More than 120 killed in Pacific island tsunami (Roundup)

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

WELLINGTON - The Pacific island death toll from Tuesday’s tsunami, which was triggered by a 8.0-magnitude undersea earthquake, continued to rise as more bodies were recovered from the debris of villages and tourist resorts and was set to reach at least 120, reports from the region said.

A total of 63 people were confirmed dead in Samoa as officials hampered by power and communications outages struggled to assess the casualties and damage. The disaster management office said many were still missing and the final toll was likely to top 100.

Another 24 people were confirmed dead in neighbouring American Samoa, where US President Barack Obama declared a “major disaster”, freeing up federal funds for disaster relief.

There were conflicting reports of five to 10 deaths on Tonga’s northern island of Niuatoputapu.

New Zealand’s Stuff news website quoted witnesses as saying the devastation in Samoa was unimaginable “with bodies, covered in clothes, strewn around coastal villages”.

Reports said cars and people, including children, were swept out to sea by waves of up to six metres as survivors fled to high ground, where they remained hours later.

The tragedy was unprecedented in Samoa, an island state of 220,000 people, where officials said children and the elderly accounted for most of the dead, Radio New Zealand International reported.

Reports from the capital Apia said few families would have escaped the impact of the deaths and devastation.

Samoa’s deputy Prime Minister Misa Telefoni told New Zealand’s TV3 channel: “The country will never be the same. We have taken the friendship of the sea for granted. We will change our perception of the peace and serenity we get from the sea.”

New Zealand’s acting Prime Minister Bill English told a news conference in Wellington there had been “considerable loss of life”, with many more deaths likely to be reported in an unfolding tragedy.

An unknown number of New Zealand and Australian tourists, holidaying in Samoa, were believed to have died, trapped in tourist resorts as the tsunami followed one of the world’s biggest earthquakes this year.

The south coast of Samoa’s main island Upolu was devastated. “We’ve had very heavy damage all along the coast and most of the tourist resorts have been wiped out,” Telefoni said.

Ian Cooper, owner of a dive school in the area, told Radio New Zealand International (RNZI), the power of the waves that hit the beach was phenomenal.

“It’s ripping up concrete and a lot of places have only got concrete slabs left of their buildings.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes. My vessel, my diving boat - it’s a 3-ton diving boat - it’s now sitting on top of the hotel next door.”

RNZI quoted the chief executive officer at Samoa’s Ministry of Health, Palanitina Toelupe, speaking from the state’s main hospital: “We have had people brought in that have been washed out and then washed back in - washed in and then washed back out.

“We have a couple that were in a car with three children. They were washed out to the sea, two children got killed and the couple and their eldest son were saved.”

Malcolm Johnston, of the Red Cross in Samoa, told TV3 the tsunami went over the top of houses on the shore “like a bulldozer - reinforced concrete beams were broken in half and moved 100 metres inland by the waves”.

Up to 20 people were reported killed in the beach resort Lalomanu, which is popular with New Zealand and Australian holidaymakers.

English said a New Zealand air force maritime surveillance plane has been sent to look for survivors swept out to sea and a transport aircraft was being despatched with medical aid and emergency shelters to Samoa, a former New Zealand territory.

The US Geological Survey put the magnitude of the quake, which was located about 204 kilometres southwest of Samoa, at 8.0 on the Richter scale after earlier estimating it at 8.3.

As aftershocks continued to hit the two Samoa states, seismologists reported two further quakes measuring 5.6 and a third of 5.8 in the South Pacific.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center lifted its alert to countries across the South Pacific about five hours after the first quake.

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