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Tsunami Toll Jumps to Over 125,000, Fear Lingers
Reuters
12/29/2004



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BANDA ACEH, Indonesia - Asia's tsunami death toll soared above 125,000 on Thursday as millions scrambled for food and clean water and rumors of new giant waves sent many fleeing inland in panic.

Aid agencies warned many more, from Indonesia to Sri Lanka, could die in epidemics if shattered communications and transport hampered what may prove history's biggest relief operation.

The death toll had shot up more than 50 percent in a day with still no clear picture of conditions in some remote villages as well as islands around India and Indonesia.

Rescue workers pressed on into isolated villages devastated by a disaster that could yet eclipse a cyclone that struck Bangladesh in 1991, killing 138,000 people.

People across the world opened their hearts and wallets to give millions of dollars to victims, jamming phone lines and web sites and outpacing their own governments in their generosity.

Britain's Disasters Emergency Committee said it had collected more than $39 million, less than a day after launching an appeal on behalf of 12 top British charities.

"It's quite a phenomenal response," a spokeswoman said.

Amazon.com collected $4.8 million in donations from online shoppers at its Web site.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi called for an emergency Group of Eight meeting so the rich nations could discuss aid and possible debt reduction after "the worst cataclysm of the modern era." But Britain, which takes over the G8 leadership on Jan. 1, said no meeting was planned.

While villagers and fishermen suffered devastation, losses among foreign tourists, essential to local economies, mounted.

Prime Minister Goran Persson, his government under fire over its tardy response, said more than 1,000 Swedes may have died. Some 5,000 tourists, mostly Europeans, are still missing four days after walls of water devastated beach resorts.

Indonesia's Health Ministry said just under 80,000 people had died in the northern Aceh province that was close to the undersea quake, some 28,000 more than previously announced.

HUNGRY CROWDS

The airport of the main city, Banda Aceh, was busy with aid flights, but residents said little was getting through to them. Hungry crowds jostling for aid biscuits besieged people delivering them in the city. Some drivers dared not stop.

"Some cars come by and throw food like that. The fastest get the food, the strong one wins. The elderly and the injured don't get anything. We feel like dogs," said Usman, 43.

Residents of the city fled their homes when two aftershocks revived fresh memories of the worst earthquake in 40 years.

"I was sleeping, but fled outside in panic. If I am going to die, I will die here. Just let it be," said Kaspian, 26.

Rumors, unfounded, of another tsunami swept to the seaboard of Sri Lanka and India, highlighting the continued tension across the stricken region four days after the quake.

The Indian government issued a precautionary alert for all areas hit by Sunday's killer wave.

Police sirens blared on beaches in Tamil Nadu, one of the worst hit states in a country that has lost 13,000, as thousands streamed inland on foot or crammed any vehicle they could find. "Waves are coming, waves are coming," some shouted.

This time, however, the waves did not come.

There were similar scenes in Sri Lanka, where more than 27,000 have been killed. Thousands fled inland from the coast.

"This isn't just a situation of giving out food and water. Entire towns and villages need to be rebuilt from the ground up," said Rod Volway of CARE Canada, whose emergency team was one of the first into Aceh.

The World Bank offered $250 million in relief, bringing total international aid to nearly $500 million. Representatives of 18 U.N. agencies consulted and Secretary-General Kofi Annan held a video conference with members of a four-country coalition announced by President Bush on Wednesday.

David Nabarro, head of a World Health Organization crisis team, said as many as 5 million people were now unable to obtain the minimum they needed to live.

Many villages and resorts from Thailand to Indonesia are now mud-covered rubble, blanketed with the stench of corpses after the 9.0 magnitude quake.

ROTTING BODIES

In Indonesia, thousands of bodies rotting in the tropical heat were tumbled into mass graves. Health officials said polluted water posed a much greater threat than corpses.

Authorities warned of many deaths from dysentery, cholera and typhoid fever caused by contaminated food and water, and malaria and dengue fever carried by mosquitoes.

Indonesian aircraft dropped food to isolated areas in Aceh on northern Sumatra, an island the size of Florida.

In Sri Lanka's worst-hit area Ampara, residents ran things themselves, going round with megaphones, asking people to donate pots and pans, buckets of fresh water and sarongs.

"Frustration will be growing in the days and the weeks ahead," said U.N. emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland.

The United States said a pledge of $35 million was just a start, and sent an aircraft carrier group toward Sumatra and other ships including a helicopter carrier to the Bay of Bengal.

A New York Times editorial, however, denounced the U.S. pledge as a "miserly drop in the bucket."

In the Thai resort turned graveyard of Khao Lak, the grim task of retrieving bodies was interrupted briefly when a tremor cleared the beach of people in a flash. In Thailand alone, at least 2,230 foreigners are known to have been killed.

Dutch, German and Swiss forensic teams flew to Thailand to help identify now hard-to-recognize bodies by collecting dental evidence, DNA samples, fingerprints, photographs and X-rays. Switzerland said 850 Swiss tourists were unaccounted for.

Preserving bodies was an urgent need and Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra promised to provide refrigerated containers.

For Australian mother-of-two Jillian Searle, who let go of her older son Lachie, 5, in a life-or-death decision as the wall of water struck, there was a happy ending.

Lachie was found alive about two hours later clinging to a door and, though traumatized by his ordeal, looked uninjured as his mother spoke to reporters on arrival back in Australia.

"I knew I had to let go of one of them and I just thought I'd better let go of the one that's the oldest," said Searle, who had then held on to two-year-old Blake in the Thai resort island of Phuket.

"And I was screaming, trying to find him, and we thought he was dead."

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