CBSN

Heartache In New Guinea

At least 1,200 people were killed and thousands were still missing Tuesday, four days after deadly tidal waves washed over Papua New Guinea's northwestern coast, National Nine News Reporter Hugh Rimington for CBS News reports. Prime Minister Bill Skate said 6,000 were still missing in the piles of debris, all that remained of villages of huts.

The tsunami roared in without warning over an 18-mile stretch of the coast Friday. The waves were triggered by a magnitude-7 undersea earthquake. After smashing against the coast, the waters flooded inland more than a mile toward the foothills of the mountains.

About 500 bodies were sighted in the lagoon, and emergency workers are burying the dead as quickly as possible for fear that the rotting corpses will spread disease.

So far, 2,527 people have been found alive, Skate said. The 6,000 missing represent two-thirds of the stricken seacoast villages.

Most of the confirmed dead and the many missing are children, victims of furious waters that nearly wiped out the next generation of local residents in the seconds it took to toss people into trees, hurl them into a lagoon, or suck them back into the ocean.

"I would think 95 percent of the children are dead," a provincial governor said.

"The children may be hiding somewhere; we hope so. But the fear is that they have drowned," said the Rev. Austen Crapp.

Most children were home on vacation when the waves struck, rather than in religious mission schools farther inland where they might have been safe. So many children died that some schools were not expected to reopen.

Meanwhile, dazed survivors continued to hobble out of inland jungles and mangrove swamps. Many had serious wounds and injuries that had become infected after days in the tropical heat.

"They are walking out of the bush with broken arms, broken legs, head injuries," said Lt. Brad Slater, and Australian army officer in charge of logistics at an emergency field hospital set up here.

The first of three Royal Australian Air Force aircraft arrived at Vanimo on Monday with emergency supplies, including the field hospital and 100 doctors, nurses and engineers.

Doctors worked around the clock performing surgeries. The hospitals overflowed, and many patients were without beds.

The medics set up a tent hospital on a sports field and cared for victims sent by three overcrowded hospitals. Many survivors underwent amputations because bacteria-filled coral sand had infected wounds, causing gangrene, said Lt. Col. John Crozer, a surgeon.

New Zealand has sent two medical teams on two aircraft, and the Japanese government announced Tuesday it would dispatch an 11-member emergency medical team to help.

The remoteness of the region hampered emergency officials from Australia, Papua New Guinea, and New Zealand, who were coordinating a rescue operation.

In Washington, State Department spokesman James P. Rubin sid Secretary of State Madeleine Albright would stop in Papua New Guinea next week before a trip to Australia. American Ambassador Arma Jane Karaer has offered dlrs 25,000 in U.S. assistance, Rubin said.

Papua New Guinea, with a population of 4 million, occupies the eastern half of the island of New Guinea about 90 miles north of Australia. Some of its people live a near-Stone Age existence in the jungles and swamps.