APIA, Samoa -- Samoans searched flattened homes anddebris-filled swamps, while dazed survivors told of being trappedunderwater or flung inland by a tsunami that ravaged towns andkilled at least 150 people in the South Pacific.
The day after the disaster struck, officials were expecting thedeath toll to rise as more areas were searched.
"To me it was like a monster - just black water coming to you.It wasn't a wave that breaks, it was a full force of water comingstraight," said Luana Tavale, an American Samoa governmentemployee.
Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele's own village of Lesa waswashed away - like many others on Samoa and nearby American Samoaand Tonga. He inspected Wednesday the southeast coast of the mainSamoan island of Upolu, the most heavily hit area. He describedseeing "complete" devastation.
"In some villages absolutely no house was standing. All thatwas achieved within 10 minutes by the very powerful tsunami," hesaid.
A magnitude 8.0 quake struck off Samoa at 6:48 a.m. local time(1:48 p.m. EDT; 1748 GMT) Tuesday. The islands soon were engulfedby four tsunami waves 15 to 20 feet (4 to 6 meters) high thatreached up to a mile (1.5 kilometers) inland.
The Samoas lie about halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii,just east of the international date line. That means the tsunamihit Tuesday morning there, while it was already Wednesday in Asia.
Tuilaepa said the death toll in Samoa was 110, mostly elderlyand young children. At least 31 people were killed on AmericanSamoa, Gov. Togiola Tulafono said. Officials in the island nationof Tonga said nine people had been killed.
Samoan police commander Lilo Maiava predicted the toll wouldrise.
"It may take a week, two weeks or even three weeks" tocomplete the search for the many people still missing, he said.
The quake was centered about 120 miles (190 kilometers) south ofthe nation of Samoa, formerly part of New Zealand, which has about220,000 people, and American Samoa, a U.S. territory of 65,000.
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii said it issued analert, but the waves came so quickly that residents only had about10 minutes to respond.
New Zealand school teacher Charlie Pearse choked back tears asshe spoke to New Zealand's TV One News from an Apia hospital bed inSamoa, recalling how she was trapped underwater and thought she wasgoing to die.
She was in the back of a truck trying to outrun the tsunami withabout 20 children when a wave tossed the truck and it landed on topof them.
"We all went under the water and I think a number of thechildren died instantly," Pearse said.
"I asked, 'Is this my time to come home? Take me home, I'mready,' and I let my breath out and I took a big gulp of water ...and I don't know, I just popped out (from under the water),"Pearse said.
On the island of Upolu, taro farmer Tony Fauena said he ran forthe hills when the deadly tsunami thundered across the coast whilehis niece ran to rescue her 6-month-old son. Villagers found thebodies of the mother and son entangled in uprooted trees and debrisat the foot of lush mountains 200 yards (meters) from the ocean.
"Many parents died trying to protect their children," Fauenatold The Associated Press from the ruins of a brother's home in thevillage of Sale Ataga on the southeast coast as he watched policesearch the same area for four more missing relatives.
The heavily damaged southeast coast of the island was a stretchof flattened, mud-swept villages. Mattresses hung from trees.Police searched for survivors amid pulverized homes and bodiesscattered in a swamp. Several tourist resorts were wiped out,authorities said.
In Tonga, government spokesman Lopeti Senituli said parts of anisland have disappeared, with two of the island's three villagesvirtually flattened.
"The hospital on the island has been severely damaged as wellas the airport runway ... meaning no fixed-wing aircraft canland," he said. A Tongan patrol boat has been sent with water,food and shelter for more than 1,000 residents.
American Samoa Gov. Togiola Tulafono said Wednesday evening thatfinding survivors was a priority.
"We are doing lifesaving and life-sustaining efforts, so ifthere is anybody that is still missing, (they need) to be found,"Tulafono told reporters in the capital, Pago Pago. "We're makingthat a priority."
U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Barry Compagnoni, whose jurisdictionincludes the port of Pago Pago, said a disaster assessment team wasto arrive later Wednesday from Honolulu and will work with localofficials to analyze the damage.
Power in Pago Pago was expected to be out in some areas for upto a month, and officials said some 2,200 people were in sevenshelters across the island.
The waves lifted a building housing a hardware store and carriedit across a two-lane highway. Crews later found the two employees'bodies in the debris.
Red Cross relief worker Garete Wolfe at a hilltop camp in Samoasaid water was the most critical need.
"The water lines are all ... damaged, and with this waterproblem we face waterborne disease," Wolfe said.
A Coast Guard C-130 plane loaded with aid and carrying FederalEmergency Management Agency officials flew from Hawaii to PagoPago, where debris had been cleared from runways. President BarackObama has declared a major disaster for American Samoa.
Australian officials said they will send an air force planecarrying 20 tons of humanitarian aid, as well as aid officials andmedical personnel to Samoa.
New Zealand provided 1 million New Zealand dollars ($710,000) inimmediate aid to Samoa, Tonga and the Samoan Red Cross on Thursday.Acting Prime Minister Bill English said Prime Minister John Key iscutting short his U.S. vacation to fly to Samoa to inspect thedamage.
The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs said threeAustralians were among the dead. The British Foreign Office saidone Briton was missing and presumed dead.
While the earthquake and tsunami were big, they were not aslarge as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed more than230,000 in a dozen countries across Asia.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times