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Most Powerful Quake in 40 Years Triggers Death and Destruction
By NICK CUMMING-BRUCE
and CAMPBELL ROBERTSON
Published: December 26, 2004
BANGKOK, Dec. 26 - The most powerful earthquake in 40 years struck south Asia this morning, triggering tsunamis that smashed into villages, resorts and tourist isles, killing thousands and leaving hundreds missing. Sri Lanka and India were hit hardest as the tsunamis, some 30 feet high, washed away fishermen, tourists, cars and beachside stalls.
The earthquake, which generated tidal surges that could be felt as far away as Africa, hit at 6:58 a.m. local time about 100 miles off the northern Indonesian island of Sumatra. It measured 8.9 on the Richter scale, which made it the largest in the world since 1964 and the fifth largest since 1900, according to the National Earthquake Information Center at the United States Geological Survey.
Officials in Sri Lanka said that more than 3,500 people were killed and Indian officials said nearly 3,000 died, according to the Reuters news agency. Indonesian officials said that more than 2,500 died, while the death toll reached 310 in Thailand and 42 in Malaysia.
"Nothing like this has ever happened in our country before," Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of Thailand said in a televised address.
Millions have been affected by the destruction, officials said, with people fleeing their homes for higher ground, fearing aftershocks that could send more waves to strike the islands and beaches. The death toll could rise considerably as information comes in from remote islands and beach resorts, and the fate of those missing, including the hundreds of fishermen at sea, becomes apparent.
In the north Sumatran city of Banda Aceh, which was close to the epicenter of the earthquake, dozens of buildings were toppled. But by far the most damage came as the tidal waves produced by the earthquake slammed into beaches more than 1,000 miles away.
The worst hit areas of Sri Lanka appeared to be the tourist regions on the eastern district of Batticoloa, where one official said many of the victims were young children and the elderly. The waves derailed trains and washed away buses, according to reports, and battered prison complexes, allowing criminals to escape. The waves also reportedly flooded areas in the northeast that are under the control of the Tamil Tigers, the rebel group.
The government said that a million people, or 5 percent of the population, was affected. The eastern coast was evacuated as thousands of soldiers began looking for survivors. Roads were packed as residents and tourists tried to reach the capital, Colombo, in the west. Stranded tourists were forced to stay in stadiums and banquet halls, Agence France-Presse reported, as the government tried to find ways to allow them to leave the country. President Chandrika Kumaratunga declared a national emergency and appealed to India for aid. India responded by sending warships and aircraft with relief supplies.
But parts of India were also devastated by the waves. Officials said hundreds of bodies were found washed up on beaches along the southeastern coast and thousands of fishermen remain missing. Morgues and hospitals in the southeastern states were reportedly inundated with the injured, witnesses told Agence France-Press, and officials described the destruction of entire fishing villages. The chief minister of Tamil Nadu, in the south of India, said the death toll reached 1,567 in her state alone.
Officials and news agencies were also gathering reports of hundreds of deaths from the tiny Andaman islands in the Bay of Bengal, which were hit by the earthquake's aftershocks, some of which were reported to have been measured at a magnitude of 7.3.
The tiny islands of the Maldives, most of them around three feet above sea level, was set to declare a national emergency after a four-foot wave swept across the island chain.
"The damage is considerable," said a government spokesman, Ahmed Shaheed. "It's a very bad situation. It's terrible."
In Thailand, the waves wiped out bungalows and washed through seaside hotels, killing tourists and slamming scuba divers against coral reefs. The government ordered evacuation from stricken coastal areas, including 600 from the tiny island of Koh Phi Phi and the resorts on the islands of Phuket and Krabi . More than 158 people died in the holiday island of Phuket and other resorts, according to the Public Health Ministry's Narenthorn Center, with thousands injured. This was the peak of the tourist season in the area and eyewitnesses described sunbathers being washed out to sea.
The Indonesian Health Ministry reported 1,873 dead in the provinces of Aceh and North Sumatra, according to Reuters. The province of Aceh, closed to foreign news agencies due to a long-running separatist conflict, bore the full brunt of the earthquake, with a death toll the ministry estimated at 1,400. Much of the region has been cut off from communication, though some witnesses said mosques, homes and bridges were destroyed and there were reports of children being torn from their parents' arms and washed out to sea.
The European Commission pledged emergency aid totaling $4 million for victims and promised further support, as individual countries offered money, supplies and practical assistance.
The International Federation of the Red Cross appealed for $6.5 million in aid, focusing on basic relief supplies. Foreign embassies were setting up crisis centers and telephone lines, trying to account for the thousands of tourists who flock to southeastern Asia for their Christmas and New Year's vacations.
Indonesia lies on a confluence of plates that make it particularly prone to destructive earthquakes. The earthquake this morning was the largest in the world since 1964, when a 9.2 earthquake hit Prince William Sound in Alaska. The largest earthquake since 1900, which measured 9.5 on the Richter scale, was in Chile in 1960. In south Asia, this was the worth earthquake since 2001, when 20,000 people were killed in the western Indian state of Gujarat.