PATONG, Thailand – As we come down to the beachside community of Phatong (search) on the island of Phuket, the devastation begins about four blocks from shore.
The piles of cement, cars and — in some cases — people increase as we approach the shoreline. The beach, considered one of the best in the world, looks as if it should have thousands lying on its white sand.
At this point it remains deserted and for the most part free of debris, but the destruction and death can be seen just feet away, the site where waters washed away the livelihoods of so many.
For miles along the western waterfront of this Thai island, businesses, shops, homes, restaurants and resorts are destroyed. Some still have a shell, a reminder of what stood just a couple of days before.
Near where we stand, a shower stall and part of a foundation are the only things that remain of one building. No one knows if anyone who lived inside survived the tsunami (search).
Our waiter tells us he watched the wall of water from the front of our hotel.
Much of this island is covered with forest green hills that cascade into deep blue waters of the Andaman Sea (search). Dug into these hillsides are many homes and resorts that have no damage whatsoever, but their views to the west are nothing but horror.
Our hotel is one of those that were spared. Our waiter tells us he saw four massive waves in just a couple of minutes; one was higher than a beachfront palm tree, and the three others were not much smaller.
He says that from his vantage point he could see people and buildings just wash away, like a sand castle built too close the surf.
Many here are in shock or in denial of what they saw on Sunday; now they are fearful about the possibility of disease.
Just to the north of us, a few miles along the same beachfront road, piles of rubble are replaced with piles of bodies. People looking for loved ones use their bare hands to dig through the bodies and to help bury the lost.
The stench in this area is unbearable. We are warned of possible epidemics, and several aid agencies are predicting that disease could double a death toll now approaching 60,000 people.
Many more, meanwhile, are still missing.