Sea of Sorrow

The world suffers an epic tragedy as a tsunami spreads death across Asia. An on-the-scene look at how it happened--and whether the carnage could have been avoided

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They are burning bodies on the shore of Tamil Nadu in southern India, and Manikimuttu, 24, whose grandfather is among the 60 or so in the pyre, is crazed with grief, one moment scooping water into cooking pots and throwing it on the flames, the next collapsing in uncontrollable sobs. They are collecting bodies from the normally green lawn in front of the old mosque in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, now littered with a thick debris of dead snakes, chickens and humans--at just one collection point in the city, authorities have gathered 3,500 corpses. On the Andaman coast in Thailand, soldiers are using an ax and a spade to dig out the body of a woman half-buried beneath a palm tree. Fifty miles south in Patong, a honky-tonk beach town on Phuket Island, 100 bodies are laid out in front of a morgue that has room to refrigerate only two. In Batticaloa, on the eastern coast of Sri Lanka, dozens of men have lined up on either side of a bridge, watching for bodies trapped underwater to pop up to the surface of a lagoon. Six corpses are unloaded from a pickup truck. One of the Red Cross workers handling them complains that he has had enough; the bodies he has to handle are at this point so decomposed that their limbs have a tendency to come off. To the south, in Galle, Z.A.M. Fahim, 45, a restaurant owner, has found 32 bodies before midday. He walks toward what was once a busy junction in the town and claims that the giant swamp that now obscures the ground hides 500 more corpses. To prove his point, he walks over to a marshy landscape of tires, rafters and mud. "There," he says, pointing to yet another body, lying in the open. "We are standing on bodies right now."

The cause of the carnage was a massive earthquake that trembled the earth's crust off the western coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, setting off through the oceans shock waves that were felt more than 3,000 miles away on the coast of East Africa, where at least 200 people died. Bustami, a fisherman from the Sumatran village of Bosun, is one who experienced the quake and tsunami and lived to tell about them. Sometime after 7:30 on the morning of Dec. 26, he says, he was on his boat just off the coast when he felt the sea moving around him. "That must have been when the earthquake hit," he says. (The precise time of the shock was 7:58 a.m.) About half an hour later came the shock wave--the tsunami--that devastated the region. At first, Bustami saw water retreat from shore, with fish jumping around on the empty beaches. Then, he says, "I heard this strange thunderous sound from somewhere, a sound I'd never heard before. I thought it was the sound of bombs." The water rose behind him as high as the coconut trees on the shoreline, and he was thrown off his boat. "It felt like doomsday," says Bustami, who, after clinging to a coconut tree, was eventually picked up by a soldier three hours later, almost 2 miles away from where he had lost his boat.

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