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Deadly walls of water

Published : Jan 14, 2005 00:00 IST



From Banda Aceh in Indonesia to the Maldives, the tsunami swept away everything in its path.

THE strongest earthquake in the world for 40 years struck under the sea northwest of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Although the worst hit were nations to the west of the epicentre - India and Sri Lanka - the countries in the immediate neighbourhood also suffered the quake's severe impact.

Shock hits at 7-58 a.m. local time: 1,902 dead in Aceh and North Sumatra.

The earth began to move 40 km below the seabed, a massive rupturing of the earth's crust off the north-western tip of Sumatra. A section of seabed, 1,000 km long, rose up to 30 metres at a spot approximately 250 km southeast of the city of Banda Aceh and 1,600 km north-west of the Indonesian capital of Jakarta.

Millions of people were living, fishing and holidaying around the Bay of Bengal and on the coast of Thailand and Malaysia, hundreds of miles from the epicentre. They were not to know that the gentle shaking that caused skyscrapers in Singapore and Chiang Mai in northern Thailand to sway would unleash a devastating tsunami, bringing a wall of water crashing down on their shores.

Mohammed Firdus, a telephone operator from Bireuen, Aceh Province, was sitting on the porch of his house, about 200 metres from the sea, when the earthquake struck. Then he heard a rumbling, but this time the ground was not shaking. Someone came running fast from the beach, shouting, "Huge wave, huge wave". Firdus said: "And then I saw the water. It was a wall at least a metre high coming down the track towards us all. We all immediately turned and ran towards the main road with the water following us."

Officials said it was impossible to say how many people were killed by the earthquake because it was quickly followed by tsunamis striking Aceh Province and also the smaller islands, like the popular surfing resort of Nias, where an entire hotel, the Wismata Indah, was washed out to sea. "The wall of water that came ashore was between five and 10 metres high in many places," said Ari Meridal, a provincial government official in Banda Aceh. "It swept almost everything away for hundreds of metres inland."

Severed communications meant that estimates of casualty figures were imprecise. "We have heard very little from west Aceh, which is the nearest point to the epicentre," said Raifa Sistani, of the Indonesian Red Cross. "This is a major concern to us because logic says this area should have suffered the most."

Shock hits at 8 a.m. local time: 289 dead, dozens of foreign tourists feared missing, more than 5,000 injured.

The packed Thai tourist resorts on Phuket and Phi Phi islands were the next to be hit with a succession of tsunamis 10 metres high. Montri Charnvichai, a resident of Phuket, was on the beach at 10 a.m. when suddenly the seawater disappeared and the beach dried. He said: "Then the first wave hit. It must have been travelling at about 70 km an hour, it was very fast. It swept up the beach, carrying everything with it. There were many, many people in the sea at this time, and many of them were tourists. I have no idea what happened to them."

Then the second wave hit, about two minutes after the first. It was three metres high, and crashed into the buildings lining the shore. Simon Clark, a British photographer holidaying on Koh Ngai, described a huge wave crashing on to the beach, destroying everything in its wake. "People who were snorkelling were dragged along the coral and washed up on the beach, and people who were sunbathing got washed into the sea," he said.

The tsunami struck Phuket just after 10 a.m., when Christmas revellers were just starting to surface. "It was like a really, really bad dream," said Dawn Taylor from Stockport, England, who was on the Kamala beach. "It was a glorious day and a group of us were enjoying the beach when suddenly we saw this wall of water coming towards us. We just ran. The scale of the devastation is just enormous."

About 70 divers, many of them foreign tourists, who were exploring the famed Emerald Cave were plucked to safety after the first couple of waves struck. The more remote Phi Phi islands, where the film The Beach was filmed, were hit even more badly than Phuket. Heavy seas, however, prevented people from being evacuated.

Tsunami hits soon after 8 a.m. local time: 42 dead.

Most of the fatalities in Malaysia were people swimming and jet-skiing off beaches on the island of Penang who were struck by the tsunami. Other deaths were reported on the mainland, in Perak and Kedah States, from both tsunamis and the original quake as thousands of buildings were damaged or destroyed. "It was crazy," said Lin Wei Song, a restaurant owner on Batu Ferringhi. "One minute I was preparing for the lunchtime rush and then the next thing I knew was that my tables were floating off down the street."

Jasper Bintner, from Saskatchewan, Canada, was staying at a guest house at Batu Ferringhi, northwest of Penang island. "At first you could just see a wall of waves in the distance with the white tops crashing down. Luckily we had a lot of visual warning so we could get out of the water and the locals made sure we did. Around the corner, where the people were washed out to sea, they didn't have any warning. [The tsunami] just swept them off the beach and out to sea."

Tsunami hits at 9 a.m.: at least seven dead.

The Maldives, a cluster of 1,192 tiny coral islands in the Indian Ocean, off the southwestern coast of India, was badly hit because much of its landmass is barely above water. Two-thirds of the capital island, Male, was flooded, and outlying atolls were completely submerged. A British tourist died of a heart attack after seeing the huge wave heading toward him at White Sand beach resort on South Ari atoll. An Italian tourist was also seriously injured. Some 285 tourists were on the beach at the time.

Nazim Sattar in Male said: "The whole sea just lifted up. It swelled up. There was no sound. The sea just poured on to the island. Small boats were dropped on to the street. The people said that they did not know what had hit them."

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jan 14, 2005.)



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