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Military searches for bodies, brings aid to Samoas

Friday, October 2, 2009

APIA, Samoa -- Convoys of military vehicles brought food, water and medicine to the tsunami-stricken Samoas on Thursday as victims wandered through what was left of their villages with tales of being trapped underwater, watching young children drown and hoisting elderly parents above the waves.

The death toll rose to 160 as islanders gathered under a traditional meetinghouse to hear a Samoan government minister discuss a plan for a mass funeral and burial next Tuesday. Samoans traditionally bury their loved ones near their homes, but that could be impractical because many of their villages have been wiped out.

The dead from Tuesday's earthquake and tsunami include 120 in Samoa, 31 in American Samoa and nine in Tonga. Samoan police commander Lilo Maiava said the search for bodies could continue another three weeks.

Doctors and nurses were sent to devastated villages, and a refrigerated freight container was being used as a temporary morgue for the scores of bodies showing up at a Samoan hospital, officials said.

The United States, Australia and New Zealand sent in supplies and troops, including a U.S. Navy frigate carrying two helicopters that will be used in search-and-rescue efforts. The Hawaii Air National Guard and U.S. Air Force flew three cargo planes to American Samoa that carried 100 Navy and Army guard personnel and reservists.

New Zealanders Joseph Bursin and Nicky Fryar said they scrambled to reach high ground as the tsunami wave surged toward the beachfront vacation resort they were staying at in Samoa. Their sandals were slipping off as they sprinted up a rock-covered 45-degree hill and climbed over a lagoon full of mud.

They remember the noise most -- the roar of the water, the clanging of metal roofing smashing against cars, the sound of buildings collapsing.

"We had about 15 or 20 seconds before the water came in underneath us," Bursin said. "There were people behind us who didn't make it and were taken by the water."

Al Palmer returned to his home in American Samoa and saw nothing but rubble following Tuesday's 8.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami. The tsunami swept his wife out of their home and sent her several hundred feet inland. She survived by grabbing hold of a pole and is now in the hospital being treated for injured fingers.

"It is unbelievable to think this was our home, and this is all that's left," he said.

The scene of mayhem stood in sharp contrast to the breathtaking scenery that Samoans are accustomed to: The islands are surrounded by majestic waters and beaches that quickly give way to lush volcano-carved mountainsides and tropical forests dotted with taro and coconut farms. The Samoas lie about halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii.

Before the disaster struck, the majority of the population in American Samoa lived below the poverty line, with tuna canneries, coconut plantations and tourism representing the bulk of the territory's economic activity.

The canneries produce the tuna consumed in millions of American households, with StarKist and Chicken of the Sea having huge factories on American Samoa. But the local tuna industry has been in turmoil since the companies were forced to pay workers the U.S.-mandated minimum wage, something they have historically avoided.

Long before the tsunami hit, Chicken of the Sea planned to close its packing plant on the island this week and lay off more than 2,100 workers, amounting to a double-whammy for workers who lost their jobs and saw their homeland ravaged by disaster in the same week.

The Samoan culture is steeped in Polynesian tradition that dates back centuries and revolves around traditional villages. Many of those villages were obliterated, making the tsunami all the more painful.

Samoan government minister Fiana Naomi asked around 400 grieving relatives for permission to hold the mass funeral. She told them the burial would take place in a new cemetery and that the government would provide free coffins for the 103 bodies currently held in the morgue.

She said the other bodies had already been buried due to the advanced stage of decomposition.

The reaction to the proposal was mixed, with some relatives wanting to take the bodies and have their own burials, while others wanted a mass funeral delayed for a week to allow children and grandchildren to return to the islands from overseas.

In nearby Tonga, National Disaster Management Office deputy director Alfred Soakai said 90 percent of the buildings on the northern island of Niuas had been washed away in the tsunami, the local hospital has been destroyed and much of the island's infrastructure wrecked. Rattled islanders were getting counseling on a navy patrol boat.

New Zealand school teacher Charlie Pearse choked back tears as she spoke to New Zealand's TV One News from an Apia hospital bed in Samoa, recalling how she was trapped underwater and thought she was going to die.

She was in the back of a truck trying to outrun the tsunami with about 20 children when a wave tossed the truck and it landed on top of them. "We all went under the water and I think a number of the children died instantly," Pearse said.

Melissa Coulter said her 73-year-old disabled father survived because her brother managed to lift him up and hold up above the waves. Her mother also struggled to stay afloat. "She doesn't know what she hit -- broken cars, buses, icebox, roofing. She was just swimming for her life," Coulter said.

Power in Pago Pago -- the capital of American Samoa -- was expected to be out in some areas for up to a month, and officials said some 2,200 people were in seven shelters across the island.

New Zealand and Australia were sending their resources to Samoa, while the American government was focusing on its territory.

New Zealand provided 1 million New Zealand dollars ($710,000) in immediate aid to Samoa, Tonga and the Samoan Red Cross on Thursday. Acting Prime Minister Bill English said Prime Minister John Key is cutting short his U.S. vacation to fly to Samoa to inspect the damage.


McGuirk reported from Apia, McAvoy from Pago Pago, American Samoa. Also contributing were Associated Press writers Fili Sagapolutele in Pago Pago, Ray Lilley in Wellington, New Zealand; Tanalee Smith in Adelaide, Australia; Jaymes Song, Mark Niesse, Herbert A. Sample in Honolulu


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