The earthquake, which generated wave swells that reached as far away as Africa, hit at 6:58 a.m. local time. It measured 9.0 on the Richter scale, the largest since 1964 and the fifth largest since 1900, according to the National Earthquake Information Center at the United States Geological Survey.
Most of the deaths were caused by ocean swells, some as high as 30 feet, in Sri Lanka, India and Indonesia. Thailand and Malaysia and Myanmar were also affected. Waves traveled 3,000 miles to the African coast of Somalia, killing nine people.
By Monday, the death toll had topped 20,000. Officials in Sri Lanka said that more than 6,000 people were killed and Indian officials said more than 2,500 died, according to the Reuters news agency. Indonesian officials said that more than 4,500 were feared dead. Officials say the numbers could rise considerably as information comes in from remote islands, and the fate of those missing becomes known.
“This is a massive humanitarian disaster and the communications are so bad we still don’t know the full scale of it. Unless we get aid quickly to the people many more could die,” Phil Esmond, head of the Sri Lanka branch of the international aid group Oxfam, told Reuters.
The province of Aceh, closed to foreign news agencies due to a long-running separatist conflict, bore the brunt of the earthquake. Hundreds of buildings and bridges collapsed and there were an estimated 4,000 deaths in the city of Banda Aceh, capital of Aceh province, Reuters reported.
Thousands of miles away, a calm, clear day at Indian resorts in the south turned into nightmare as beaches became virtual open-air mortuaries with bodies strewn along the sand.
“It’s an extraordinary calamity of such colossal proportions that the damage has been unprecedented,” said Chief Minister Jayaram Jayalalithaa of India’s Tamil Nadu, a southern state which reported 1,705 dead.
“It all seems to have happened in the space of 20 minutes. A massive tidal wave of extreme ferocity … smashed everything in sight to smithereens,” she said.
Tourist regions in Sri Lanka were also hard hit. News reports described scenes of confusion and despair: children ripped from their parents, sunbathers washed out to sea and scuba divers dashed against coral reefs. The waves derailed trains and washed away buses, according to reports, and battered prison complexes, allowing criminals to escape.
The surge also flooded areas in the northeast that are under the control of the rebel Tamil Tigers, who appealed for international aid.
Roads were packed as residents and tourists tried to reach the capital, Colombo, in the west and stranded tourists were forced to stay in stadiums and banquet halls, Agence France-Presse reported. President Chandrika Kumaratunga has declared a national emergency and appealed for international aid.
President Bush said in a statement that the United States is ready “to offer all appropriate assistance to those nations most affected including Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Thailand, and Indonesia,” and that relief was already on its way to Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
The European Commission pledged emergency aid totaling $4 million and the United Nations said it had dispatched teams to the region to help provide rescue and relief work.
Meanwhile, foreign embassies have set up crisis centers to try to track thousands of tourists who flock to southeastern Asia for their Christmas and New Year’s vacations.
At least three Americans were reported killed, two in Sri Lanka and one in Thailand, according to Noel Clay, a State Department spokesman.
Sunday’s earthquake was the largest in the world since 1964, when a 9.2 earthquake hit Prince William Sound in Alaska. A year ago to the day, a 6.5 earthquake struck the Iranian city of Bam, killing over 30,000 people.