Lost lives

LOST LIVES: The bodies of tsunami victims are cremated amid seaside debris in Nagappattinam, on India’s southeastern coast. (Gurinder Osan / AP)

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — Cargo planes carrying tons of relief supplies landed Wednesday in this wreck of a city, only to pile up at the airport for lack of trucks, gasoline and a distribution system. Half a world away, President Bush defended the U.S. response to the earthquake and tsunami that claimed at least 77,000 lives across 12 nations.

In his first public comments on Sunday's catastrophe, Bush said from his Texas ranch: "This has been a terrible disaster. I mean, it's just beyond our comprehension to think about how many lives have been lost."

He pledged that the U.S. would "stand with the affected governments as they care for the victims."

At the United Nations, a humanitarian coordinator said that the world must join together immediately to deal with one of the worst natural disasters in modern history.

"Coordination is now vital," the U.N.'s Jan Egeland said. "The casualty number is rising by the hour." Egeland said the organization had asked for an immediate $130 million to help the areas that were hit hardest, including Indonesia and Sri Lanka. He also said the U.N. would launch an appeal next month to raise more than $1 billion for relief.

As the International Committee of the Red Cross said Wednesday that the aggregate death toll could eventually exceed 100,000, the losses continued to climb in Sri Lanka but in smaller increments, raising hopes that the worst might be over in that country. The death toll in Sri Lanka surpassed 22,000 Wednesday.

Thousands of foreign tourists, many of whom had sought sunny beaches as a respite from Northern Europe's dark winter, are among the missing.

Several days after the disaster, Indonesia has emerged as the nation with the greatest number of dead. Authorities put the toll at more than 45,200, but a U.N. official estimated that it could hit 80,000 once authorities reached areas that had been cut off from assistance.

Authorities said the cleanup effort was plagued by fuel shortages and the unwillingness of many residents to collect bodies for fear of finding relatives.

The first Indonesian military teams reached the city of Meulaboh on Wednesday and found what was reported as thousands of bodies. Michael Elmquist, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Indonesia, said that as many as 40,000 people may have died in Meulaboh, a city of about 100,000 people on Sumatra's west coast, south of Banda Aceh. Elmquist based his estimate on an aerial survey of the city.

Confirming the worst fears for the coast, a helicopter flight by a military commander Wednesday revealed village after village covered with seawater, flattened homes and only a handful of survivors in the rubble.

"The damage is truly devastating," Maj. Gen. Endang Suwarya said after viewing the damage by helicopter with an Associated Press reporter.

International aid and foreign doctors began trickling into the Indonesian province of Aceh as the first two Australian military cargo planes landed in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital. Little food or medical assistance appeared to have reached camps containing thousands of survivors.

The government accelerated efforts to collect rotting corpses from the debris-strewn streets of Banda Aceh, dispatching 40 trucks to pick up bodies.

Aceh has been under strict military control for 18 months as the Indonesian army battled separatists. Few outsiders have been allowed into the province, but that is changing. Dozens of foreign journalists have raced to the region. Medical teams from Singapore, Japan, Malaysia and Taiwan have arrived.

When the first Australian flight landed in Banda Aceh, Capt. John Oddie was greeted by Gen. Bambang Darmono, who is scheduled to take command of the airport this week. The Australians plan five relief flights a day.

In an unusual exchange, Oddie offered to bring in a heavy forklift and crew to unload the aid planes as well as Indonesian aircraft arriving at the military airport. The Australian also offered to bring in a medical team today. Bambang said he would consider the proposal but lacked the authority to accept the offer.

"Come back tomorrow," he said.

At the airport, hundreds of boxes of rice, noodles and bottled water were piled up waiting to go to refugee camps, but no distribution system had been set up to deliver the goods. The officer in charge said he gave supplies to the camps that sent a truck and asked for them.