PHUKET, Thailand – Towering waves from Asia's massive earthquake roared ashore on the renowned white sand beaches at Thailand's resorts Sunday, sweeping away sunbathers and snorkelers, bungalows and cars, and sending thousands of tourists fleeing for higher ground.
A government agency said at least 198 were killed, 2,342 injured and scores still were missing. The center has not issued numbers of foreigners among the victims. The government-run Thai News Agency said 297 people had died.
The waves, measuring 16 to 33 feet, struck at the peak of the tourist season when holiday-makers — especially from Europe — vacation on this Southeast Asian country to escape frigid winters.
The toll might have been even higher but the beaches were relatively uncrowded when the tsunami crashed ashore about breakfast time. Some visitors were still asleep after Christmas festivities the night before when they heard shouting and screaming.
"Suddenly this huge wave came, rushing down the beach, destroying everything in its wake," said Simon Clark, 29, a photographer from London vacationing on Ngai (search) island with his girlfriend, Caroline Barton, 25, also of London.
"People that were snorkeling were dragged along the coral and washed up on the beach, and people that were sunbathing got washed into the sea," Clark said.
The waves were triggered by an 8.9 magnitude undersea quake — the world's most powerful in 40 years — off the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The tidal waves struck as far away as India and Sri Lanka, where thousands died.
In Thailand, probably Asia's most popular holiday destination at this time of year, tourists desperate to leave the stricken islands were stranded by rough seas on well-known resort islands such as Phi Phi and Phuket.
On the Andaman Sea island of Phi Phi — where "The Beach" starring Leonardo DiCaprio was filmed — 200 bungalows at two resorts were swept away, along with some of their staff and customers.
"I am afraid that there will be a high figure of foreigners missing in the sea and also my staff," said Chan Marongtaechar, owner of the PP Princess Resort and PP Charlie Beach Resort.
Chan, who was in Bangkok, didn't have exact figures of missing or dead. He said workers told him they were "very scared, they want to leave the island," but the seas were too rough.
On Phuket, Somboon Wangnaitham, deputy director of the Wachira Hospital, said one of the worst hit areas was the populous Patong beach, where at least 32 people died and 500 were injured.
One survivor was Natalia Moyano, 22, of Sydney, Australia, one of the 117 patients — including 29 foreigners — in the hospital after the disaster. She was being treated for torn ligaments.
"The water kept rising. It was very slow at first, then all of a sudden, it went right up," said Moyano. "At first I didn't think there was any danger, but when I realized the water kept rising so quickly, I tried to jump over a fence, but it broke."
Ian Proud, British embassy spokesman, said he was traveling to Phuket to assess the situation and help tourists, though he didn't have any reports of British deaths or injuries. More than 700,000 Britons visit Thailand each year.
"The numbers will be high of British tourists who go to Phuket at this time of the year," Proud said.
Gerrard Donnelly of Britain was visiting Phuket with his wife.
"Initially we just heard a bang, a really loud bang," said Donnell, a guest at the island's Holiday Inn. "Then Emily, my wife, went out onto the balcony and people were just running.
"We initially thought it was a terrorist attack, then the wave came and we just kept running upstairs to get on as high ground as we could," he told Britain's Sky News.
The U.S. Embassy in Bangkok did not have an estimate for the number of American tourists in Thailand, or for those killed or injured Sunday.
"That's something the embassy is trying to track, but lots and lots of people are missing, and people who were killed were on the beach in swimsuits and didn't have ID on them," an embassy spokeswoman said on condition of anonymity.
Officials estimate that 12 million tourists will have visited Thailand by year's end, most of them stopping at the southern island and beach resorts, producing an estimated $9.77 billion in business.