Siumu, SAMOA (Reuters) - Relief workers in American Samoa and Samoa searched for survivors on Thursday after a series of tsunamis smashed into the tiny Pacific islands, killing possibly more than 100 people and flattening villages.
Television images showed homes ripped apart, cars submerged in the sea or lodged in trees and large fishing boats hurled ashore by the waves generated by a 8.0 magnitude earthquake southwest of American Samoa, a U.S. territory.
Some victims were washed out to sea by waves that reached at least 6 meters (20 feet) high.
Radio New Zealand reported 83 people were killed in Samoa, 22 in nearby American Samoa and seven in Tonga. The two Samoas and Tonga have a combined population of about 400,000 people and rely on subsistence agriculture, fishing and tourism.
A second earthquake, of 7.9 magnitude, hit the Indonesian island of Sumatra late on Wednesday, prompting the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center to issue a tsunami watch for Indonesia, India, Thailand and Malaysia.
The prime minister of Samoa, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, said the death toll in his nation was expected to rise.
“It was fortunate ... the tsunami struck when it was daylight and the tide was also low,” he told Reuters. “If it had come in the dark and the tide was high, the number of people who died would be much higher.”
U.S. President Barack Obama declared a major disaster in American Samoa and ordered federal aid to help the recovery.
“We also stand ready to help our friends in neighboring Samoa and throughout the region and we will continue to monitor this situation closely,” Obama said.
A U.S. C-130 transport plane arrived in American Samoa on Thursday as part of an air bridge to bring in relief workers and supplies. The Navy’s USS Ingraham was en route with an estimated arrival time of 2300 GMT.
Togiola Tulafono, governor of the territory, said at least 24 people were killed and 50 injured, with the southern portion of the main island of Tutuila “devastated.” The toll may rise as rescuers search buildings, including a seniors center.
Residents in Pago Pago, the main village in American Samoa, were returning to their homes after fleeing to higher ground to avoid the waves that pounded buildings, including the local fish cannery, and unearthed a cemetery.
“They’re coming back but there is some fear because of some rumors of a (tsunami) warning coming down from Honolulu,” said Nick Faasala, a U.S. postal worker who spoke to Reuters by telephone from Pago Pago’s Showers of Blessing radio station.
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said at least 60 people had been killed in Samoa. The government in Canberra said two Australians, a 6-year-old girl and a woman aged 50, were killed and six were missing.
“It does look like there will be substantial loss of life in Samoa,” said Australian Aid Minister Bob McMullan.
Australia is flying medical personnel and supplies into Samoa, including tents, blankets, mosquito nets and water containers, Minister for Foreign Affairs Stephen Smith said in a statement on the ministry’s website.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which coordinates the U.S. government’s response to disasters, said a National Guard flight carrying food, generators, water, medical supplies and other aid would leave on Thursday from Hawaii.
Red Cross teams had mobilized more than 100 emergency workers who were collecting coconuts to help meet early food and water needs in the affected Pacific islands, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said.
Shortly after radio warnings about a tsunami were issued in the islands, waves started crashing into Pago Pago and villages and resorts on the southern coasts, witnesses said.
Joey Cummings, a radio broadcaster in American Samoa, said the tsunami produced a destructive, muddy river that swept away trees, boulders, cars and boats.
“If you have a building and it wasn’t made out of concrete, bricks, it doesn’t exist any more,” he told ABC’s “Good Morning America” program. “It looks like a bomb went off.”
Ausegalia Mulipola, assistant chief executive of Samoa’s disaster management office, told Reuters there were reports of bodies covered in the sand driven onshore by the waves.
Disaster officials said the death toll in Samoa may reach 100 as rescuers search for bodies on the southern shore of Upolu island. Twenty villages on the island, including Lepa, the home of Samoa’s prime minister, were reportedly destroyed.
The waves also destroyed tourist resorts in the area.
Wendy Booth, owner of the Sea Breeze on Upolu, said she and her husband were almost washed away when the waves destroyed their resort and carried its restaurant out to sea.
“The second wave hit and came up through the floor, pushed out the back door and threw us outside,” she told Fairfax Radio Network in Australia, adding the couple held onto each other and a handrail as parts of their resort disintegrated.
New Zealand said there were also serious concerns about the neighboring island nation of Tonga after a 4-meter (13-foot) wave hit its northern coast. Tongan officials confirmed seven people were killed, with three missing.
Small tsunamis also reached New Zealand, Hawaii and Japan.
An Indian Ocean tsunami on December 26, 2004 — which killed about 230,000 people in 11 countries — is the worst on record.
Additional reporting by Adrian Bathgate and Mantik Kusjanto in Wellington, Rob Taylor and James Grubel in Canberra, David Alexander, Debbie Charles and Jeremy Pelofsky in Washington, Bud Seba in Houston, Jim Christie in San Francisco and Peter Henderson in Los Angeles; Writing by Michael Perry; Editing by John O'Callaghan