The main airport at Indonesia's tsunami-battered island of Sumatra was closed for much of the day yesterday after a relief plane hit a herd of cows, hampering the world's still-fragile efforts to get aid to victims of the disaster that devastated the region and left nearly 150,000 dead. Hospitals overflowed with injured and malnourished survivors.
In a startling tale of survival, an Indonesian man swept off the shore by last week's tsunami was found afloat on tree branches and debris, the second person to be found alive on the high seas days after the disaster, officials said yesterday.
World leaders were heading to southern Asia to get a first-hand glimpse of the damage and hammer out a plan to help the millions of victims, with US Secretary of State Colin Powell -- who was in Thailand yesterday -- pledging the US' full support. A donor conference is scheduled in Jakarta, Indonesia, for tomorrow.
Relief workers said they expect the death toll to soar by tens of thousands because surveys of the western coast of Sumatra, which was closest to the Dec. 26 quake, show it was hit much harder than previously thought. Scores of villages were flattened, and in some areas few survivors have been spotted.
But rushing aid to anyone still alive has proved a nightmare, with roads and sea jetties washed away. Planes were temporarily grounded yesterday by the closure of the small airport in Banda Aceh, the main city on the island's northern tip. The flying was left to helicopters, mainly based on US Navy vessels anchored offshore, to drop food parcels.
No one was hurt when a Boeing 737 relief cargo plane hit cows after it landed at the airport, but the closure of the runway highlighted the vulnerability of the relief effort as waves of aid began pouring into Sumatra, where an estimated 100,000 people died.
Workers dragged the cargo plane off the runway later in the day, allowing the resumption of aid flights. The airport had been swamped with round-the-clock traffic, with dozens of aircraft hauling in water, biscuits and medicine.
American pilots, meanwhile, were ferrying survivors to medical help in Banda Aceh, an operation that created yet another bottleneck: overcrowded hospitals.
About a dozen people were lying on stretchers yesterday on the sidewalk outside the Fakina Hospital. Inside, many rooms have no power, blood is splattered on walls and there are not enough stands for intravenous fluid bags being used to rehydrate survivors -- instead, they are dangling from cords strung across the ceiling.
Still, some patients said they were better off in the hospital than in their shattered villages.
"I thought this is the end, I'm going to die," said Away Ludin, a 60-year-old farmer who was airlifted out of a village on Sumatra and was at the hospital. "I was so shocked and surprised to see these white people coming into the village. I'm so glad they were there."
Despite the awesome power of the waves, some victims still managed to survive after more than a week with little or no food or shelter.
Tsunami survivor Rizal Sapura, 23, was plucked out of the ocean by a Malaysian cargo ship from the Indian Ocean on Monday evening, about 160km from the shores of Aceh province, said Adrian Arukiasamy, a spokesman for shipping company K-Line Maritime Malaysia.
The crew of a container vessel that was returning to Malaysia from South Africa had spotted him clinging to the branches of a floating tree, Arukiasamy said.