2005: The Washington Post
Award for Deadline News Reporting
Tuesday, March 29, 2005
by: ASNE Staff

Section: Deadline News Reporting

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Sea Surges From Massive Quake Kill Over 13,000 Across South Asia

Dec. 26, 2004

By Alan Sipress and Peter S. Goodman
The Washington Post

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- A gargantuan earthquake centered off the western end of the Indonesian archipelago unleashed a series of tsunamis Sunday that crashed into coastal towns, fishing villages and tourist resorts from Sri Lanka to India, Thailand and Malaysia, killing more than 13,000 people in at least nine countries and leaving thousands missing.

The 9.0 magnitude quake was the strongest in 40 years and the fourth- most-powerful since 1900, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The resulting convulsion in the vast Indian Ocean was felt as far away as East Africa, more than 3,000 miles from the epicenter, where fishermen were stranded and resorts were closed by the surging tides.

Walls of water as high as 30 feet littered the shorelines of southern Asian countries with death and debris. The toll was most devastating along the coasts of Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India, where hundreds of bodies washed back ashore and entire villages were demolished.

The initial quake struck the western end of Indonesia's Sumatra island at 6:58 a.m. local time, flattening buildings and sending a wall of water higher than the tops of coconut palms into the towns and villages in the province of Aceh, witnesses said. The epicenter was located 155 miles southeast of the provincial capital of Banda Aceh and 200 miles west of Medan, Sumatra.

Indonesian Health Ministry officials put the toll in Aceh and the neighboring province of North Sumatra at nearly 4,500 and predicted more victims would be discovered after rescue teams reached remote hamlets cut off by the disaster. In Indonesia, as elsewhere throughout the region, it was impossible to determine the exact toll, which will likely not be known for some time.

In Sri Lanka, about 1,000 miles west of the epicenter, a massive surf struck nearly the entire coast of the island nation. National police reported that at least 6,090 people were killed, many of them on the eastern shore near the port of Trincomalee, as well as in the south. About 170 children were feared lost in an orphanage, the Associated Press reported.

The death toll elsewhere was estimated at 3,000 in India, as many as 1,000 in Thailand, 48 in Malaysia, 10 in Burma, and 32 in the Maldives. In Somalia, on the eastern coast of Africa, at least nine people were reported killed by floodwaters, according to news services. At least two children were killed in Bangladesh.

At least three Americans were among the dead -- two in Sri Lanka and one in Thailand, according to Noel Clay, a State Department spokesman. He said a number of other Americans were injured, but he had no details.

In Aceh, the tsunami "destroyed buildings, homes, markets and streets in almost all coastal areas," said Mauludi, an Indonesian Red Cross worker north of the affected area. He recounted hearing what sounded like repeated explosions coming from the coast. When he left his home to investigate, he spotted a wave towering above the tree line about a mile inland. Military authorities said they expected to retrieve many more corpses from the trees, where they remained after the waters receded.

[More than 1 million people were left homeless in Indonesia, and rescuers on Monday combed seaside villages for survivors, the Associated Press reported.]

More than half the deaths in Indonesia were reported in Banda Aceh, where Tia Andarita, a telephone operator, said she watched from her third-floor office as two buildings collapsed and then seawater surged through the streets. "Many people were panicked and ran away to rescue themselves," she said.

Over the following hours, tsunamis triggered by the sudden, traumatic shift in the seafloor raced across the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal toward coastal communities.

In Sri Lanka, witnesses reported seeing the sea retreat as swiftly as it had struck, leaving corpses floating in the lingering floodwaters and the remains of homes, cars and fishing boats littering the beach. Roads, electricity and telephone lines were severed. Reports that more than 1,000 had died in the rebel-controlled northeast of Sri Lanka were impossible to confirm.

Thousands of people were unaccounted for in Sri Lanka. One million others, about 5 percent of the population, were displaced as many fled for higher ground, hauling their radios, televisions and other valuable possessions on bicycles and seeking refuge in schools and temples.

"I think this is the worst-ever natural disaster in Sri Lanka," N.D. Hettiarachchi, director of the National Disaster Management Center, told Reuters.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga declared a national disaster, deploying Sri Lanka's 20,000-member armed forces to help evacuate people from stricken areas, and appealed for international relief. Rescue efforts were proceeding slowly because police and military bases had been flooded.

"Our naval base in Trincomalee is under water, and right now we are trying to manage the situation there while rescuing people," Jayantha Perera, a spokesman for the Sri Lankan navy, told Reuters.

Officials said that the waves had dislodged land mines and unexploded ordnance left over from the country's two-decade civil war, posing hazards not only for rescue teams but villagers who remained in the area.

In India, a tsunami inundated a broad swath of the country's southeastern coast and flooded offshore islands. Hundreds of bodies washed up on the long, popular oceanfront near Madras, the capital of the state of Tamil Nadu, and officials said they expected more to come ashore in coming days. Officials reported that about 1,700 people had died in Tamil Nadu.

The Indian interior minister, Shivraj Patil, told local television that at least 200 others had died in the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh. But local residents said that at least 400 fishermen were missing, and 200 Hindu worshipers who had gone to the beach in the early morning hours to take a sacred dip were unaccounted for. About 100 fatalities were also reported in both Pondicherry and Kerala.

The official Press Trust of India news agency, quoting a local police commander, said another 1,000 people had perished on India's Andaman and Nicobar islands, located off the western tip of Sumatra. "The situation is very grim," said Inspector General S.B. Deol of the Indian police.

In Thailand, tsunamis also crashed into the country's west coast. Authorities said at least 392 bodies had been retrieved and that they expected the toll to approach 1,000. The dead included foreign tourists who had packed into the country's beach resorts for the Christmas and New Year holidays.

"Nothing like this has ever happened in our country before," Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said.

On the Thai island of Phuket, one of Southeast Asia's most popular destinations for backpackers and surfers, a 30-foot wave surged over the sand and into the crowded tourist strip, destroying hotels lining the seafront, tossing vehicles around like driftwood and sowing panic during one of the busiest times of the year.

"People were coming up the roads, running and screaming that the beach was disappearing," said Borge Carlsson, a Swede who owns a guesthouse about 200 yards back from the beach. "Cars were upside down, floating around. It's amazing to see anything like this."

At the southern tip of Phuket, on Nai Harn Beach, the waves dismantled a crowded strip of restaurants, tailor shops and motorbike rental outlets. At nearby hotels, amid shattered glass and broken concrete, a pickup truck was deposited in a swimming pool and a car came to rest in a lobby.

"There were thousands of people on the beach then," said Richard Motein, a Canadian who runs a dive shop on Phuket. "I looked up and saw a wall of water coming at me full of lawn chairs, boats, umbrellas. It just totally wasted the beach."

Moments later, many of the people who had been lying on the sand had vanished.

"We're looking at 500 to 1,000 dead, easy," he said, taking issue with the official fatality figures.

The Thai government ordered tourists to evacuate Phuket and other flooded beach resorts. Hundreds of Western and Asian visitors, as well as local residents, were evacuated by sea and air from other small islands off the coast, including 200 people plucked from the tiny island of Ko Phi Phi, featured in the Hollywood film "The Beach."

Helicopters surveyed the islands of the Andaman Sea for stranded divers and snorkelers while rescue workers pulled more than 100 people from the water, officials said.

Besides the deaths on Phuket, officials reported fatalities in Phang Nga, Ranong, Krabi, Satun and Trang.

In Malaysia, authorities also ordered the evacuation of communities along the country's northwest coast after 42 people were killed on the seafront in the states of Penang and Kedah. Several of the dead were jet skiers and picnickers swept out to sea, while many of the missing were fishermen who had set out in the morning and had yet to return by nightfall.

"Our country has never experienced such a disaster before," Malaysia's deputy prime minister, Najib Razak, told reporters. But he acknowledged, "Among the tsunami-hit nations, we are the least affected." He added that about 200 houses had been swept away by the flood.

In Indonesia, authorities said they had dispatched senior officials to Aceh to oversee rescue operations. That effort will be hampered by an ongoing war between government forces and separatist rebels.

The province has been largely off-limits to foreign aid organizations and journalists since the government launched a new military offensive last year. Sutedjo Yuwono, secretary to Indonesia's welfare minister, said international aid groups and journalists would now be allowed to enter Aceh but that access would be tightly regulated.

The small Indian Ocean nation of the Maldives, which consists of 1,200 coral islands resting barely a yard above sea level, declared a state of emergency and closed the international airport after two-thirds of the capital, Male, was inundated. In addition to the 32 dead, 51 people were missing, authorities said.

A Maldivian government spokesman told Reuters by cell phone that none of the dead were believed to be tourists, who are drawn to the Maldives by its idyllic palm-fringed islands and famed scuba diving.

Severe flooding also struck the Seychelles, a string of islands off the east coast of Africa. A six-foot ocean surge disrupted power to hundreds of homes and abnormally high tides repeatedly littered the airport runway with fish, forcing firefighters to hose down the airfield between flights.

Goodman reported from Bangkok. Staff writer Michael Dobbs in Waligama, Sri Lanka, correspondent John Lancaster in Cochin, India, and special correspondents Rama Lakshmi in Madras, India, and Noor Huda Ismail in Jakarta contributed to this report.

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It Seemed Like a Scene From the Bible

Dec. 26, 2004

By Michael Dobbs
The Washington Post

DATELINE: WELIGAMA, Sri Lanka -- Disaster struck with no warning out of a faultlessly clear blue sky.

I was taking my morning swim around the island that my brother Geoffrey, a businessman, had bought on a whim a decade ago and turned into a tropical paradise 200 yards from one of the world's most beautiful beaches.

I was a quarter way around the island when I heard my brother shouting at me, "Come back! Come back! There's something strange happening with the sea." He was swimming behind me, but closer to the shore.

I couldn't understand what the fuss was about. All seemed peaceful. There was barely a ripple in the sea. My brother's house rests on a rock 60 feet above the level of the sea.

Then I noticed that the water around me was rising, climbing up the rock walls of the island with astonishing speed. The vast circle of golden sand around Weligama Bay was disappearing rapidly, and the water had reached the level of the coastal road, fringed with palm trees.

As I swam to shore, my mind was momentarily befuddled by two conflicting impressions -- the idyllic blue sky and the rapidly rising waters.

In less than a minute, the water level had risen at least 15 feet, but the sea remained calm, with barely a wave in sight.

Within minutes, the beach and the area behind it had become an inland sea that rushed over the road and poured into the flimsy houses on the other side. The speed with which it all happened seemed like a scene from the Bible, a natural phenomenon unlike anything I had experienced.

As the waters rose at an incredible rate, I half expected to catch sight of Noah's Ark.

Instead of the ark, I grabbed a wooden catamaran that the local people used as a fishing boat. My brother jumped on the boat next to me. We bobbed up and down on the catamaran as the water rushed past us into the village beyond the road.

After a few minutes, the water stopped rising, and I felt it was safe to swim to the shore. What I did not realize was that the floodwaters would recede as quickly and dramatically as they had risen.

All of a sudden, I found myself being swept out to sea with startling speed. Although I am a fairly strong swimmer, I was unable to withstand the current. The fishing boats around me had been torn from their moorings, and were bobbing up and down furiously.

For the first time, I felt afraid, powerless to prevent myself from being washed out to sea.

I swam in the direction of a loose catamaran, grabbed the hull and pulled myself to safety. My weight must have slowed the boat down, and soon I was stranded on the sand.

As the water rushed out of the bay, I scrambled onto the main road. Screams were coming from the houses beyond the road, many of which were still half full of water that had trapped the inhabitants inside. Villagers were walking, stunned, along the road, unable to comprehend what had taken place.

I was worried about my wife, who was on the beach when I went for my swim. I eventually found her walking along the road, dazed but happy to be alive. She had been trying to wade back to our island when the water carried her across the road and into someone's back yard. At one point she was underwater, struggling for breath. She finally grabbed onto a rope and climbed into a tree, escaping the waters that raged beneath her.

Our children were still asleep when the tsunami struck at 9:15. They woke up to find the bay practically drained of water and their parents walking back across the narrow channel to safety.

The waves raged around the island for the rest of the day, alternately rising and receding.

It took us many hours to realize the scale of the disaster, because we could see only the tiny part in front of us. The road from Weligama to Galle was cut in many places. The coastal road was littered with carcasses of boats, dogs and even a few dead sharks. Helicopters flew overhead and loudspeaker vans warned residents to leave low-lying areas for fear of more tsunamis.

My brothers' little island, called Tapbrobane after the ancient name of Sri Lanka, was largely intact, although a piece of our gate ended up on the seashore half a mile away. The water rose about 20 feet toward the house.

We have no water and no electricity and are cut off from the rest of Sri Lanka. It is impossible to buy food. We are existing on cold ham and turkey sandwiches, leftovers from Christmas dinner.

The holiday that we planned and dreamed about for many months is in ruins. We feel fortunate -- fortunate to be alive.

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In India, Death Roars In From The Ocean

Dec. 26, 2004

By Rama Lakshmi and John Lancaster
The Washington Post

MADRAS, India -- On a balmy Sunday morning at Marina Beach, Brajita Poulose, 45, her husband, two sons and four other relatives strolled along the shore in the sunshine, enjoying the ocean breeze. Young men were playing cricket, joggers trotted past food vendors, fishermen hauled in their nets. Then, without warning, the placid ocean turned violent.

"I was holding my cousin's hand, my two sons were walking behind me, and suddenly . . . we saw a huge wave coming at us," said Poulose, who lay exhausted in a hospital bed, as her eldest son, Jiyo, sat weeping at her side. "We did not have enough warning."

The water quickly rose to Poulose's shoulders, she recalled, and a torrent caused by a tsunami in the Indian Ocean swept her inland, across the main road along Marina Beach, a broad ribbon of golden sand at the edge of this bustling commercial city in the state of Tamil Nadu.

Jiyo, 29, tried to keep his mother in sight, but the surging current pushed them apart. "In no time I was alone, and I couldn't see anyone," he said. "It was one continuous wave."

He caught up with her hours later at a government hospital. The bodies of his father and younger brother Sebastian were in a nearby morgue. The rest of the family was missing.

Indian authorities said Sunday night that more than 3,000 people had died in the tsunami, generated by a massive underwater earthquake early Sunday off the coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

The tsunami swept across the Indian Ocean along a 1,100-mile stretch of India's southeastern and southern coast, with a heavy toll in Tamil Nadu, on the Bay of Bengal. Among the dead were fishermen and other residents of coastal villages, as well as city-dwellers and visitors out for morning walks on the oceanfront of Madras, the capital of Tamil Nadu. Hundreds of fishermen and others were missing Sunday night.

Authorities in Tamil Nadu put the death toll in the state at 1,705. India's private NDTV television channel reported that 1,000 people had died in the remote Andaman and Nicobar Islands, an Indian territory between Sumatra and Burma.

In the state of Andhra Pradesh, more than 200 were killed, according to Indian Interior Minister Shivraj Patil, and local officials said 280 had died in Pondicherry, a former French colonial outpost on the southeastern coast. In the state of Kerala, a popular winter destination for foreign tourists on India's southern tip, more than 120 people were reported to have died. Seawater flooded villages more than a mile inland in the state, the Press Trust of India news agency reported.

Waves also caused devastation in Sri Lanka, surging across roads and railroad tracks and pouring through coastal villages, markets and beach resorts. Authorities said late Sunday that at least 6,090 people had died. Elsewhere, the dead included more than 4,000 people in Indonesia and more than 300 in Thailand, where more than 5,000 people were reported injured.

Indian television channels carried video footage of helicopters hoisting people to safety in Madras. They also showed turbid waters swirling around stranded buses, beaches strewn with wreckage and women wailing over the bodies of children laid out in makeshift morgues.

Dev Anand, 22, said he had been playing cricket with four friends at Marina Beach when the waves swept them inland. Three of his friends survived. But one, whom Anand called "Sheik," could not be found. "He was too thin," Anand recalled after making the rounds of hospitals and morgues with the three other friends to look for the missing man. "We kept yelling out to him to hold on to the lamppost, but he could not."

Ravichandran, a fisherman from Elliot's Beach in Madras, said he noticed something was amiss as he pulled his morning catch from his net. "I saw the waves climbing alarmingly," Ravichandran, 32, told the Reuters news agency. "I rushed back and pulled my wife and two children out of our home. Water had rushed into our hut by then."

Rajani Unni, also from Elliot's Beach, said the tremors felt like being on a train. "I turned around, and I saw that a small glass table with a flower vase was shaking," she said. "We saw people rushing away from fishermen's colonies lining the beach. Women were wailing and crying."

Ekambal Nayakar, 50, who lives with her 75-year-old mother in Pattinappakan, a shantytown on the seafront in Madras, said she waded and swam to safety while others rescued her mother. "The water entered the house this deep," Nayakar, 50, said, pointing to her neck. "Then I heard voices outside -- 'Sea water! Sea water!' -- and people were running helter-skelter toward the tallest building they could see."

Pazhani, a fisherman, told Reuters he was taking a bath when sea water entered his bathroom. "I got so scared that I ran out," he said.

His wife, Lakshmi, said she was having breakfast with her three children at the time. "We had to leave everything and run to safety," she said. "We don't know what has happened to our TV, radio, utensils."

Muthalakshmi, a fisherman's wife, told the news agency that her mother had gone to the oceanfront to buy fish and was swept away by the waves. "It took us an hour to recover her body," she said. "Thank God my husband had not gone to sea, as he was unwell."

Some small boats were swept far inland by the ocean surge, while others were washed out to sea. P. Pamanamurthy, a resident of Kakinada in Andhra Pradesh, said he saw fishermen holding on to overturned boats as the receding waters pulled them seaward. "I was shocked to see innumerable fishing boats flying on the shoulder of the waves, going back and forth into the sea, as if made of paper," he told the Associated Press.

In New Delhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh ordered senior cabinet ministers to stricken coastal areas to survey damage and directed army and naval units to help with search and rescue operations. Reports from isolated coastal villages indicated that the death toll was likely to rise, Indian officials said. They expressed particular concern about the fate of thousands of people in the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago.

"About 10 to 20 villages have been reportedly washed away, and it has become difficult to get information from there," Home Secretary Dhirendra Singh told reporters in New Delhi. "We're keeping our fingers crossed."

In Sri Lanka, President Chandrika Kumaratunga declared a national emergency, and the military scrambled to mount search-and-rescue operations, although troops were hampered by wave damage to naval installations, officials said.

The port in Colombo, the capital, was closed. Resort areas and villages south of Colombo were heavily damaged, as were isolated communities on the island's less developed eastern side, authorities said.

Sri Lanka, a teardrop-shaped island off the southern tip of India, is known for its lush tropical forests, tea plantations and idyllic, crescent-shaped beaches. It has experienced a tourist boom since government forces and rebels from the country's ethnic Tamil minority declared a cease-fire in 2002.

Coastal areas in the northeastern districts of Mutur and Trincomalee were smashed by waves as high as 18 feet, D. Rodrigo, a Mutur district official, told the AP. "The police station in Mutur is under water," Rodrigo said.

The Associated Press quoted one of its photographers, Gemunu Amarasinghe, as saying after a tour of the area south of Colombo: "I counted 24 bodies in a stretch of only six kilometers. . . . I saw bodies of children entangled in wire mesh. . . . There were rows and rows of women and men standing on the road and asking if anyone has seen their family members. . . . I also saw people bringing in bodies from the sea beaches and placing them on roads and covering them with sarongs."

Amarasinghe said he had been told that some people were killed when they ran out to retrieve stranded fish after the first waves hit, then were caught by a second onslaught.

Roland Buerk, a BBC correspondent vacationing in Sri Lanka, was in bed in his hotel room in Unawatuna, a resort town on the southwestern coast, when the waves struck. "We suddenly heard some shouts from outside," he wrote on the BBC News Web site. "Then the water started coming under the door. Within a few seconds it was touching the window."

He and a companion pushed through the rushing water to a tree and climbed into its branches, but it collapsed under the force of the current. "We were swept along for a few hundred meters, trying to dodge the motorcycles, refrigerators, cars and other debris that were coming with us. Finally, about 300 meters inshore, we managed to get hold of a pillar, which we held on to, and the waters just gradually began to subside."

Buerk described shattered buildings and cars in trees. He said he had counted four bodies, including two Sri Lankans -- an elderly woman and a young woman -- and a Western boy "who looked to be about five years old."

Another witness in Unawatuna, Swati Thiyagarajan, described the wave to an NDTV reporter: "It was literally like the sea stood up and walked to your door."

Lancaster reported from Cochin, India. Stories copyright 2004 The Washington Post. Reprinted with permission.

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