, APIA, Oct 1 – Rescuers reached scenes of stunning devastation after a killer tsunami obliterated Samoan island villages, killing at least 148 people and leaving scores more missing.
Distraught relatives picked through the rubble of homes and tourist resorts destroyed by Tuesday’s double disaster of an 8.0 magnitude earthquake followed by a tsunami that packed waves of up to 7.5 meters (25 feet).
The death toll is expected to rise dramatically after the Samoan islands’ worst quake in nearly a century unleashed walls of water that pounded the coast, echoing Asia’s catastrophic 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.
Survivors described seeing truckloads of bodies in Samoa, an idyllic Pacific holiday destination which counted 110 dead and expected the toll to rise further as bodies are recovered. Country profile: Samoa
"It’s not paradise any more — it’s hell on earth," one survivor told Australia’s Sky News.
Entire villages were laid to waste and the pristine white beaches that once wooed bathers are now strewn with the mangled wreckage of buildings and cars as well as luggage, furniture and poignant personal items.
"The last thing that I saw was how my house came down," said Meleisea Sa, a village chief in the decimated hamlet of Poutasi, where at least six people, including two old women and four children, died.
"We lost everything. I still hear the fierce sound of the waves and the sea coming up. It’s so sad," he told AFP as villagers searched for loved ones and personal possessions in the twisted ruins of their homes.
At least 31 were killed in neighbouring American Samoa and seven lost their lives when the tsunami hit Tonga, 1,000 kilometres (600 miles) away. Recent major quakes, tsunamis
"There is a search and rescue operation underway right now and we are trying to recover those who are unfortunately still under the rubble or in the sea," a Samoan disaster management official said.
Looters roamed the devastated streets of the American Samoan capital Pago Pago in search of food and other items after the tsunami battered swathes of the island, smashing homes and hurling cars into treetops.
Witnesses told AFP that about 90 percent of the shops in Pago Pago were damaged and looters were taking advantage with police busy helping the rescue efforts. Witness account: Pamela Stephenson
Raiders were targeting liquor and cigarettes and other items they could sell, but "were mainly taking food, frozen chickens and things like that," said local journalist Aufage Fausia.
Some 2,500 people were forced from their homes by the disaster and were being housed in relief shelters in the remote US outpost that President Barack Obama declared a major disaster zone. Related article: Looters roam streets
As aid planes arrived in Samoa from Australia and New Zealand, rescuers bringing food, clothing, medicine and fresh drinking water to survivors saw the full extent of the catastrophe.
"For Samoa this is just real devastation, I have never seen anything like this before," said Tony Hill, head of the joint-agency aid operation in the village of Lalomanu that was wiped off the map.
"Most of these people don’t have anything, so our main concern now is water and food," a Red Cross worker added.
Australian planes carrying search-and-rescue, medical experts and other items flew into the Samoan capital, Apia, to join the search for residents and tourists and help treat the waves of injured.
As emergency supplies arrived in the worst hit areas, villagers chanced across the body of a missing woman and her baby granddaughter dumped in a bush by the water’s terrifying force.
The devastated area is home to about 70 villages and was also a popular tourist hot spot. Four Australians, two Koreans, one New Zealander and a British toddler were among the dead.
Tonga reported significant damage on the small island of Niuatoputapu with at least seven dead and three missing. However, other countries saw only large waves at worst despite a brief, Pacific-wide tsunami warning.
Seismologists reported dozens of moderate aftershocks in the vicinity of the major quake, including a 5.2-magnitude quake that struck 24 hours after the first.