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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Even if a warning had been sent out, it might not have done much good, at least in areas near the quake's epicenter. In Pacific nations like Japan, people know what to do when they hear a tsunami is coming. "It's very much a matter of having the education in place," McFadden says. "In many cases, you know what happens if you tell people there's going to be a tsunami? They go down to the beach to have a look." And given the size of the earthquake, it is hard to believe that any warning system would have saved many lives in Aceh, where the majority of the deaths occurred.

But India and Sri Lanka are a different story. It took nearly two hours for the tsunami to reach those countries, but in neither country did residents receive any warning of the likely disaster. "That morning, the sea was like it always is," says Baalaramanan, 23, a fisherman in the Indian town of Akkarapettai. "Then suddenly it was on fire. Boiling. It lifted up 11 yards and paused, almost like it was surveying us below it. And then it fell. It consumed one house after another, like paper boxes." A day later, rescuers found the bodies of 300 fish sellers and buyers from a local market, their bodies swept 2 miles inland, while all around lay an estimated 5,500 more.

It's impossible to know how many lives might have been saved if a tsunami-warning system had existed in the countries ringing the Indian Ocean. In the wake of the catastrophe, the U.N. announced that by next year it plans to link countries in South and Southeast Asia with the Pacific Ocean network that alerts countries like Japan, Australia and the U.S. when tsunamis pose risks to their territories.

For many, of course, it will have come too late. In Sri Lanka, village after village was pounded, but in a ravaged land, one place stands out. In Kahawa, on the south coast, the cars of a train lie separated and sprawled on the ground, relief workers and Buddhist monks in saffron robes crawling over them. This is where at least 1,000 people died. Karl Max Hantke, a German with a holiday home overlooking the train station, says that shortly after the first wave hit, he saw a packed train come to a halt, perhaps because its engineer thought stopping was safer than moving on. When the first wave retreated into the ocean, he says, local people ran to the train and left their children there. Then a second and a third wave smashed into the train, knocking its cars into nearby houses and trees. Rescue workers think that few of the 1,500 people on the train made it out alive. Among the dead were five children of a local friend of Hantke's, placed by their father in the train in the belief that it was safe.

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