An earthquake of epic power struck deep beneath the Indian Ocean today, unleashing 20-foot walls of water that came crashing down on beaches in seven Asian countries across thousands of miles.
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — An earthquake of epic power struck deep beneath the Indian Ocean today, unleashing 20-foot walls of water that came crashing down on beaches in seven Asian countries across thousands of miles, smashing seaside resorts and villages and leaving more than 11,000 dead in their wake.
The death toll along the southern coast of Asia — and as far west as Somalia, on the African coast, where nine people were reported lost — was certain to increase, as authorities sorted out a far-flung disaster caused by the 9.0-magnitude earthquake, strongest in 40 years and fourth-largest in a century.
The earthquake hit at 6:58 a.m.; the tsunami came as much as 2-1/2 hours later, without warning, on a morning of crystal blue skies. Sunbathers and snorkelers, cars and cottages, fishing boats and even a lighthouse were swept away.
Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India each reported thousands dead, and Thailand, a Western tourist hotspot, said hundreds were dead and thousands missing.
“It’s an extraordinary calamity of such colossal proportions that the damage has been unprecedented,” said Chief Minister Jayaram Jayalalithaa of India’s Tamil Nadu, a southern state which reported 1,705 dead, many of them strewn along beaches, virtual open-air mortuaries.
“It all seems to have happened in the space of 20 minutes. A massive tidal wave of extreme ferocity … smashed everything in sight to smithereens,” she said.
At least three Americans were among the dead — two in Sri Lanka and one in Thailand, according to State Department spokesman Noel Clay. He said a number of other Americans were injured, but he had no details.
“We’re working out on ways to help. The United States will be very responsible,” Clay said.
The quake was centered 155 miles south-southeast of Banda Aceh, the capital of Indonesia’s Aceh province on Sumatra, and six miles under the Indian Ocean’s seabed. The temblor leveled dozens of buildings on Sumatra — and was followed by at least a half-dozen powerful aftershocks, ranging in magnitude from almost 6 to 7.3. The waves that followed the first massive jolt were far more lethal.
An Associated Press reporter in Aceh province saw bodies wedged in trees as the waters receded. More bodies littered the beaches. Authorities said at least 4,185 were dead in Indonesia; the full impact of the disaster was not known, as communications were cut to the towns most affected.
The waves barreled across the Bay of Bengal, pummeling Sri Lanka, where more than 4,500 were reported killed — at least 3,000 in areas controlled by the government and about 1,500 in regions controlled by rebels, who listed the death toll on their Web site. Some 170 children were feared lost in an orphanage. More than a million people were displaced from wrecked villages.
The carnage was mindboggingly widespread. About 2,300 were reported dead along the southern coasts of India, at least 289 in Thailand, 42 in Malaysia and 32 in the Maldives, a string of coral islands off the southwestern coast of India. At least two died in Bangladesh — children who drowned as a boat with about 15 tourists capsized in high waves.
The huge waves struck around breakfast time on the beaches of Thailand’s beach resorts — probably Asia’s most popular holiday destination at this time of year, particularly for Europeans fleeing the winter cold.
“People that were snorkeling were dragged along the coral and washed up on the beach, and people that were sunbathing got washed into the sea,” said Simon Clark, 29, a photographer from London vacationing on Ngai island.
In India’s Andhra Pradesh state, 32 people were drowned when they went into the sea for a Hindu religious ceremony to mark the full moon. Among them were 15 children.
“I was shocked to see innumerable fishing boats flying on the shoulder of the waves, going back and forth into the sea, as if made of paper,” said P. Ramanamurthy, 40, of that state.
The earthquake that caused the tsunami was the largest since a 9.2 temblor hit Prince William Sound in Alaska in 1964, according to geophysicist Julie Martinez of the U.S. Geological Survey.
“All the planet is vibrating” from the quake, said Enzo Boschi, the head of Italy’s National Geophysics Institute. Speaking on SKY TG24 TV, Boschi said the quake even disturbed the Earth’s rotation.
The quake occurred at a place where several huge geological plates push against each other with massive force. The survey said a 620-mile section along the boundary of the plates shifted, motion that triggered the sudden displacement of a huge volume of water.
Scientists said the death toll might have been reduced if India and Sri Lanka had been part of an international warning system designed to advise coastal communities that a potentially killer wave was approaching. Although Thailand is part of the system, the west coast of its southern peninsula does not have the system’s wave sensors mounted on ocean buoys.
As it was, there was no warning. Gemunu Amarasinghe, an AP photographer in Sri Lanka, said he saw young boys rushing to catch fish that had been scattered on the beach by the first wave.
“But soon afterward, the devastating second series of waves came,” he said. He climbed onto the roof of his car, but “In a few minutes my jeep was under water. The roof collapsed.
“I joined masses of people in escaping to high land. Some carried their dead and injured loved ones. Some of the dead were eventually placed at roadside, and covered with sarongs. Others walked past dazed, asking if anyone had seen their family members.”
Michael Dobbs, a reporter for The Washington Post, was swimming around a tiny island off a Sri Lankan beach at about 9:15 a.m. when his brother called out that something strange was happening with the sea.
Then, within minutes, “the beach and the area behind it had become an inland sea, rushing over the road and pouring into the flimsy houses on the other side. The speed with which it all happened seemed like a scene from the Bible — a natural phenomenon unlike anything I had experienced before,” he wrote on the Post’s Web site.
Dodds weathered the wave, but then found himself struggling to keep from being swept away when the floodwaters receded.
On Phuket, in Thailand, Somboon Wangnaitham, deputy director of the Wachira Hospital, said one of the worst-hit areas was Patong beach, where at least 32 people died and 500 were injured. On Phi Phi island, where “The Beach” starring Leonardo DiCaprio was filmed, 200 bungalows at two resorts were swept out to sea.
“I am afraid that there will be a high figure of foreigners missing in the sea and also my staff,” said Chan Marongtaechar, owner of the PP Princess Resort and PP Charlie Beach Resort.
Many areas were without electricity. In Tamil Nadu in India, a unit of the Madras Atomic Power Station was shut down after water entered the plant. The Indian air force planned to drop diesel generators — along with packets of food and medicine — to ravaged areas.
Some 20,000 Sri Lankan soldiers were deployed in relief and rescue and to help police maintain law and order. The international airport was closed in the Maldives after a tidal wave that left 51 people missing in addition to the 32 dead.
Indonesia, a country of 17,000 islands, is prone to seismic upheaval because of its location on the margins of tectonic plates that make up the so-called the “Ring of Fire” around the Pacific Ocean basin.
The Indonesian quake struck just three days after an 8.1 quake along the ocean floor between Australia and Antarctica caused buildings to shake hundreds of miles away. The earlier temblor caused no serious damage or injury.
Quakes reaching a magnitude 8 are very rare. A quake registering magnitude 8 rocked Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido on Sept. 25, 2003, injuring nearly 600 people. An 8.4 magnitude tremor that struck off Peru on June 23, 2001, killed 74.
Associated Press reporters Gemunu Amarasinghe in Colombo, Sri Lanka, K.N. Arun in Madras, India, and Sutin Wannabovorn in Phuket, Thailand, contributed to this report.