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CATASTROPHE IN SOUTHERN ASIA | CHRONICLE OF A DISASTER

A Tremor, Then a Sigh of Relief, Before the Cataclysm Rushed In

After southern Asia's massive quake, experts initially were blind to the threat of a tsunami. Others were unable or unwilling to act.

January 02, 2005|Paul Watson, Barbara Demick and Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writers

MADRAS, India — At a dawn Mass the day after Christmas, as Father Maria Devanesan lifted the host above his head in reverence, the large white wafer began to tremble.

It was 6:30 a.m. in southern India. A tremor had traveled more than 1,000 miles, speeding through the Earth's crust from the seabed off Indonesia to the seashore of India. Now it rattled the pews of St. Thomas Cathedral.

The members of the 500-strong congregation, many of them poor Tamil fishermen and their families who live in shanties at the nearby beach, rose from their knees in fear and ran from the 108-year-old church.

Father Maria hurried down the stone steps from the altar, following his parishioners, who were too afraid to receive Communion. Outside, people rousted from sleep ran from their homes in panic.

When the shaking subsided, the priest persuaded a small group to follow him into the cathedral to pray at the statue of Our Lady of Mylapore, an icon of a woman adorned in gold leaf, joyously anticipating the birth of Christ.

The congregants cried and prayed, thankful that there had been no serious damage from the quake and that the crisis had passed.

In fact, it was just beginning.

The tremor that rattled St. Thomas was merely a knock on the door, a harbinger of a catastrophe that would claim the lives of up to 150,000 people in 11 nations.

Miles beneath the waters of the Indian Ocean, a massive piece of the Earth's crust had heaved, buckled and shifted. Along a fracture zone hundreds of miles long, it moved, releasing pent-up energy equivalent to the power of more than 1,000 atomic bombs. The waters above reared up and crashed down, creating a wave that was now racing across the ocean at 500 mph.

Neither prayers nor science would save those standing in its way.

The records of history and evidence encoded in coral reefs show that tsunamis have hit the Indian Ocean seldom but with great force. At obscure scientific conferences and expert conclaves over the last decade, researchers had urged government officials to establish warning systems. But among the many problems that plague southern Asia -- poverty, disease, civil wars -- rare but deadly waves seemed a low priority. They were, until the magnitude 9 quake hit.

The cataclysm unfolded over two hours. In that time, some experts around the globe would see the temblor's signature on some of the modern world's most sophisticated monitoring equipment but be blind to the larger threat. Some officials would see the threat, but be ill-equipped to act. Others would take no action for fear of being wrong or out of line. In at least one case -- in India -- air force officials received a desperate mayday, possibly in time to save thousands of lives, but never made it public.

The wave would outrun them all.

*

An Alert in Hawaii

As Father Maria prayed with his congregants, Stuart Weinstein, a 43-year-old former New Yorker now living in Hawaii, was taking advantage of the quiet of a rainy Christmas afternoon to work on a research project.

Inside the computer room of the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center -- a high-tech lair of flat-screen monitors, maps and digital wall displays -- a computer caught his attention. The jagged lines relayed a signal from a seismic sensor thousands of miles away in the Cocos Islands, southwest of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, conveying the news of a large earthquake off that island's west coast.

The computer automatically sent a pager signal to one of Weinstein's colleagues, Andrew Hirshorn, who had been napping at his home nearby. Hirshorn, a soft-spoken 48-year-old with a gray ponytail, threw on a shirt and ran over.

The two men conferred. Initial readings indicated the earthquake was magnitude 8 -- significant, but not enormous. It was outside the Pacific Ocean, their area of expertise and responsibility.

The center, a U.S. government agency that does much of the work for the U.N.-sanctioned Pacific tsunami warning system, was set up in 1965 in response to a quake off the coast of Chile that had generated a tsunami, killing people as far away as Hawaii and Japan. The center monitors sophisticated tidal gauges and computerized buoys dotting the Pacific. Nothing comparable tracks the Indian Ocean.

Computers ate up 15 minutes verifying the earthquake reading, plotting its location, estimating its size. At 3:14 p.m. Hawaii time, the two men sent a bulletin on an automated e-mail and fax list to their colleagues around the Pacific Rim:

TSUNAMI BULLETIN NUMBER 001

PACIFIC TSUNAMI WARNING CENTER/NOAA/NWS

ISSUED AT 0114Z 26 DEC 2004

THIS BULLETIN IS FOR ALL AREAS OF THE PACIFIC BASIN EXCEPT ALASKA-BRITISH COLUMBIA-WASHINGTON-

OREGON-CALIFORNIA.

THIS MESSAGE IS FOR INFORMATION ONLY. THERE IS NO TSUNAMI WARNING OR WATCH IN EFFECT.

AN EARTHQUAKE HAS OCCURRED WITH THESE PRELIMINARY PARAMETERS.

ORIGIN TIME -- 0059Z 26 DEC 2004.

COORDINATES -- 3.4 NORTH 95.7 EAST

LOCATION -- OFF THE COAST OF NORTHERN SUMATRA

MAGNITUDE -- 8.0

EVALUATION:

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