Indonesia's nightmare continued Thursday with a death toll surpassing 45,000 along coastlines flattened by massive destruction as panic stirred lawlessness and vital aid failed to reach the sick and hungry.
Five days after an earthquake of terrifying proportions sent towers of water crashing onto Sumatra island, rescuers reaching isolated coastlines found few survivors among floating graveyards of swollen corpses and pulverized homes.
With aid struggling to reach some areas despite generous pledges of help, desperation sparked unprecedented crime waves in the deeply Islamic region as looters ran amok unchecked by military and police tied up in the relief effort.
"There's a lot of looting of electronic goods, fowl and livestock, even motorcycles," a reporter for Elshinta radio said. "Some of the people are forced to take justice into their own hands," he said.
Further powerful aftershocks continued to rattle Aceh on Wednesday and Thursday causing further alarm, but Indonesia's Meteorology and Geophysics Office said they were not large enough to cause another tsunami.
On Aceh's northwest coast, which was cut off for several days after Sunday's disaster, the true scale of the destruction was becoming apparent in a blasted landscape of levelled buildings tangled with piles of naked and grotesque dead.
Less than three quarters of the remote west coast town of Meulaboh, believed to be in the worst-hit area just 150km from the epicenter of the magnitude 9.0 earthquake, was still standing.
Captain Bachtiar, a member of the military command in the town, said Meulaboh had been struck by seven successive tsunami onslaughts, which nearly claimed his life as his leg became trapped.
"I had already accepted my fate. My entire body was aching and I felt there was no longer any hope. But suddenly... my leg miraculously managed to loosen itself," he said. A successive wave threw him safely into a tree top.
Indonesian military deputy spokesman Colonel Ahmad Yani Basuki said military personnel had arrived in Meulaboh where hungry survivors have been scrabbling in the mud for coconuts and rice.
Basuki said aid to the town, 2,000km northwest of Jakarta, would have to be dropped by parachute because of inaccessability.. In the provincial capital Banda Aceh, the disposal of the huge numbers of dead continued even as hundreds of determined relatives hunted for their loved ones against the odds.
"I flew here from Jakarta last night to search for my family members," said Cut Zaini, wearing a facemask to protect him from the stink of rotting flesh.
Soldiers were being deployed throughout Banda Aceh yesterday to remove bodies still clogging the city's streets and rivers, with experts warning the decaying human remains could cause widespread sickness.
"Bodies decaying will provoke disease like cholera, diarrhea and typhoid if we don't act rapidly. The fact that we're dealing with salt water is another source of worry of course because you cannot drink it," said William Carre of French group Pompiers Sans Frontieres.
Carre said his organization was struggling to bring water cleansing equipment to Aceh, where despite the arrival of tonnes of foreign aid, much is failing to reach those who need it, including an estimated 100,000 homeless.