September 30, 2009 / 1:55 AM / in 9 years

UPDATE 6-Samoa tsunami toll may exceed 100, hundreds injured

* 8.0 undersea quake triggers Pacific tsunami alert

* Reports people swept out to sea

* Villages flattened, search for bodies in sand (Updates with latest death toll, quotes, changes dateline)

By Michael Perry

SYDNEY, Sept 30 (Reuters) - A series of tsunamis smashed into the Pacific island nations of American and Western Samoa killing possibly more than 100 people, destroying villages and injuring hundreds, officials said on Wednesday.

A Pacific-wide tsunami warning was issued after a huge 8.0 magnitude undersea quake off American Samoa, with reports of a small tsunami reaching New Zealand and rising sea levels in several South Pacific island nations.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center cancelled its warning, but Japan’s Meteorological Agency issued a local tsunami warning for the country’s eastern coast, warning of a possible tsunami of 50 cm (2 feet).

The Indian Ocean tsunami on Dec. 26, 2004 killed about 230,000 people across 11 countries.

Shortly after local radio tsunami warnings were issued in American and Western Samoa, waves started crashing into the capital of American Samoa, Pago Pago, and villages and resorts on the southern coasts of the tiny island nations, witnesses said.

“It’s believed as of now, there could be a number close to 100 deaths,” said Ausegalia Mulipola, assistant chief executive of Western Samoa’s disaster management office.

“They are still continuing the searches for any missing bodies in the area,” Mulipola told Reuters, adding the southern side of the country’s main island Upolu was the worst hit.

“There have been reports of villages, where most of the houses have been run over by the sea,” he said.

“Some areas have been flattened and the tsunami had brought a lot of sand onshore, so there have been reports the sand has covered some of the bodies. So we need specialised machines to search for bodies that are burried under the sand.”

In American Samoa, a U.S. territory, the death toll was officially 14, but could rise, said officials.

FIVE TSUNAMI WAVES

A series of five waves hit Pago Pago, swamping the harbourside business centre and temporarily closing the airport.

Yachtsman Wayne Hodgins, who has in Pago Pago harbour, said he had heard of people being swept away.

“There was a couple and a young boy, they were clinging to the lifestandard. The water came and went very, very quickly, but it was absolutely ferocious,” Hodgins told American media.

American Samoa tourism chief David Vaeafe said water levels rose about three minutes after the tsunami warning, with small villages around the capital devastated.

“Access to Pago Pago has been closed. Water had come up to the first floor. The radio station was evacuated, a lot of damage, structural damage to the steel and brick structure,” Vaeafe told Australia’s Sky Television from Pago Pago.

There were reports of looting in Pago Pago as people flocked into supermarkets to stockpile supplies. Fishing boats not thrown onto reefs by the tsunamis moved out to open sea for safety.

The tsunami caused waves of 1.5 metres above normal sea level off American Samoa, according to the Pacific Western Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii. But there were unconfirmed reports of waves taller than 4 metres.

Hundreds of people, including tourists, fled coastal homes and resorts to higher ground in both nations.

“As of right now, everybody is up in the high mountain ranges,” said Senetenari Malele, announcer for local radio station Showers of Blessings in American Samoa.

Hundreds of people have been injured in the tsunamis.

“Injured people are being stabilised onsite by teams in the villages and will be brought over to the main hospital, but roads and communications are damaged,” Western Samoa health chief Palanitina Toelupe told Reuters from the emergency ward of the country’s main hospital in the capital Apia.

“So far, we are coping. We will definitely need help from overseas, but we will have to assess that later.”

(Additional reporting by Adrian Bathgate and Mantik Kusjanto in Wellington, Rob Taylor and James Grubel in Canberra, Stacey Joyce in Washington, Bud Seba in Houston, Jim Christie in San Francisco, Peter Henderson in Los Angeles)

Editing by Bill Tarrant

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