Wed, Dec 29, 2004 - Page 1 News List

Tsunami death toll climbs to 44,000

UNPRECEDENTED DISASTER Eleven nations in the arc of destruction reaching as far as Africa are counting their dead, and disease is threatening to increase the suffering


Mourners in Sri Lanka buried their dead with bare hands yesterday as rescuers rushed to check isolated pockets of Indonesia for survivors of explosive tidal waves that the UN said may be history's costliest natural disaster. About 44,000 people were dead, and officials expected the toll to rise further.

Eleven nations in the densely populated band of destruction spanning as far as Africa tallied corpses as they filled tropical beaches and choked hospital morgues. The International Red Cross feared malaria and cholera would add to the toll as aid agencies mounted what UN officials said would be the world's biggest relief effort.

"This is unprecedented," said Yvette Stevens, an emergency relief coordinator of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Desperate foreigners sought kin missing from holidays in Southeast Asia, where news of an unclaimed, blond two-year-old boy brought dozens of hopeful parents to a hospital in Thailand's resort island of Phuket. They all left disappointed -- except for his Swedish uncle.

A man who identified himself only as Jim, said he found his nephew, Hannes Bergstroem, by looking on the Internet. "This is a miracle, the biggest thing that could happen," he said.

Almost a third of the dead were children. Thousands of people were missing, and millions homeless.

More than 18,700 people died in Sri Lanka, about 15,000 in Indonesia, more than 4,000 in India and more than 1,500 in Thailand, with numbers expected to rise. The Indonesian vice president's estimate that his country's coastlines held up to 25,000 victims brought the potential toll up to 50,000.

Islands way off India's east coast suffered aftershocks of Sunday's undersea 9.0-magnitude quake in the Indian Ocean that shot concussions of water onto tropical coasts from Indonesia to Somalia.

In Sri Lanka's severely hit town of Galle, officials mounted a loudspeaker on a fire engine to advise residents to lay bodies of the dead on roads for collection and burial. Elsewhere in Sri Lanka, residents took on burial efforts with forks or even bare hands to scrape a final resting place for victims.

Rescue workers battled to reach isolated coasts on the Indonesian island of Sumatra nearest the epicenter of Sunday's monstrous quake -- the world's biggest in 40 years. Soldiers and volunteers combed seaside districts and dug into the rubble of destroyed houses to seek survivors and retrieve the dead.

"We are working 24 hours to get people out," said Red Cross worker Tamin Faisil in Banda Aceh on Sumatra.

In Thailand's once-thriving re-sorts, volunteers dragged scores of corpses -- including many foreign tourists -- from beaches, inland pools and the debris of once-ritzy hotels. Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra warned that his country's toll could double.

The stench of death hung in the air for a 30km stretch of beach in Thailand's southern province of Phang Na, just above Phuket. Near the devastated Similan Beach and Spa Resort, where mostly German tourists were staying, a naked corpse hung suspended from a tree as if crucified.

Amid the devastation, however, were some miraculous stories of survival.

In Malaysia, a 20-day-old baby was found alive on a floating mattress. She and her family were later reunited. The 2-year-old boy in Phuket was recovering after he was found sitting alone on a road. Reports said his mother was missing, but that his father had been located at a different hospital.

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