Thousands Still Missing After Papua New Guinea Tsunami
Wading into a lagoon pungent with the smell of death, rescue workers used nets Wednesday to fish out the remains of villagers who were crushed in seconds by a barreling tsunami last week.
With about 6,000 of the 10,000 people who lived in the area still missing, any evidence was critical to compiling a more accurate list of victims. Prime Minister William Skate said he held out little hope of finding survivors among those still unaccounted for.
In some places, burials again gave way to on-the-spot gasoline-fueled cremations, as rescue workers found that corpses rotting in the tropical heat could not be moved intact. Recovery workers also had to contend with crocodiles, dogs and pigs scavenging the devastated area.
And on a hill just behind the disaster zone, a makeshift village of refugees was springing up, hut by hut. About 200 survivors remained there, too scared to return to the ravaged coast.
In Australia, the Salvation Army on Wednesday launched an appeal for clothing for the survivors. But they called only for adult clothes. Friday’s tsunami, which struck the coast in a matter of minutes, took a particularly high toll on children.
The official death toll is more than 1,200, but John Tekwi, governor of West Sepik province, predicted that at least 3,000 people died when the earthquake-generated waves, one of which was up to 30 feet tall, crashed down on the idyllic villages along 20 miles of Papua New Guinea’s north coast.
Estimates of the number of survivors ranged from 2,500 to 3,500. Some had to undergo amputations because bacteria-filled coral sand had infected wounds.
The thousands of people displaced by the tsunami have been warned to stay away from the beach.
Soldiers, missionaries, aid workers and the healthier surviving villagers used spades to dig shallow graves in the sand and donned surgical gloves to wrap the corpses in sheets of black plastic.
The burials were unceremonious: Sand was quickly shoveled in and stamped down, with crews then moving on to other bodies and other graves.
Papua New Guinea, with a population of 4 million, occupies the eastern half of the island of New Guinea, about 90 miles north of Australia. Some of its people live a near-Stone Age existence in the jungles and swamps.