A Frenchman vacationing at a Sri Lankan resort watched as a massive tidal wave swallowed his granddaughter — one of many tales of horror Sunday from European tourists in southern Asia.
From Germany and France to Sweden and Britain, European governments worked feverishly to tally the number of their citizens believed dead or missing after earthquake-driven tidal waves slammed some of Asia's most popular beaches.
Chaos after the Sunday morning disaster prevented an immediate count, fueling fear back home. Thousands of Europeans were vacationing in areas where the disaster struck, including Sri Lanka (search), Thailand (search) and the Maldives (search).
Philippe Gilbert recounted gripping a tree and holding his breath when a giant wave hit his beachside bungalow in the southern Sri Lankan resort of Tangalle. He watched helplessly as his 4-year-old granddaughter disappeared in waves triggered by the 8.9-magnitude undersea quake — the world's most powerful in 40 years — off the Indonesian island of Sumatra.
"I was completely carried by an absolutely monstrous wave that towered over the bungalow," Gilbert said in a telephone interview broadcast by French television station LCI. "I lost my granddaughter in it."
France's Foreign Ministry confirmed two dead, including the child and a French employee of a Club Med resort on Thailand's Phuket island.
Thousands of tourists were lounging on Thailand's renowned white-sand beaches when walls of water swept in around breakfast time.
British tourist Gerrard Donnelly was in his hotel room at Phuket island's Holiday Inn when he said he heard "a really loud bang."
"We initially thought it was a terrorist attack," Donnelly told Britain's Sky News. "Then the wave came and we just kept running upstairs to get on as high ground as we could."
At least two Swedes were killed in Thailand, Kaarlo Laakso, a Swedish Embassy official in Bangkok, told state-run broadcaster SVT.
Swedish tourist Yvonne Ek watched as vacationers vanished into the waves off Phuket. "I've seen several people disappear out into the ocean," she was quoted as saying by Swedish news agency TT.
As many as 20,000 Swedes may have been in area hit hard by the tidal waves, which slammed coastlines in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India, Thailand and Malaysia, Swedish Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Nina Ersman said. Swedes, Danes, Norwegians and Finn traditionally flock to Thailand during their long, cold winters.
The Danish Foreign Ministry said two Danes were killed in Phuket, where some 5,000 Danes were vacationing, and expressed concerns that the death could climb. Norway's Foreign Ministry said it had no reports of deaths among the 3,000 Norwegian tourists in the region.
Mario Koepers, a spokesman for major German travel operator TUI, told Germany's ARD television that his company will send planes to the region through Dec. 31 to help evacuate tourists. Germany's Foreign Ministry said it had no confirmation on any German casualties.
Italian Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini said 20 Italians were injured in the disaster, with 13 hospitalized in Phuket and seven in the Maldives. They were among "several thousand" Italians in the area, he said, urging Italians to cancel their vacations to the region.
"Don't depart. I strongly advise everyone against setting out for the stricken areas," Fini said.
Foreign ministries across Europe set up hot lines for concerned relatives seeking information on family and friends in the region.
Swiss Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Daniela Stoffel-Fatzer said a government hot line was overloaded by calls.
Three of Switzerland's tour operators said they had a total of 2,200 clients in the region — mostly in the Maldives, Thailand and Sri Lanka. The operators — Hotelplan Group, Kuoni Switzerland and TUI Suisse — said they were still trying to contact many of their customers.
Two Turkish soccer players, Emre Asik and Suat Kaya, were vacationing in the Maldives and called soccer authorities early Sunday to say they were stranded. An official from the Besiktas club, Kivanc Oktay, said the pair was being evacuated by ferry.