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World - Asia/Pacific

Death toll could top 3,000 in Papua New Guinea

Injured child
Injured child calls for his mother in the village of Sissano   

Thousands reported missing after Friday tsunami

July 20, 1998
Web posted at: 1:56 a.m. EDT (0556 GMT)

SISSANO, Papua New Guinea (CNN) -- Rescue crews intensified their search for possible survivors Monday in this Pacific nation after a massive tidal wave destroyed entire villages. But what rescuers mainly found were bloated bodies, and officials said the death toll could top 3,000.

The tidal wave struck west of Aitape in West Sepik province, hitting villages about 370 miles northwest of Port Moresby.

John Tekwi, governor of West Sepik province, was quoted by Australian Broadcasting Corp. as saying the 3,000 figure was a "conservative" estimate. Catholic priest Augustine Kulmana -- based in Aitape, one of the heavily hit regions -- told Reuters that the death toll "could be as high as 3,000."

CNN's John Raedler reports from Papua, New Guinea
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Thousands of people have been reported missing, and a regional state of emergency has been declared. Many of the dead were children too small to run away and too weak to find safety atop coconut trees before the waves engulfed them, Kulmana said.

As the extent of the damage became more clear Monday, the scenes were harrowing. Hundreds of bodies were floating in the sea or nearby lagoons, trapped in mangrove swamps or swept inland by the massive wave.

Fisherman Jerry Apuan said that he couldn't even count the number of bodies floating near one of the devastated villages.

Image gallery:
More tidal wave damage

Survivor: Only coconut trees stand where villages flourished

"There were so many bodies together I had to move the boat slowly to pass through them," he said. "I was afraid. It was the first time I had seen so many bodies."

The village of Arop was built on a sand spit and had a population of about 2,000 people. It no longer exists. Reporters who flew over the scene said there were no survivors to be seen.

A tidal wave, or tsunami, can be caused by an undersea earthquake or landslide, or a volcanic eruption. The phenomenon is most common in the Pacific Ocean. Tidal waves start as an insignificant ripple on the ocean's surface capable of passing under a ship unnoticed, but they become giants as they approach land, destroying everything in their path. They can travel across the ocean at speeds of up to 620 mph (1,000 km/h). "A tsunami is not a single wave, but a series of waves. As the tsunami enters the shoaling waters of coastlines in its path, the velocity of its waves diminishes and wave height increases," according to Hawaii's Tsunami Warning System.

The latest official estimate from Australian defense sources put the death toll in excess of 1,000 people, mostly children and older people. The figure is expected to rise as rescuers gain better access to submerged villages. With many of the bodies quickly detoriorating due to intense tropical heat, bereaved families already have buried at least 725 victims.

A wall of water 23 feet (7 meters) high hit an area of about 10,000 people Friday night without warning, following a 7.0 magnitude earthquake about 18 miles (30 km) off the coast in the Pacific Ocean.

Premier appeals for international aid

Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Bill Skate appealed for urgent medical help for injured victims of Friday's deluge. He said one area of coast, where four or five villages once stood, was obliterated.

Australian Air Force
Royal Australian Air Force personnel load a C-130 with supplies for the stricken areas in Papua New Guinea   

"It's been totally destroyed, and the population around that area is around 8,000 to 10,000 ... but we just don't known where most of the people are," he said.

He called for immediate international aid: "Medical equipment, your expertise -- professional experts like surgeons to come down, because a lot of people have broken skulls, broken legs, all the flesh has come out, and it's a very sore sight. We have doctors here, but I think we don't have the full capacity (to treat victims)."

Skate said he would personally help search for survivors who may have fled into the dense bush inland in a frantic rush to escape the waves. He added that he believes the death toll will rise to "2,000 or more."

Area disaster coordinator Dickson Dalle said all schools in the region would be closed. "Schools in Arop, Sissano and Warapu will be closed because we do not have the children -- they're all dead," he said.

The first of three Royal Australian Air Force C-130 transports arrived at Vanimo at first light Monday with emergency supplies including a field hospital and a team of doctors, nurses and engineers. New Zealand said it would be flying medical teams to the region on Monday or Tuesday.

Injured victims
Tidal wave victims await a rescue helicopter   

Vanimo is about 60 miles (96 kilometers) west of the area wiped out by the tsunami, or tidal wave. It is the main administrative center and is close to the border of the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya. The base was being set up there because floodwaters have prevented rescue helicopters from landing along the devastated coast.

On Monday, many survivors were in shock. Health officials said most of the injured suffered multiple fractures or gashes when they were thrown against trees and debris. A CNN reporter in the area said survivors "looked as if they'd been to hell and back."

Papua New Guinea, with a population of 4 million, occupies the eastern half of the island of New Guinea. It has a mountainous, jungle-filled interior that has only been explored in the past 20 to 30 years, along with lush tropical beaches on the coastal plains. The capital, Port Moresby, is about 375 miles east of Australia.

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