The most powerful earthquake in 40 years triggered massive tidal waves that slammed into coastlines across Asia yesterday, killing more than 4,000 people in Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia.
Tourists, fishermen, hotels, homes and cars were swept away by walls of water unleashed by the 8.9 magnitude earthquake, centered off the west coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, where at least 408 people were killed by floods and collapsing buildings, officials said.
But the scope of the disaster became apparent only after waves as high as 6m crashed into coastal areas throughout the Indian Ocean and Andaman Sea.
In Sri Lanka -- some 1,600km west of the epicenter -- 1,677 had been killed, police spokesman Rienzie Perera said. One million more were affected by the surging wall of water, the government said.
Indian officials said as many as 1,130 had been killed along the southern coast. Another 168 were confirmed dead in Thailand, and 28 in Malaysia. Thousands of people were missing, many of them fishermen at sea, and rescue workers struggled against floodwaters to find and evacuate stranded victims.
The death toll climbed throughout the day and was expected to grow even higher as more bodies were discovered. Hundreds of bodies were found on various beaches along India's southern state of Tamil Nadu, and more were expected to be washed in by the sea, officials said.
"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, a resident of the neighboring Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.
"Many boats were upturned, but fishermen were still holding on to them," Ramanamurthy said. "They also were pushed into the sea. It was shocking."
The US Geological Survey's Web site recorded the magnitude 8.9 earthquake off the west coast of northern Sumatra, 1,620km northwest of Jakarta. It was centered 40km below the seabed. Aftershocks struck in the magnitude 7 range.
The earthquake was the world's fifth most powerful since 1900 and the strongest since a 9.2 temblor slammed Alaska in 1964, US earthquake experts said.
The force of it shook unusually far afield, causing buildings to sway hundreds of miles away, from Singapore to the city of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, and in Bangladesh, hours after the region's Christian communities had finished Christmas celebrations.
Initial damage centered on the Indonesian province of Aceh on northern Sumatra. Dozens of buildings were destroyed, but as elsewhere, much of the death toll appeared to come from onrushing floodwaters.
Towns nearest the epicenter were leveled by tidal waves, which killed at least 408 people and left bodies wedged in trees as the waters receded, Indonesian officials and witnesses said.
"I saw nine people killed by flooding, including four children," a witness who gave his name as Mustafa told el-Shinta radio station from Banda Aceh.
In Sri Lanka, the government called Sunday's events a national disaster and appealed for emergency relief.
Holidays turned to disaster in southern Thailand, which welcomes hundreds of thousands of tourists to its southern beaches during the Christmas season. At least 168 people died, 1,900 others were injured and many more -- reportedly including foreign tourists on diving excursions -- were missing, authorities said.