CBSN

Quake Death Toll Tops 20,000

A mother cries near the bodies of her children who were killed in tidal waves at the government hospital at Nagappattinam, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Dec. 27, 2004.
AP
Rescuers piled up bodies Monday along the tropical coasts of southern Asia a day after the biggest quake in four decades sent tidal waves crashing into nine countries. The death toll jumped to almost 21,000 people — more than half of them in Sri Lanka.

The tally was expected to rise further, with thousands still missing, officials said. Millions were left homeless, and officials feared the spread of waterborne diseases such as cholera. Many of the dead are children, who just could not cope with the fury of the sea.

Governments across the region say rescue and cleanup efforts are well underway, but they are challenged by the sheer enormity of what they face, reports CBS News Correspondent Barry Petersen. This disaster stretches across thousands of miles of coastline.

The 20-foot-high waves smashed into seaside towns and resorts, sweeping away boats, homes, fishermen and holidaymakers, including a grandson of Thailand's king. The torrents pulled a 6-month-old Australian baby from her father's arms in the Thai island resort of Phuket.

The death toll increased steadily as authorities sorted out the far-flung disaster caused by Sunday's 9.0-magnitude earthquake under the Indian Ocean near the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Offers of aid poured in from around the globe, as troops in the region struggled to deliver urgently needed aid to afflicted areas.

Officials in Indonesia and Thailand conceded that public warnings that could have saved lives in places further from the quake site were never issued or were too little, too late.

But governments insisted they couldn't know the true danger because there's no international system in place to track tidal waves in the Indian Ocean and they can't afford the sophisticated equipment to build one.

The waves sped away from the epicenter at over 500 mph before crashing into the region's shorelines, sweeping people out to sea.

In Sri Lanka, the death toll reached 12,029, according to military officials and Web sites reporting from Tamil areas.

Indonesia and India also each reported thousands dead, and Thailand said hundreds were dead there. Deaths also were reported in Malaysia, Maldives, Myanmar, Bangladesh and even in Somalia, 3,000 miles away in Africa.

Sri Lanka and Indonesia had at least a million people each driven from their homes.

Dozens of bodies still clad in swimming trunks lined beaches in Thailand. Villagers in Indonesia picked through destroyed homes amid the smell of rotting corpses, lacking any dry ground to inter the dead.

"What shall I do? I don't know where to bury my wife and children," said Rajali, 55, of Indonesia's Aceh province. He goes by a single name.

In India's Cuddalore village, the bodies of more than 150 children killed were buried in a mass grave — their weeping and red-eyed parents looking on as a bulldozer filled the hole with sodden earth.

About 200 people were evacuated from devastated Phi Phi island, one of Thailand's most popular destinations for Westerners. Jimmy Gorman, 30, of Manchester, England, said he saw 15 bodies on the island, including up to five children and a pregnant woman.

"Disaster. Flattened everything," Gorman said. "There's nothing left of it."

The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake was the strongest since a 9.2 magnitude temblor in Alaska in 1964, and the fourth-largest in a century.

An international network warns of the potentially killer waves among Pacific rim nations in North America, Asia and South America — but no such system exists for the Indian Ocean.

The Health Ministry said at least 4,991 people were killed in Indonesia, and at least a million left homeless. Vice President Jusuf Kalla said the death toll could rise to 10,000.

In India, the waves swept away boats, homes and vehicles, killing at least 2,958 people, officials said.

In Thailand, where tourist season is at its peak as Europeans escape frigid winters, the government said more than 860 were killed and 7,306 injured.

Hundreds of people died and entire villages and towns disappeared when tidal waves hit Somalia's coastline along its central and northeastern regions, a Somali presidential spokesman said.

Witnesses in Thailand described seeing waters disappearing away from the beaches in the minutes before the waves struck. Scientists say the effect is caused by tidal waves sucking shallow coastal waters out to sea before returning them as a massive wall of water.

"The water went back, back, back, so far away, and everyone wondered what it was. Then we saw the wave come, and we ran," said Katri Seppanen, who was Phuket Island's Patong beach with her family when the wave washed over their heads and separated them. They found each other two hours later.

Six-month-old Melina Heppell of Western Australia state was swept from her father's arms on the same beach, a relative told Australia's Channel Nine news.

Thailand reported at least 50 foreigners among its dead, and Sri Lanka reported 40.

Italy said 11 of it citizens were killed, the United States reported three, Australia and Denmark each reported two and New Zealand one.

Also among the missing, injured or dead were nationals of South Korea, Germany, South Africa, Hong Kong, Britain, Malaysia, Mexico, Russia, Sweden, Chile, Thai media reported.

In Malaysia, at least 48 people, including foreign tourists, were killed on Penang island, officials said. A dozen were reported killed in Myanmar, and two in Bangladesh.

President Bush expressed his condolences over the "terrible loss of life and suffering," reports CBS News Correspondent Mark Knoller. In a written statement, a spokesman said relief is already flowing to Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

From the Vatican, Pope John Paul II led appeals for aid for victims, and the 25-nation European Union promised to quickly deliver $4 million.

Japan, China and Russia among the countries sending teams of experts to the region.

Jasmine Whitbread, international director of the aid group Oxfam, warned that without swift action, more people could die. "The flood waters will have contaminated drinking water and food will be scarce," she said.