APIA, Samoa // Rescuers reached scenes of stunning devastation after a killer tsunami obliterated Samoan island villages, killing at least 148 people and leaving scores more missing. As distraught relatives picked through the rubble of homes and tourist resorts destroyed by Tuesday's 8.0-magnitude earthquake that triggered a tsunami, aid workers were left breathless at the catastrophe. "The devastation was astronomical, worse than anything I have ever seen," said Peter Bendinelli, head of the non-profit group Caritas Samoa.
The death toll is expected to rise dramatically after the Samoan islands' worst quake in nearly a century unleashed walls of water that pounded the coast, echoing Asia's deadly 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. Survivors described seeing truckloads of bodies in Samoa, an idyllic Pacific holiday destination which counted 110 dead, and expected the toll to rise further as bodies are recovered from buildings and the sea.
"It's not paradise anymore - it's hell on Earth," one survivor told Australia's Sky News as the morgue at Apia's hospital was forced to use a refrigerated shipping container to help handle overflow bodies. Entire villages were laid to waste and the pristine white beaches that once wooed bathers were strewn with the mangled wreckage of buildings and cars, as well as luggage, furniture and poignant personal items.
"We lost everything," said Meleisea Sa, a village chief in the decimated fishing hamlet of Poutasi, as villagers searched for loved ones and personal possessions in the twisted ruins of their homes. "I must rebuild this, or I have nothing," he said as he salvaged parts of his ruined house near four generations of family graves completely destroyed by the waves. "I look at the water now and I am frightened."
At least 31 were killed in neighbouring American Samoa and seven lost their lives when the tsunami hit Tonga, 1,000km away. US disaster assistance teams reached American Samoa on Wednesday and were providing critically needed aid including emergency power and medical supplies, Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) chief Craig Fugate said yesterday. "We have over 140 people on the ground - co-ordinating and supporting the government's emergency response," including members of the US Coast Guard, the Hawaii National Guard and Fema, Mr Fugate told reporters on a conference call.
He said the US agencies had begun distributing food and water, power generators, medical supplies and other emergency aid. Looters roamed the devastated streets of the American Samoan capital Pago Pago after 7.5-metre waves smashed homes and hurled cars into treetops. Raiders were targeting liquor and cigarettes and other saleable items, but "were mainly taking food, frozen chickens and things like that", said local journalist Aufage Fausia.
Some 2,500 people were forced from their homes by the disaster and were being housed in relief shelters in the remote US outpost that the US president Barack Obama declared a major disaster zone. Looters also struck in Samoa, where aid workers and property owners were defending what remained of their property. "We poured our life and our life savings into this place. I just can't watch it be taken away from me," said Chris Booth, who employed security guards to protect his ruined Sea Breeze Resort on Samoa's southern coast.
As aid planes arrived in Samoa from Australia and New Zealand, rescuers bringing food, clothing, medicine and fresh drinking water saw the full extent of the catastrophe. The devastated southern area of Samoa is home to about 70 villages and was also a popular tourist hot spot. Four Australians, two Koreans, one New Zealander and a British toddler were among the dead. Tonga reported significant damage on the small island of Niuatoputapu with at least seven dead and three missing. However, other countries saw only large waves at worst despite a brief tsunami warning.
Samoan sport stars abroad were also affected, with New Zealand-based former heavyweight world boxing champion David Tua, who hails from Samoa, among the bereaved after his aunt was killed. * Agence France-Presse