A massive tidal wave triggered by an earthquake in Indonesia slammed into several parts of southern India yesterday, killing at least 390 people, most of them in Tamil Nadu state, as thick walls of water swept away boats, homes and vehicles, officials said.
"There are at least 390 deaths in Tamil Nadu. There are requests from the Tamil Nadu government for helicopters to drop food," said Oil Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar, deputed by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to oversee rescue work.
He said he had asked oil company officials to meet him and give an assessment of the situation.
The beaches of Tamil Nadu turned into virtual open-air mortuaries as bodies of fishermen lost at sea were washed ashore and others killed inland were dumped on the sand by retreating waters. Streets of Cuddalore town were flooded with sea water, and dozens of cars were overturned and some were seen perched at awkward angles atop road dividers.
At least 150 bodies were recovered from Cuddalore and its outlying areas, the area's deputy superintendent of police K. Panniselvan said. Another 100 bodies were found on various beaches in Madras, the capital of Tamil Nadu, said R. Nataraj, the city police chief.
Besides, 46 people were killed in neighboring Andhra Pradesh's three districts, including 32 in Krishna district, police said. They said the 32 people, including 15 children, had gone into the sea for a Hindu religious bath to mark the full-moon day.
Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu states are on India's southeastern coast along the Bay of Bengal, which stretches further southeast toward Indonesia that was hit earlier yesterday by an earthquake with a magnitude of 8.9.
Two people were killed and 100 injured in Port Blair, the capital of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a remote sparsely populated area in the Bay of Bengal, about 1,500km east of Madras. The US Geological Survey reported that the Andaman and Nicobar Islands also was hit by an earthquake of 7.3 magnitude yesterday.
Residents in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu spoke of massive walls of water as high as 3.6m slamming into the shore.
"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 Kakinada town in Andhra Pradesh. He said he saw the macabre sight of nature's fury from a safe distance on the beach.
"Many boats were upturned but fishermen were still holding on to the boats. They also were pushed into the sea. it was shocking. I had never imagined anything like this could happen. I have never seen anything like this in my life," he said.
The tidal wave, known as tsunami, swelled in the Bay of Bengal and hit after the earthquake occurred in Indonesia, hundreds of kilometers away. Rising sea water flooded the huts of nearly 2,500 poor fishermen living in low lying areas of Madras, also known as Chennai. In Nellore district, a light house was felled by the waves.
Officials said the tsunami came so suddenly that it caught residents and the administration by surprise. The water receded quickly from the beaches but rose in others.
"This is the impact of the earthquake in Indonesia this morning. There were tidal waves in the sea and the entire coastal belt from Vishakhapatnam to Nellore [districts] has been affected," said Y. Rajashekhar Reddy, the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh.