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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She didn't die. Seppanen was tumbled past shop fronts until two Ecuadoreans hauled her to safety into a hotel--but thousands of others did. Did so many need to? After all, the relationship between earthquakes and tsunamis is hardly an unknown science. And there were warnings that went unheeded. Fifteen minutes after the earthquake, Stuart Weinstein, the geophysicist on duty at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) in Honolulu dispatched a bulletin to countries around the Pacific Rim, including Indonesia and Thailand. After describing the size of the shock, Weinstein wrote: "Evaluation: This earthquake is located outside the Pacific. No destructive tsunami threat exists based on historical earthquake and tsunami data." Fifty minutes later, a further bulletin upgraded the quake to 8.5 and added the sentence "There is the possibility of a tsunami near the epicenter." Weinstein stresses that even for Pacific Ocean tsunamis, it's not the job of the PTWC to tell other nations what to do. "They're supposed to have their own tsunami experts," he says, "people who make the decisions based on the information we provide." Australian scientists work with the same protocols. "We knew half an hour after the earthquake happened that there was the potential for damage," says Phil McFadden, chief scientist at Geoscience Australia, a government agency. But when a quake involves other countries, the Australian authorities merely pass the word on to the government aid agency and diplomatic posts. "We can't tell another country what to do," says an Australian official.

The official in charge of Indonesia's new tsunami-warning system told TIME that his office received an email warning from the PTWC on the morning of Dec. 26 but failed to see the message until the following day. The official, who goes by the name Fauzi, was not at work on that fateful morning. Thai officials, meanwhile, knew that a big quake had occurred. For one thing, plenty of people in Bangkok felt it. At 8:15 a.m. on Dec. 26, says the duty officer at the Seismic Monitoring and Statistic Center in Bangkok, "The phone calls started pouring in." The officer, who doesn't want his name made public, and two colleagues struggled to answer the phones and assure callers that the quake was nowhere near Bangkok. He says he didn't have time to inform his boss before the wave hit, but he had no need to. Sumalee Prachuab, who supervises the Bangkok office, was having breakfast at a beach resort in Cha-Am in southeast Thailand when a local monitoring station told her about the quake. By 9 a.m., she knew that the shock had been off Sumatra, and the Bangkok office had started to fax details to local radio and TV stations. But the duty officer concedes that there was no sense of urgency. "The earthquake was far away," he says. "In the past 1,000 years we've never had a tsunami, so why should I issue a warning for one?" Sumalee repeats the thought. "I never considered issuing a tsunami warning because we never had a tsunami before," she says, bristling at press reports that she hesitated to sound an alarm because it would damage Thailand's tourism industry. "Concerns about scaring tourists away never came into it," Sumalee says.

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