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Wednesday, December 29, 2004

A Metaphor For Tragedy

Thousands of corpses are rotting in Indonesia's tropical sun as rescuers scour remote coastlines across the Indian Ocean for survivors of Sunday's giant waves that killed more than 68,000.

Many who escaped death in what may have been the deadliest tsunami in more than 200 years now face a fight for survival against hunger and disease. The United Nations mobilised what it called the biggest relief operation in its history.

The ocean surge was triggered by a 9.0-magnitude undersea earthquake, the biggest in 40 years, off the Indonesian island of Sumatra, spreading in an arc of death across the Indian Ocean and striking from Indonesia to Sri Lanka, and beyond to Africa.

U.S. scientists said the quake that set off the killer wall of water permanently moved tectonic plates beneath the Indian Ocean as much as 30 metres, slightly shifting islands near Sumatra. It may also have made the Earth wobble on its axis.

Survivors told harrowing tales of the moment the tsunami, up to 10 metres high, struck towns and resorts, sucking holidaymakers off beaches into the ocean and smashing people and debris through buildings.

UNICEF executive director Carol Bellamy said children could account for up to a third of the dead.

Indonesia has suffered the biggest number of victims, with 32,502 known to be dead and a final toll of 40,000 expected.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono spoke of "frightening reports" from outlying parts of Aceh province, on the northern tip of Sumatra and closest to the quake's epicentre.

The stench of decomposing corpses spread over the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, and fresh water, food and fuel were running short. Many in the city feared fresh quakes and tsunamis, and roads were filled with people trying to leave.

"There is no food here whatsoever. We need rice. We need petrol. We need medicine. I haven't eaten in two days," said Vaiti Usman, a woman in her mid-30s, gesturing angrily at her filthy sarong, saying it was the last of her possessions.

Soldiers and volunteers were collecting corpses scattered on the streets for mass burial.

Forgetting The Dead, Counting The Survivors
In Sri Lanka, where the death toll neared 22,000, Tamil Tiger rebels in the north appealed for help as they dug mass graves to bury thousands of bodies. All 135 children at an orphanage run by women rebels were killed.

Disaster does not discriminate. The killer waves also beseiged Nate Berkus, a celebrity interior decorator and frequent guest of The Oprah Winfrey Show. Berkus and his companion, Fernando Bengoechea, were asleep in their hotel in Sri Lanka when the tsunamis hit.

The two got hold of a telephone pole, before another strong wave pulled them off. Berkus, 33, managed to climb up onto a rooftop, but the fate of his friend remains unclear. After reaching safety on Sunday, Berkus managed to call his family and alert them that he was alive.

"I'm sitting here with nothing - no passport, no money, no anything, in shorts that somebody gave me," he told CNN. "The bottom line is, we desperately need help here."

Rescue teams headed out to the last of India's remote Andaman and Nicobar islands that have been cut off since Sunday. People on some of the isles have been surviving on coconuts.

India's overall toll of nearly 12,500 included at least 7,000 killed on the islands, which are closer to Myanmar and Indonesia than to the Indian mainland. On one, the surge of water killed two-thirds of the population.

"One in every five inhabitants in the entire Nicobar group of islands is either dead, injured or missing," a police official said. Dozens of aftershocks above 5.0 on the Richter scale have rocked the islands.

In parts of India's Tamil Nadu state officials gave up trying to count the dead and were counting survivors instead, while burying bodies as quickly as possible in mass graves.

In Thailand, where thousands of tourists had been enjoying a peak-season Christmas break to escape the northern winter, many west-coast resorts were turned into graveyards.

The government said that, of its toll of more than 1,500 dead, 473 were known to be foreigners, among them 54 Swedes, 49 Germans, 43 Britons and 84 identified only as Caucasian.

Rescue workers had recovered 1,200 bodies at Khao Lak beach, north of Phuket island, and more than 300 had been found on remote Phi Phi island, made famous in the film "The Beach".

Czech supermodel and 2003 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue covergirl Petra Nemcova was on holiday across the Indian Ocean in Phuket, Thailand, with her British photographer boyfriend, Simon Atlee, when the raging surf tore through their beachfront bungalow at the resort of Kaho Lak.

According to the New York Daily News, Nemcova was able to keep her head above water and grab a palm tree. She clung to the tree for eight hours while the water swept other victims out to sea. At sunset, the 25-year-old beauty was eventually discovered by rescuers and hospitalized for a broken pelvis and internal injuries.

Atlee, however, is still missing.

"This huge wave just pulled us out of the house," Nemcova recounted the Daily News from her hospital bed. "It was so powerful I couldn't get up. I couldn't get out of it. People were screaming, and kids were screaming all over the place, screaming, 'Help, help.' And after a few minutes, you didn't hear the kids anymore."

She was transported via stretcher to a local hospital and then airlifted to an inland hospital.

"I was so broken, I couldn't walk," Nemcova said. "There were so many people with horrible injuries, with blood everywhere. It was like a war movie."

For the search teams, the problem was not finding bodies but identifying them. Many are so bloated it is impossible to tell their sex, never mind their nationality.

From the film world, Oscar-winning British director Richard Attenborough is mourning the death of his 14-year-old granddaughter, Lucy, who was killed when the waves crashed into Phuket. Attenborough's daughter Jane and Jane's mother-in-law, Jane Holland, remained unaccounted for, according to a statement from family friend Diana Hawkins.

Another granddaughter, 17-year-old Alice, survived the tsunami along with her father, Michael, and her brother Sam. Alice was being treated at a local hospital. The Attenboroughs were staying at the Thai beach on a two-week holiday.

Throughout the region more than 3,500 foreigners were unaccounted for, among them at least 1,500 Swedes, 800 Norwegians, 214 Danes and 200 Finns.

Hundreds of people were killed in the Maldives, Myanmar and Malaysia. The arc of water struck as far away as Somalia and Kenya.

Jet Li and his daughter were vacationing in a resort in the Maldives when the earthquake struck near Sumatra.

According to Hong Kong's Apple Daily newspaper, which quoted an unnamed friend of Li's, the martial artist and his daughter were in their hotel lobby when a wall of water surged into the building. Li was dinged by a piece of floating furniture and sustained an foot injury, according to the Ming Pao Daily News, but managed to scoop up his daughter and escape relatively unharmed. After reaching higher ground, he was able to call his agent and let him know they were all right.

The region has seen huge killer waves before, including one when Krakatoa, off southern Sumatra, erupted in 1883 but Indian Ocean countries have no tsunami warning system.

Hoping to fend off a deepening crisis, aid workers are rushing to contain the outbreak of waterborne diseases and restore basic sanitation and running water to the tsunami-effected areas.

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