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119 Dead, Villages 'Wiped Out' in Samoa Tsunami

Police in green reflective vests searched a ghastly landscape of mud-strewn streets, pulverized homes and bodies scattered in a swamp Wednesday as dazed survivors emerged from the muck and mire of an earthquake and tsunami that killed 119 in the South Pacific.

Military transports flew medical personnel, food, water and medicine to the islands of Samoa and American Samoa, which were devastated by the wall of water triggered by Tuesday morning's undersea earthquake. One cargo plane from New Zealand brought in a temporary morgue and a body identification team — with officials expecting the death toll to rise as more areas are searched.

Cars and boats — many battered and upside down — littered the coastline. Debris as small as a spoon and as large as piece of masonry weighing several tons were strewn in the mud.

Survivors told harrowing tales of encountering the deadly tsunami.

PHOTOS: Tsunami aftermath

RAW VIDEO: Devastation in Samoa (via YouTube)

"I was scared. I was shocked," said Didi Afuafi, 28, who was on a bus when the giant waves came ashore on American Samoa. "All the people on the bus were screaming, crying and trying to call their homes. We couldn't get on cell phones. The phones just died on us. It was just crazy."

With the water approaching fast, the bus driver sped to the top of a nearby mountain, where 300 to 500 people were gathered, including patients evacuated from the main hospital. Among them were newborns with IVs, crying children and frightened elderly people.

A family atop the mountain provided food and water, while clergymen led prayers. Afuafi helped evacuate some patients, and said people are on still on edge and feared another quake.

"This is going to be talked about for generations," said Afuafi, who lives just outside the village of Leone, one of the hardest hit areas.

Suavai Ioane was rattled by the violent earthquake that shook his village of 600 people on Samoa — but he didn't have much time to calm down.

"After the shaking finished, about five or 10 minutes after, the wave very quickly came over us," said Ioane, who was carried by a wave about 80 yards (meters) inland from his village of Voutosi. He knew he was lucky to be alive; eight bodies were found in a nearby swamp.

Some people had enough warning to run to higher ground.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii said it issued an alert, but the waves got to the islands so quickly that residents only had about 10 minutes to respond. Another system designed to alert aid agencies suffered a hardware malfunction that delayed notification, but that did not affect island residents.

The quake was centered about 120 miles south of the islands of Samoa, which has about 220,000 people, and American Samoa, a U.S. territory of 65,000.

Four tsunami waves 15 to 20 feet (4 to 6 meters) high roared ashore on American Samoa about 15 minutes after the quake, reaching up to a mile (1.5 kilometers) inland, officials said.

Another strong underwater earthquake rocked western Indonesia on Wednesday, less than 24 hours after the Samoan quake, briefly triggering a tsunami alert for countries along the Indian Ocean. The 7.6-magnitude quake toppled buildings, cut power and triggered a landslide on Sumatra island, and at least 75 people were reported killed. Experts said the seismic events were not related.

Hampered by power and communications outages, officials in the South Pacific islands struggled to determine casualties and damage.

Samoa National Disaster Management committee member Filomina Nelson told New Zealand's National Radio the number of dead in her country had reached 83 — mostly elderly and young children. At least 30 people were killed on American Samoa, Gov. Togiola Tulafono said.

Authorities in Tonga, southwest of the Samoas, confirmed at least six dead and four missing, according to acting New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English.

A Coast Guard C-130 plane loaded with aid and carrying Federal Emergency Management Agency officials flew from Hawaii to American Samoa's capital of Pago Pago, where debris had been cleared from runways so emergency planes could land.

President Barack Obama declared a major disaster for American Samoa.

In Pago Pago, the streets and fields were filled with debris, mud, overturned cars and boats. Several buildings in the city — just a few feet above sea level — were flattened. Power was expected to be out in some areas for up to a month and officials said some 2,200 people were in seven shelters across the island.

"Right now, we're focused on bringing in the assistance for people that have been injured, and for the immediate needs of the tens of thousands of survivors down there," said FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate.

Reinforcements were on the way, including a Navy frigate and two huge Air Force cargo planes soon to leave from Hawaii.

English said the temporary morgue and the body identification team were sent to Samoa after local officials expressed concern "about the growing death toll."

Hundreds of people bombarded American Samoa's radio stations with requests to announce the names of their missing loved ones. Broadcasters urged listeners to contact their families immediately.

Joey Cummings of radio station 93KHJ in Pago Pago told the BBC that he watched from a balcony as a 15-foot tsunami wave struck, and "the air was filled with screams."

He yelled for people to run uphill, "but they just ran down the street away from the wave rather than make a sharp left and up the steep mountain just feet away."

A "river of mud" carried trees, cars, buses and boats past his building, which is practically at sea level, Cummings said.

Some people ransacked stores, he said, adding that bodies were stacked in the back of pickup trucks.

In Carson, Calif., High Chief Loa Pele Faletogo, president of the Samoan Federation of America, comforted Samoans in the U.S. who came to him seeking news of their relatives. The chief said he learned the body of one of his cousins, in her 60s, was found floating along the shore.

All 65 employees at the National Park of American Samoa were accounted for, said Holly Bundock, spokeswoman for the National Park Service's Pacific West Region in Oakland, Calif. The park service has 13 permanent workers and between 30 and 50 volunteers, depending on the time of year.

The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs said three Australians were among the dead. The British Foreign Office said one Briton was missing and presumed dead.

"So much has gone. So many people are gone," said a visibly shaken Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi as he flew from New Zealand to Apia. "I'm so shocked, so saddened by all the loss."

He said his village of Lepa was destroyed. Although the alarm sounded on the radio and gave people time to get to higher ground, "not everyone escaped," he added.

Before boarding the C-130 with the FEMA officials in Hawaii, Tulafono said "each and every family" in American Samoa will know one of the dead.

While the earthquake and tsunami were big, they were not on the same scale of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed more than 230,000 in a dozen countries across Asia.

Although the quakes in the Samoas and Indonesia struck within 24 hours of each other, experts said there was no link between them.