TOPICS > World

Quakes Strike South Pacific Leaving Scores Dead

September 30, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST

TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: Undersea earthquakes caused disaster in two oceans today. The death toll was at least 119 in American Samoa and its neighboring islands. A powerful quake hit nearby on Tuesday. It triggered a series of giant waves that blasted ashore within minutes.

And today, another deep-sea tremor hit western Indonesia. Casualties around the city of Padang were up to 100 dead and climbing.

Jonathan Miller of Independent Television News begins our lead story coverage.

JONATHAN MILLER: Padang, an urban tectonic disaster long waiting to happen, a city of nearly a million thrown into panic at 5:15 local time this afternoon.

And who can blame them? They’re just 400 miles down the Sumatran coast from the epicenter of the huge quake that triggered the Asian tsunami five years ago, killing 170,000 people in the province of Aceh.

This 7.6 magnitude earthquake, although 15 times smaller than the huge Aceh one, is still powerful, and it’s only two years since the last earthquakes here, which seismologists told us tonight should have served as a warning.

Initial pictures showed fires raging, emergency services unable to get to where they’re needed. Tonight, roads are cut, bridges are down, comms are down, and now it’s 1 a.m. and pitch black, with no power.

These pictures just in: people scrambling bare-handed in the rubble of collapsed buildings, grim-faced, a sense that we’ll only begin to get a more accurate picture come daylight. But Indonesia’s vice president told a late-night news conference that the numbers killed in Padang will likely rise.

One hospital reported collapsed, others working flat-out now. Many lie trapped in wrecked buildings, the vice-president said. A health ministry official said thousands were trapped under rubble.

It’s been a violent 24 hours on the Pacific ring of fire a series of tsunamis slamming into the Samoan islands after an early morning 8.0-magnitude quake 11 miles under the ocean and 125 miles south of Apia, the Samoan capital.

These pictures though, from Pago Pago, the capital of the island of American Samoa, 50 miles to the east.

JOEY CUMMINGS: The water started surging. At first, it was only three or four feet in our parking lot just out the window. But after the water stayed for several minutes, another fantastic surge that completely dwarfed the first surge came up, and the water rose to 15 feet.

At this point, trees, boats, cars, trucks were all floating past my second-story window. It completely wiped out everything that wasn’t made of brick. Homes, businesses, everything that was caught in the path of this surge in the Pago Pago harbor area was completely flattened.

JONATHAN MILLER: More than 100 dead in the Samoan islands, others reported killed on Tonga to the south, these aerial stills received this evening.

President Obama has declared a major disaster in American Samoa. The American Federal Emergency Management Agency says tens of thousands need help. Reports of flattened coastal villages and tourist resorts and bodies swept far out to sea.

The Pacific sea floor dropped at 17:48 GMT, 6:48 in the morning local time. The tremors lasted several minutes. It took the U.S. Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii 16 minutes to receive the seismic data, calculate the parameters, and issue an alert.

But by then, the sea was already being sucked out in the capital of American Samoa. And at 7:30, a four-meter-high wall of water crashed in, followed by another and another.

Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa, sits at the head of an inlet, which funneled and amplified the wave. The early warning system didn’t fail. It was just that the quake was so close to the islands and the waves traveled fast.

CHARLES MCCREERY: An event like this where the source is very close to the island, there’s often very little possibility to have some kind of an official warning. Our center did issue a warning about 15 minutes after the earthquake.

And while those countries and American Samoa and Samoa would have received that warning, to translate that and do an evacuation in the — maybe the 10 or 15 minutes they had left before the tsunami waves arrived would be extremely difficult.

JONATHAN MILLER: The Samoa tsunami and the Sumatra quake are unrelated incidents, but illustrate the tectonic instability of the Pacific Rim region, an area all too prone to tragedies of this nature.

Tonight, the very latest from the city of Padang: reports that 1,000 people may have died in a quake so strong that it shook office buildings in Singapore and the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, 300 miles away.