Survivors emerge, but death toll mounts

WHILE the walls of water that devoured Asian shorelines served as reminders of the fragility of life, fresh crops of survivors became a testament to its resilience yesterday.

Four Indonesians adrift in a boat for more than a week, dozens of villagers rescued by American troops, and a woman picked up by a Malaysian ship came to light as searchers switched the focus from finding the living to cataloguing the dead.

The international aid effort gathered momentum as former US Presidents George Bush senior and Bill Clinton were chosen to lead American fundraising efforts and US Secretary of State Colin Powell prepared to attend a tsunami conference in Indonesia.

However, the body count crept toward its projected toll of more than 150,000.

Indonesia added another 14,000 people to its official death toll, bringing the number there close to 100,000. The confirmed total body count topped 139,200. Sri Lanka, India and Thailand said they were preparing to give up on more than 15,000 still unaccounted for.

Yet survival tales kept rolling in. American soldiers darting in and out of decimated areas of Sumatra island by chopper rescued about 50 survivors, many of them children and elderly people and some so weak they had to be taken away in stretchers. Pneumonia, bone fractures, infected wounds and tetanus were among health problems.

“We’re just making sure they don’t die,” said Commander William Griggs of the Australian air force.

Four Indonesians in high-seas limbo for more than a week were picked up off the remote Indian islands of Andaman and Nicobar. Their motorboat broke down and when the tsunami hit, the waves pushed it north to the archipelago.

A 23-year-old woman from Indonesia clung to a floating sago palm tree in the ocean before being rescued by a Malaysian ship. She suffered leg injuries and was extremely weak; she was being treated on Malaysia’s Penang island.

Ahead of Thursday’s conference in Jakarta, the Indonesian President announced plans for a regional early warning system for disasters including earthquakes and tsunamis.

Regional leaders were expected to endorse the system at the meeting, organised by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations. But experts say the project will be expensive and complex.

International donors have so far pledged about €1.4 billion in aid.

The US helicopter missions on Sumatra’s western coast were giving a deeper sense of the power of the waves. At Karim Rajia, a town that has an oil storage facility, two huge tanks had been knocked off their concrete bases and sat lopsided on the sand, while thousands of smaller oil drums lay scattered about. It was unclear if any were leaking.

Helicopters dropped off soup and biscuits in cartons stencilled “Our deepest condolences to the brothers and sisters in Aceh. May God be with them. Love from the teachers and students of Singapore.”

In Thailand, forensic experts were exhuming 300 tsunami victims after discovering their bodies apparently were mislabelled in the rush to bury the dead.

In one case, a Thai family admitted it had mistakenly claimed the body of a woman brought from Phuket to Bangkok. It turned out to be the body of a 23-year-old Philippine choreographer.

India’s Andaman and Nicobar islands took a tiny step toward normal life with the reopening of schools.

“It feels like the first day of school ... all new faces, new teachers,” said 16-year-old Hari Krishna, whose teachers and some classmates are thought to have died when the tsunami submerged their island of Hut Bay.

Looting was reported in Sri Lanka, which has the second biggest death toll - nearly 30,000 - after Indonesia. Several arrests have been made.

“Villagers are plundering whatever they can get hold of,” said MK Sugadadasa, a senior police officer.

On the Andaman islands, hundreds of fishermen protested outside the fishery office after radio broadcasts said they would not be allowed to go to sea or sell fish because of fears the fish had fed on the dead.

India also drew condemnation from international aid groups for continuing to refuse access to most parts of the islands.

The government has stood by its policy of restricting entry.

“Valuable time has been lost because of this delay. India is accelerating the miseries of the poor people,” said Oxfam’s Shaheen Nilofer.

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