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Search for dead in Samoa could last weeks

As military aid from the U.S., New Zealand and Australia is brought in, survivors describe the horror and chaos of the post-earthquake tsunami.

October 02, 2009|Associated Press

APIA, SAMOA — Convoys of military vehicles brought food, water and medicine to the tsunami-stricken Samoa Islands on Thursday as victims wandered through what was left of their villages with tales of being trapped underwater, watching young children drown and hoisting elderly parents above the waves.

The death toll rose to 160 as grim-faced islanders gathered under a traditional meetinghouse to hear a Samoan government minister discuss a plan for a mass funeral and burial next week. Samoans traditionally bury their loved ones near their homes, but that could be impractical because many villages have been wiped out.

The dead from Tuesday's earthquake and tsunami include 120 in Samoa, 31 in American Samoa and nine in Tonga. Hundreds of police and others resumed what Samoan police commander Lilo Maiava called "a painstaking search" for bodies that could continue another three weeks.

Doctors and nurses were sent to devastated villages, and a refrigerated freight container was being used as a temporary morgue for the scores of bodies showing up at a Samoan hospital, officials said.

The United States, Australia and New Zealand sent in supplies and troops, including a U.S. Navy frigate carrying two helicopters that will be used in search-and-rescue efforts. The Hawaii Air National Guard and U.S. Air Force flew three cargo planes to American Samoa that carried 100 Navy and Army guard personnel and reservists.

New Zealanders Joseph Bursin and Nicky Fryar said they scrambled to reach high ground as the water surged toward their beachfront vacation resort in Samoa. Their sandals were slipping off as they sprinted up a rock-covered 45-degree hill and through a lagoon full of mud.

They remember the noise most -- the roar of the water, the clanging of metal roofing smashing against cars, the sound of buildings collapsing.

"We had about 15 or 20 seconds before the water came in underneath us," Bursin said. "There were people behind us who didn't make it and were taken by the water."

Al Palmer returned to his home in American Samoa and saw nothing but rubble after the magnitude 8.0 quake and the tsunami waves it generated. The water swept his wife out of their home and several hundred feet inland. She survived by grabbing hold of a pole and is now in the hospital being treated for injured fingers.

"It is unbelievable to think this was our home and this is all that's left," he said.

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