(AP) – Police searched a ghastly landscape of mud-strewn streets, pulverized homes and bodies scattered in a swamp Wednesday as dazed survivors emerged from the muck and mire of an earthquake and tsunami that killed at least 120 in the South Pacific.
Military transports flew medical personnel, food, water and medicine to Samoa and American Samoa, both devastated by a tsunami triggered by an undersea earthquake. A cargo plane from New Zealand brought in a temporary morgue and a body identification team.
Officials expect the death toll to rise as more areas are searched. Among the hardest hit areas was the southeast coast of Samoa, with authorities reporting that several tourist resorts were wiped out.
Survivors fled to higher ground on the islands after the magnitude 8.0 quake struck at 6:48 a.m. local time (1:48 p.m. EDT; 1748 GMT) Tuesday. The residents then were engulfed by four tsunami waves 15 to 20 feet (4 to 6 meters) high that reached up to a mile (1.5 kilometers) inland.
The waves splintered houses and left cars and boats – many battered and upside down – scattered about the coastline. Debris as small as a spoon and as large as a piece of masonry weighing several tons were strewn in the mud.
Survivors told harrowing tales of encountering the deadly tsunami.
On Samoa, the two-hour drive from the Apia airport to the heavily damaged southeast coast initially showed no sign of damage before becoming little more than a link between one flattened village after another. Mattresses hung from trees, and utility poles were bent at awkward angles.
It was clear that tourists were among the casualties, but figures were impossible to get immediately with officials saying they had no solid head count on the number of visitors in the area.
Three of the key resorts on the coast are scenes of “total devastation” while a fourth “has a few units standing on higher ground,” Nynette Sass of Samoa’s National Disaster Management committee told New Zealand’s National Radio on Thursday.
Dr. Ben Makalavea from Apia’s main hospital told the broadcaster that some couples can’t find their children, and fear they may have been washed out to sea. “One woman we saw was so confused that she doesn’t even know where she comes from,” he said.
Makalavea added that the hospital needs nurses, doctors, surgeons and blood to treat the increasing numbers of casualties with broken bones and cuts.
Red Cross relief workers were providing food, clothes and water to thousands of homeless now camping in the wooded hills above the coast. Volunteer Futi Mauigoa said water was already in short supply.
Faletolu Senara Tiatia said nine family members including his sister had been confirmed dead and more than 20 others, including aunts and cousins, were missing from the Lalomanu village area – epicenter of the devastation on Samoa’s Upolu Island south coast.
“I’m very sad, it’s the worst nightmare of my life,” Tiatia told the Christchurch Press newspaper Thursday as he packed to fly to Samoa for the funerals.
Suavai Ioane was rattled by the violent earthquake that shook Voutosi, a village of 600 people. But he didn’t have much time to calm down. Ioane was carried by a wave about 80 yards (meters) inland. He knew he was lucky to be alive; eight bodies were found in a nearby swamp.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii said it issued an alert, but the waves got to the islands so quickly that residents only had about 10 minutes to respond. Another system designed to alert aid agencies suffered a hardware malfunction that delayed notification, but that did not affect island residents.
The quake was centered about 120 miles south of the islands of Samoa, which has about 220,000 people, and American Samoa, a U.S. territory of 65,000.
Samoa National Disaster Management committee member Filomina Nelson told New Zealand’s National Radio the number of dead in her country had reached 83 – mostly elderly and young children. At least 30 people were killed on American Samoa, Gov. Togiola Tulafono said.
Authorities in Tonga, southwest of the Samoas, confirmed at least seven dead and three missing, according to Tongan government spokesman Lopeti Senituli. He said the waves practically flattened two of the island’s three villages. The government dispatched a boat with supplies to the island to help its more than 1,000 residents.
A Coast Guard C-130 plane loaded with aid and carrying Federal Emergency Management Agency officials flew from Hawaii to American Samoa’s capital of Pago Pago, where debris had been cleared from runways so emergency planes could land. President Barack Obama declared a major disaster for American Samoa.
English said the temporary morgue and the body identification team were sent to Samoa after local officials expressed concern “about the growing death toll.” Australian officials say they will send an air force plane carrying 20 tons of humanitarian aid, as well as aid officials and medical personnel to Samoa.
While the earthquake and tsunami were big, they were not as large as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed more than 230,000 in a dozen countries across Asia.