APIA, Sept 30 – Witnesses told of scenes of panic and confusion Tuesday after a major earthquake hurled giant waves at the islands of Samoa, smashing buildings, throwing cars and hurling boats ashore.
Young men banged gas canisters like "church bells" to bring thousands of frightened people streaming to higher ground as the disaster unfolded in coastal towns below.
Foreign tourists and residents of the sleepy Pacific archipelago were awoken by the 8.0-magnitude earthquake before fleeing a devastating tsunami which sucked cars out to sea and lapped buildings’ second floors.
"We jumped up and joined the queue of traffic. There were police cars going up the road just telling residents to go up to higher ground in a very orderly fashion," Tourism American Samoa official David Vaeafe told Sky News from the US territory 100 kilometres (63 miles) from Samoa.
"In the mountains young men were banging gas cylinders as church bells, like they were calling people to church. This went on throughout most of the morning."
Behind them, American Samoa’s capital Pago Pago was swamped, its large fish-canning factory pummelled by the waves, the airport road severed and power cut in large parts of the US territory.
"Workers at the cannery said they had a three-minute warning and the water came up. Villagers cleaning it said the cannery and the town was devastated," Vaeafe said.
"Some say a surge, some say a wave came up. Some fishing boats made it out to sea but some of the boats were also washed upshore on the reef. People are still in shock at these events."
As roads on Samoa jammed with traffic, one foreign tourist described fleeing a beachside chalet as popular hotels and resorts bore the brunt of the disaster. Reports said entire villages were washed away.
"Huge waves came up we ran to our van," the New Zealand woman told Sky. "We were trying to open the door and the waves were coming … I opened the door and the wave hit us."
Another tourist said: "Cars were just banging around and getting crushed. It was just a sea of devastation."
Ken Mariner, who lives near the Samoan capital Apia, said about 1,500 people gathered at an evacuation point not far from his home after the earthquake struck.
"It was quite bad. We were standing downstairs in the house, we could hear (picture) frames and things fall off the walls in the house," Mariner told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
"We’ve got two big trees, they were shaking like somebody was shaking a little plant. It was quite scary."
Another woman told how she was speaking to a relative in the islands by telephone as the tsunami approached.
"He said, ‘There’s a tsunami coming, I can see it.’ I just heard a whole bunch of shouts and children screaming, then the line disconnected," Lisa Winterstein told Sky.
Officials said at least 36 people had been killed with two Koreans and an Australian among the dead and scores more reported missing in both American Samoa, a US territory, and Samoa.
"We’ve got reports from the southeastern side of the main island, where houses have been completely flattened, vehicles have been swept out to sea, boulders that have fallen of the mountain along the coastal areas," said Olga Keil, a journalist working in Samoa.