KARIM RAJIA, Indonesia – U.S. helicopters rescued dozens of desperate and weak tsunami (search) survivors, including a young girl clutching a stuffed Snoopy dog, as the American military relief operation reached out to remote areas of Indonesia with cartons of food and water on Monday.
Although the United States was not among the first at the scene after last week's natural disaster thousands of miles from American shores, it is now spearheading the international relief effort and delivering more supplies than any other nation. A U.S. warship strike group carrying thousands more Marines was headed in to help.
"Look at that, look at that! It's so big!" shouted a 6-year-old girl, Khairunisa, as a U.S. Hercules cargo plane roared over Banda Aceh (search), the capital of Sumatra island's devastated Aceh province and the base of the aid operation in Indonesia.
The Americans flew missions from the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (search) along a 120-mile stretch of Sumatra's ravaged coastline, further revealing the extent of the destruction. The tsunami, triggered by the world's most powerful earthquake in 40 years, has killed more than 139,000 people in Asia and Africa; considerably more than half of the deaths were on Sumatra.
Many of the 60 victims picked up in more than two dozen missions Monday — including children, elderly and two pregnant women — were too weak from eight days with little food or water to speak or move. Doctors said they suffered from pneumonia, broken bones, infected wounds and tetanus. Many appeared deeply traumatized. At least 25 were in critical condition.
The American pilots ferried the survivors to a medical field station in Banda Aceh. The ones not rushed on stretchers were placed on a blue plastic sheet, among them a young girl clutching a stuffed Snoopy dog. Some cried, and aid workers stroked their arms and backs to comfort them. They were given chocolate wafers, water, sweaters and T-shirts.
In the shattered village of Meulaboh, an injured man stretched out on the ground, hooked to an intravenous drip that hung from a tree branch outside an overcrowded hospital emergency room. In Lam Jamek, another ruined village, survivors used an elephant to pull a vehicle to the provincial capital.
The U.S. pilots said the damage was stunning. The five-vessel U.S. carrier group and much of the crew, which moved into position on Saturday, served in the Persian Gulf during the Iraq conflict.
"In my 17 years of service, I have never seen such devastation and I hope that I'll never see such again in my life," said Senior Chief Jesse Cash, of Albuquerque, N.M., who has served in Somalia and Liberia.
The devastation illustrated the awesome power of the waves.
At Karim Rajiatwo, about seven miles south of Banda Aceh, huge tanks at an oil storage facility 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.
Two helicopters dropped off 1,800 pounds of soup and biscuits donated by schools in Singapore. At one point, the choppers flew low over what appeared to be a fishing flotilla off the coast. There were no signs of life.
The American relief operation was one of the largest U.S. military missions in southern Asia since the Vietnam War.
On far smaller scales, other navies are also helping.
Australia, which has 600 troops involved in relief efforts, is using cargo planes to shuttle aid and sent a troop-carrying ship that is due to arrive off Aceh province in mid-January. France and India are each deploying two naval vessels to unspecified locations in southern Asia. Russia sent three relief planes to Sri Lanka.
Indonesia says its military lacks the supplies and equipment to carry off such a massive operation on its own. It also says its air force suffers from a shortage of spare parts as a result of the ban on sales of U.S. military equipment to Jakarta. Washington imposed the ban in 1999 after the Indonesian military and pro-Jakarta militias killed 1,500 people in East Timor in a failed attempt to repress an independence movement in what was then an Indonesian province.
Since the tsunami, Indonesia has sent four vessels to the shattered village of Meulaboh and has only two helicopters in Sumatra, compared to a planned 25 from the United States.
More American help was coming. The USS Bonhomme Richard and two other warships carrying a Marine expeditionary unit, dozens of helicopters and tons of supplies steamed into the Indian Ocean on Monday to join relief operations off Sumatra and Sri Lanka.
"We've been racing across the ocean," said Rear Adm. Chris Ames, commander of the strike force.
The strike group, which had been headed to the Persian Gulf, was diverted while near the Pacific island of Guam. Ames said the Marines' primary responsibilities would include transporting food and medical supplies.
The Pentagon also has decided to send the USNS Mercy, a 1,000-bed hospital ship based at San Diego, to join the relief effort, officials said.
U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland said he was encouraged by the military response to the Dec. 26 tsunami, singling out U.S. Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman for praise.
"The group that the U.S. initiated have proven very useful in responding to my 12-point wish list for everything from helicopters to transport planes to air traffic controllers," Egeland said in New York.
The U.S. operation in Sumatra is part of a wider international effort. The American helicopters brought survivors to an air base in Banda Aceh where medical teams — including Chinese, Australians and Indonesians — tended to their immediate needs before putting them into trucks destined for nearby hospitals.
"We're just making sure they don't die," said Cmdr. William Griggs of the Australian air force.
It appeared that the carrier group, crewed by more than 6,500 sailors and Marines, was settling in for the long haul. Rear Adm. Doug Crowder, the task force commander, said two more Navy vessels were expected Tuesday, along with more helicopters.
"As tragic as it is, it's now about helping people who have survived," he said.
The U.S. agenda was being set by the Indonesian government. For now, the helicopters are flying only as far south as Meulaboh. Pilots said damage farther south could be even worse.
"They've helped us reach places we have not had the time, or manpower, or equipment to go to," said Indonesian military spokesman Ahmad Yani Basuki. "It really speeds up the distribution of aid."
On the Lincoln, ship commander Capt. Kendall L. Card told all aboard through an intercom that the vessel's helicopters flew 27 missions Monday and delivered 80,000 pounds of supplies.
"Word is definitely going out that help is coming," he said. "We're providing relief where needed. A great day by the whole coalition."