A series of towering tidal waves triggered by a massive undersea earthquake killed more than 11,000 people today in several south Asian countries today.
Survivors described walls of water between 10 and 20 feet high sweeping away whole villages, hammering tourist resorts and toppling buildings in coastal areas in six countries across a region spanning thousands of miles, from Indonesia to the Maldives. In Madras the devastation stretched about a half a mile inland.
The catastrophe began unfolding across South Asia early this morning, when 8.9-magnitude earthquake, the world's worst quake in 40 years, cleaved a section of the earth's crust beneath the Indian Ocean off the island of Sumatra.
The quake set off tidal waves that traveled at high speed, for thousands of miles, to strike villages and cities without warning.
One of the worst-hit countries was Sri Lanka, a war-ravaged island nation off the southern tip of India, where wave after wave of powerful, surging tides created rivers of sea water that swept people along with cars and the rubble of collapsing buildings.
Anyone who could grabbed hold of whatever wasn't moving, and clung desperately for life. But the surges were long, and powerful, for many who lost their grip and were pulled to their deaths by the rushing water.
Sri Lankan officials estimate that between 100,000 and 200,000 homes have been destroyed, President Chandrika Kumaratunga said in a television interview. At least 2,500 were confirmed dead in Sri Lanka, but unofficial estimates said the dearth toll was at least 4,000.
"We weren't very well prepared, I have to say, because we have not ever had to face this kind of disaster," added the Sri Lankan president, who country is struggling to overcome almost 18 years of civil war with separatist Tamil Tiger rebels.
From rebel-held areas in the north, down the eastern coast, to tourist resorts in the south, Sri Lanka suffered widespread devastation and thousands of people were reported heading for the capital, Colombo, to seek shelter.
By midnight, more than 1,700 people were confirmed dead in neighboring India, where the tidal waves pounded hundred of miles of the country's east coast, and even part of Kerala state, which lies on the western side of India's southern tip.
India's death toll is expected to climb significantly because more than 3,000 people were reported missing in Tamil Nadu state alone.
Hundreds of fishing villages dot the long eastern coast struck by the tidal waves, and
In beach areas of Madras, capital of India's southern Tamil Nadu state, hundreds of bodies were recovered from tangles of fallen trees, splintered lumber and other debris.
In the Four Shore Estate, a middle-class housing complex on Madras' Marina Beach, the waves picked up stoves, television sets, fridges and furniture, even cars, and sucked them out to sea, where they bobbed like beach toys, before sinking.
Nearby, poor fishermen and their families wept over the corpses of family members who drowned.
Father Lawrence Raj, parish priest at the beachside Catholic church of St. Thomas, was asleep he felt the first shockwaves of an earthquake around 6:30 a.m. today, he said in an interview. People ran helter skelter in panic during a tremor that Father Raj said lasted 15 minutes.
"That was the strongest tremor that I have ever experienced," he said.
When calm returned, the priest sat down for his breakfast, and just as he was finishing, he heard a loud noise around 8:45 a.m. and sent someone to investigate.
"He came back running, describing the fifteen-feet high waves," Father Raj said. "We could see the waves. They were very strong" and pounded the area for some 15 minutes, he estimated.
"The only saving grace is that it did not happen during the night, or else the casualties could have been much more," he added.
Around 2,000 of the priest's homeless neighbors have taken shelter in the church.
Officials reported 300 dead and 700 missing in India's remote Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which lie hundreds of miles from the mainland south of Thailand, and north of the earthquake's epicenter.
India's government restricts access to the islands to protect its tribal people and pristine environment, so communications links are poor and it could take several days to fully assess how the tidal waves have affected the population of around half a million.
At least three Indian navy ships and several helicopters launched search and rescue operations along the eastern coast.
At least 64 bodies, 18 of them children, filled the morgue of central Madras' Royapettah government hospital, where doctors treated 22 more people with serious injuries.
A 60-year-old man who identified himself only as Ponurangan said he managing to survive by clinging to a coconut tree with all the strength he had left. His 55-year-old wife Davamani was recovered this afternoon, tangled in a tree, he said.
Arun Kumar, a 32-year-old cook, was working at a Juhu beach country club in Madras, which officially has been renamed Chennai. He was packing up supplies for a party of 80 people when a huge wave struck, seemingly out of nowhere, engulfing him in fast-running seawater.
"I am lucky to be alive," said Kumar, who suffered a fractured right leg and a dislocated left arm. "It was a close shave."
Several hundred yards from the sea, in Srinivasapuram slum of central Madras, slabs of broken concrete were strewn about with pieces of thatched roves, scattered kitchen utensils and the remains of uneaten meals.
The huge waves had picked up a bus, shoved it several yards and smashed it against the wall of a community center built for 30,000 people who live in the shanties, mostly families of fishermen or unskilled workers.
At least 94 people, more than half of them under 10 years old, have been reported missing from the slum.
Up to 1,000 thatched-roof shanties have been destroyed.