The death toll from the most powerful earthquake in four decades climbed steadily throughout Sunday as authorities counted bodies washed up on beaches and left hanging like ragdolls from trees. Foreign tourists were among the dead and the thousands of others who were reported missing. Tens of thousands fled the coasts for higher ground, fearing aftershocks and further flood surges.
Worst hit was Sri Lanka — an island nation some 1,000 miles west of the epicenter. The death toll stood at 4,500, according to police and Tamil Tiger rebels, and 1 million people were displaced. Sri Lanka's government declared a national disaster.
The 9.0-magnitude earthquake — the strongest since a 9.2 magnitude temblor in Alaska in 1964 and the fourth-largest in a century — struck just before 7 a.m. local time (about 8 p.m. EST) off the west coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, about 1,000 miles northwest of Jakarta, the capital, the U.S. Geological Survey said. It was 6 miles deep, and was followed by a half-dozen powerful aftershocks, ranging in magnitude from almost 6 and 7.3.
Traveling at nearly jetliner speeds, the first huge waves began pummeling southern Thailand an hour after the quake. In 2½ hours, the torrents had traveled some 1,000 miles and slammed India and Sri Lanka. They eventually struck the East Africa coast in Somalia, killing at least nine people.
Towns in Sumatra's Aceh province, the closest region to the earthquake's epicenter, were swamped by the waves. The health ministry said at least 4,185 people were killed, and hundreds more were missing in the area.
The quake occurred at a place where several huge geological plates push against each other with massive force. The survey said a 600-mile section along the boundary of the plates shifted, motion that triggered the sudden displacement of a huge volume of water.
The reverberations sent waves as high as 20 feet thundering into the coasts of six countries, sweeping away tourists, fishermen, hotels, homes and cars.
"Suddenly this huge wave came, rushing down the beach, destroying everything in its wake," said Simon Clark, 29, a photographer from London vacationing on Thailand's Ngai island. "People that were snorkeling were dragged along the coral and washed up on the beach, and people that were sunbathing got washed into the sea."
A government disaster center said 289 people, including a number of Western holiday-makers, were killed and more than 3,600 injured in southern Thai resorts.
"We initially thought it was a terrorist attack, then the wave came and we just kept running upstairs to get on as high ground as we could," Gerrard Donnelly, another British tourist, staying at a resort in Phuket, Thailand, told Sky News.
"We did indeed fear for our lives. We just ran," Andy Johnson, another tourist on vacation in Phuket, told Sky News. "Fortunately, we were able to grab our passports and literally run from the hotel."
In India, the waves swept away boats, homes and vehicles killing nearly 2,300 people in the southern states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Pondicherry, officials said.
Tamil Nadu's beaches resembled open-air mortuaries as fishermen's bodies washed ashore, and retreating waters left behind others killed inland. Sea water flooded the streets of Cuddalore town, flipping over dozens of cars and leaving some vehicles perched atop road dividers. At least 20,000 people were evacuated from the region, officials said. At least 300 people were killed on India's Andaman and Nicobar islands, and another 700 were missing and believed dead, Press Trust of India cited the region's police chief as saying.
"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," said P. Ramanamurthy, 40, an Andhra Pradesh resident.
"Many boats were upturned, but fishermen were still holding on to them," he said. "They also were pushed into the sea. It was shocking."
In Aceh's Lancuk village, and a reporter for The Associated Press saw several bodies wedged into trees, apparently left there by receding waters. At least 30,000 people were reported to have fled their homes in the region. At least 49 were killed on the island of Nias, to Sumatra's west and close to the epicenter of the quake.
In Malaysia, at least 42 people, including foreign tourists swimming or riding jetskis, were killed on the resort island of Penang, police and government officials said.
As President Bush arrived in Texas for a weeklong stay at his ranch, the White House announced that the U.S. stands ready to offer what it calls "all appropriate assistance" to the nations hardest hit by the earthquake and tsunamis, reports CBS News Correspondent Mark Knoller. In a written statement, a spokesman said relief is already flowing to Sri Lanka and the Maldives. The White House is pledging to work with the U.N. and others in response to the tragedy.
"Typically, in an international disaster, the American Red Cross provides three things: relief supplies, financial assistance, or personnel," Red Cross spokeswoman Jackie Flowers told CBS Radio News.
From the Vatican,led appeals for aid for victims.
"The Christmas holiday has been saddened by the news that comes from Southeast Asia about the powerful earthquake," the pontiff said during his customary Sunday address.
The 25-nation European Union promised to quickly deliver $4 million in emergency aid.
"For all the huge advances in the control of our lives through science and technology, an earthquake on this scale is truly humbling as well as profoundly tragic," said British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.
Holidays turned to disaster in southern Thailand, which welcomes hundreds of thousands of tourists to its southern beaches during the Christmas season.
The owner of two resorts on Phi Phi island said that 200 of his bungalows were swept out to sea, along with some of his employees and customers.