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Indian Ocean Tsunami: A Remembrance

Today, December 26, Indian Ocean nations are marking the one-year anniversary of the deadly tsunami that crashed into two continents to cause unimaginable death and destruction.

Sunday morning in Asia, one year ago. Signs of something were in the air, but unreadable: reports of an earthquake in Indonesia … then Bangladesh … then Burma.

Even as we, in places like Hong Kong, began to realize something unusual was happening, a tsunami, a word few had ever heard before this day, was hurtling across thousands of kilometers, to every corner of the Indian Ocean. Its massive waves were wiping out tens-of-thousands of lives - first in Aceh, Indonesia, then in Phuket and Khao Lak, Thailand, north to Sri Lanka and India, and on to the east coast of Africa. Twelve nations in all were struck, one of the most far-flung natural disasters the world has ever experienced.

It began deep in the ocean, off the Indonesian island of Sumatra, at seven a.m. local time: a magnitude nine earthquake.

Those in the disaster area described what it was like to see the waves coming: disbelief, terror and then, often, a simple struggle to survive. British tourist Caroline Woods was in Phuket:

"Normally, when you turned around there, you would see the horizon. So, you would see the sea, and then you would see the sky, and, instead, when I turned around, all I could see was the sea. … The water just came over the road, and my partner was trying to get me to stay put, and all I could think about was getting back to the children. … So, we were wading through the water, there were petrol barrels emptying petrol and stinging my legs, ambulances floating, [we were] treading on things, not knowing what, cars were floating down the road, one lady had her foot chopped off," she described.

An Australian mother vacationing in Phuket watched the wave swallow her son.

"He was calling me. Then they just went. They just all went," she cried.

In Batticaloa, Sri Lanka, 12-year-old Vitaya survived by climbing onto the roof of her school, most of which was washed away beneath her.

She says she lost friends, and she feels so sad. Her best friend, Ramendini, was swept out to sea by the wave.

No one, in the early hours, could foresee the extent of the damage or the loss of life.

VOA Southeast Asia Correspondent Scott Bobb recalls his initial impressions:

"I remember going in to the office after the news broke on that Sunday morning with a large file of contacts from Phuket, and I began calling hotels, tour operators, etc…. The phones were all busy, or ringing with no one answering. … And the Thai tourism police, whom I finally contacted around mid-afternoon, said they had at that time counted some 30, 32 dead. … So, where it seemed like it was going to be a tragedy, it did not on that first day appear to be the massive tragedy and disaster that, by Monday, we had realized it was going to be."

Governments scrambled to assess the situation. But in places, whole villages, whole towns, had been wiped out. No one was left to make a report.

The words of Indonesian presidential spokesman Andi Mallarangeng in the early hours after the tragedy reflect the government's confusion.

"We got a report on the number of victims - eight, nine, more than 20, in different cities like Aceh, like Lhokseumawe, Banda Aceh, Meulahbo. So, we don't have complete information yet, because the chain of information at localities in Aceh are being damaged. So, we are waiting for more accurate information," he said.

Only the next day did the scope of the horror begin to reveal itself, but only incrementally. The known death toll in Asia was 15,000, and counting.

Whole families drowned, sometimes cruelly leaving one or two survivors. Fifty-year-old Indonesian Nur Ini describes a scene of unimaginable horror.

She says she returned to her home in Banda Aceh from a trip to find her five children and all of her grandchildren dead. She says she has nothing left to live for.

In all, she lost 35 members of her family.

Our Jakarta correspondent, Nancy-Amelia Collins, was one of the first to reach Aceh. Nothing prepared her for what she found there.

"When I arrived in Banda Aceh, there were bodies literally everywhere, just thousands and thousands of the dead in streets, clogging canals, and laid out in parks or any space, available, so survivors might be able to identify their loved ones," said Ms. Collins. "But the real horror was just seeing the survivors completely torn apart by the devastation. … I saw people wandering the streets in those first days, completely out of their minds with grief. … There was very little food, very little water, no electricity and no place to sleep. People were sleeping next to dead bodies, and trying to shelter under the skeletal remains of destroyed houses, just anywhere they could find a patch of land to lay their head down. … It felt like reality had been suspended."

By day two, relief efforts were beginning, but still nobody knew the extent of the slaughter.

Indonesian Red Cross spokeswoman Hesti could only talk in terms of immediate needs.

"We have done evacuation, search and rescue, first aid and distribution of some relief items, such as tarpaulin, mattresses, blankets, medicines and family kits," she said. "And, for the moment, the needs that we have assessed are body bags, medicines, tarpaulins and tents. We only have very limited information from the field."

Militaries from around the world arrived to ferry aid to the survivors, evacuating the wounded, clearing roads, providing airdrops. A clearer picture finally emerged, and the world was stunned. Almost a quarter-million dead or missing, about 170,000 just in Indonesia, the epicenter of the quake.

No words could adequately describe the sheer devastation. Governments had to resort to words of inspiration.

"So, the only thing you do when you hit rock bottom is to get up," said Thai government spokesman Jakrapob Penkiar. "And that's what Thailand will be doing. And we hope to turn this crisis into opportunity."

As usual, the disaster was followed by speculation, hyperbole, dire warnings by the World Health Organization that a terrible situation could get even worse.

"There is certainly a chance that we could have as many dying from communicable diseases as from the tsunami," announced WHO.

Those who survived had to battle unsanitary conditions and lack of clean water, but billions of dollars were pledged, and the largest relief effort ever seen was mounted. Death from disease was largely prevented.

But there was mind-numbing grief.

Gloria Chen of Doctors Without Borders says the survivors will suffer long after the dead are laid to rest.

"From our past experience, the people who have undergone such a tragic situation are highly traumatized, as they have lost their dear ones. The mental consequences could last for months and even years," said Ms. Chen.

And there was anger.

"Why didn't we know this was coming? If they knew that an earthquake had happened, why didn't they know that there were likely to be these tidal waves, and why didn't they tell Phuket?" asked Ms. Woods.

They did not tell Phuket because no early warning system existed. The tsunami took hours to reach some countries. Tens-of-thousands of lives might possibly have been saved, but in this age of instant communication, no one sounded the alarm.

Much of 2005 has been spent planning to correct that lack, and a system is expected to be implemented in early 2006. As with many events, knowledge and wisdom came only after the fact.

For those of us who reported it, the tsunami is an event we will never forget. For those who survived it, it is one they wish they could.