CUDDALORE, India – The adults wept with swollen eyes in the corner of a wedding hall in this southeastern Indian fishing village, while children played hide-and-seek obliviously nearby.
Hours after the largest earthquake in 40 years struck southern Asia Sunday unleashing massive tsunamis, the parents knew something their children did not: that families, homes, boats – often everything they had – had been swept away in a few minutes by the raging waters.
Some 2,300 people died in India when its southeastern coast and islands were battered by waves triggered by a magnitude 9.0 undersea earthquake off Indonesia. The Press Trust of India news agency put the death toll in India as high as 4,000, but there was no official confirmation of that figure.
The worst devastation was in Tamil Nadu state – more than 1,700 people died here.
Nearly 22,000 survivors from 45 fishing villages in Cuddalore district were given shelter in government buildings, a local jail and halls normally used for wedding receptions, said Gagandeep Singh Bedi, the top district administrator.
Those who were lucky got bed sheets to spread on the floor; others slept on the concrete. Relief volunteers rushed food to the area.
“I expect at least 2,000 people who have been injured to come for treatment. We have enough medical supplies,” said S. Narayanswamy, chief of the government-run General Hospital.
On Sunday, Ananda Selvi, 30, waited for her husband as the waves came in. Sudhakar Selvi went fishing earlier in the day.
“I didn’t know whether to look toward the sea for my husband, or to run away to save myself,” she said. “Then I ran and ran and ran, and now here I am, without any word of him.”
On the shore, broken boats lay on their sides and bamboo frames were the only remains of smashed huts.
“We ran in all directions,” said Tamilarasi, a 47-year-old woman with eyes red from crying. She said she lost five relatives, including two grandsons, and a fishing boat.
“When the wave receded, some people were sucked in,” she said. “Others ran away. Some people climbed on coconut trees. I got hold of two children who were near me, and started running. When we were on dry ground, we realized some of us were missing.”
In Andhra Pradesh state to the north, waves as high as coconut trees washed away hundreds of small fishing boats.
The death toll in the state stood at 91, but 810 fishermen are missing, said state Chief Minister Y. Rajashekhar Reddy. “The poor people, be it fishermen or the salt farm workers are the worst hit by this devastation,” he said.
Tales of survival and loss came in from other coastal Asian nations.
In Sri Lanka, Sahir Rahim said he couldn’t believe his eyes after he found that his house with almost everything in it had disappeared. The Trincomalee area on the northeast coast is one of the worst affected, accounting for over 600 deaths.
“This is where my house was, where is it?” asked a bewildered Rahim, clutching his 3-year-old daughter, Azima and pointing to a land which once held his home. He was visiting a relative with his family when the 15- to 20-foot waves hit.
There are many like him on this stretch of coast, which was scattered with the remnants of homes, fishing boats and nets.
The waves were so fierce that they threw fishing boats 1,000 feet onto the shore, sometimes piercing the roofs of homes.