in Sri Lanka that the government waived rules requiring an autopsy before burial. In Muslim villages in the east of the otherwise Buddhist-dominated island, some survivors, lacking shovels, used giant iron forks used for communal cooking and their hands to scrape out graves for several dozen victims, half of them children.
“The toll is going up and I will not be surprised it reaches 20,000 to 25,000,” said Nimal Hettiarchchi, director of Sri Lanka’s National Disaster Management Center.
Relief workers warned that survivors could face outbreaks of disease, including malaria and cholera. “Our biggest fear at the moment is the shortage of drinking water,” said Janaka Gunewardene, a director at Sri Lanka’s disaster management center, adding that waterways and well across Sri Lanka’s northern, eastern and southern coasts were contaminated, said.
A new danger emerged today: the floods uprooted land mines in Sri Lanka — a nation torn by a decades-old war with Tamil separatists in the north. The mines now threatened aid workers and survivors, UNICEF said.
The first international deliveries of food were being delivered to ravaged areas, as humanitarian agencies — accustomed to disasters in one or two countries at time — tried to organize to help on an unprecedented geographic scale, across 11 nations.
The disaster could be history’s costliest, with “many billions of dollars” of damage, said U.N. Undersecretary Jan Egeland, who is in charge of emergency relief coordination.
A dozen trucks loaded with more than 160 tons of rice, lentils and sugar sent by the U.N. World Food Progam, left today from Colombo for Sri Lanka’s southern and eastern coasts, and a second shipment was planned for overnight.
UNICEF officials said about 175 tons of rice arrived in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, and six tons of medical supplies were to arrive by Thursday. Helicopters in India rushed medicine to stricken areas. In Sri Lanka, the Health Ministry dispatched 300 physicians to the disaster zone by helicopter.