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Death Toll Mounts From Pacific Earthquakes

October 1, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: The death toll soared today in the twin disasters in Indonesia and the Samoan Islands. Officials in Indonesia reported at least 777 dead after Wednesday’s powerful earthquake there.

Rescuers on Sumatra hunted for the missing and injured. And the U.N. humanitarian chief said the count could reach 1,100 dead.

We begin our lead story coverage with a report from James Mates of Independent Television News.

JAMES MATES: Where 24 hours earlier there were high-rise apartments and offices, today there are mountains of rubble. Somewhere buried beneath this devastation there are still people who survived, trapped now and running out of time. It is a desperate fight to reach them while they can still be helped.

For many, though, there could be no help. Indonesian authorities are warning the number of dead could run into thousands.

What we’re seeing here is pretty typical of the city. The major buildings, the hotels, hospitals, schools, the big public buildings, they’re the one that’s collapsed and they’re the reason that the death toll appears to be so high.

As we arrived and drove through the city earlier this afternoon, most houses are unaffected. This, of course, is a heavy earthquake zone, and houses are built for it. But it seems the big public buildings were not.

Local television broadcast these pictures of the panic and confusion in the center of the port city of Padang immediately after yesterday’s earthquake. The air is full of dust. People appear to be trying to get away from the worst affected areas where buildings have collapsed.

Since then, Padang has experienced a night where fires started by the earthquake burned, as ordinary people led the operation to recover those lost underneath the many collapsed buildings.

Here is a young man. He is conscious, but he must wait for lifting equipment to remove the masonry that is trapping him.

Many of the injured are being treated in makeshift centers as Padang’s main hospital has been severely damaged by the earthquake. There have been moments to encourage the rescue teams. Here, a woman covered in dust is pulled alive from the rubble where she’d been entombed since the earthquake struck.

Standing in the remains of what was Padang’s best known hotel, Indonesia’s president, Yudhoyono, promised more life-saving equipment and medical teams would arrive soon.

But for many, it is already much too late. With aftershocks and a second lesser earthquake to contend with, this operation is being carried out in the most desperate circumstances. Survivors are finding it hard to understand just what has befallen their city and their families.

Rescue efforts in American Samoa

JIM LEHRER: More bodies were also found today on American Samoa and its neighboring islands. A tsunami struck there on Monday after an off-shore earthquake. At least 150 people in the islands were confirmed dead today as the search for survivors and victims went on.

We get that part of the story from John Ray of Independent Television News in Samoa.

JOHN RAY: The giant waves that swamped Samoa are giving up their ghastly secrets.

TSUNAMI SURVIVOR: My dad was found yesterday. It's just my mom today.

JOHN RAY: Body after body recovered from the sea were found amid mile after mile of tangled debris along the ruined shore. Helen Wright and Becky Glew survived where others perished.

Do you count yourself lucky to be alive?

BECKY GLEW, British tourist: Oh, my God, yes. So lucky.

HELEN WRIGHT, British tourist: Oh, it was seconds between life and death, absolutely.

BECKY GLEW: There were people who were in the same place as us, and they didn't make it.

JOHN RAY: They were staying here until two days ago, a popular beach resort. The same terrifying waves that destroyed it also claimed the 2-year-old son of a British couple, pulled from his father's arms by the churning water.

BECKY GLEW: The noise -- you could hear the wave coming, and the noise was just absolutely deafening. And you could hear the buildings crashing.

HELEN WRIGHT: I remember hearing it behind me. I remember feeling so scared and just running and running and climbing and climbing and climbing. And there was all these palm trees under me that just kept slipping.

And then I got up kind of as high as I could, and the water was by my ankles. And then somebody started screaming, "There's another wave coming," and so I climbed up higher. And, again, thank God I did, because when the second wave came, it swept away where I'd been standing.

JOHN RAY: There are piles of passports so far unclaimed by tourists and a temporary morgue to store the dead. As night fell, Samoans kept a watch over their property, but in truth, there was little left to guard.

Tonight, across these shattered islands, shock at the sheer power of the waves. And the scale of the destruction is giving way to grief. Much here can be rebuilt, but lost lives will never be replaced, and the mourning is still only beginning.