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October 1, 2009

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At least 99 killed in Samoan tsunami

A massive tsunami unleashed by a powerful earthquake flattened Samoan villages and swept cars and people out to sea, killing at least 99 and leaving dozens missing yesterday. The death toll was expected to rise.

Survivors fled the fast-churning water for higher ground on the South Pacific islands and remained huddled there hours after the quake, with a magnitude between 8 and 8.3, struck around dawn on Tuesday.

The quake was centered about 190 kilometers south of the islands of Samoa, which has about 180,000 people, and American Samoa, a US territory of 65,000.

Four tsunami waves 4 to 6 meters high roared ashore on American Samoa, reaching up to 1.5 kilometers inland, Mike Reynolds, superintendent of the National Park of American Samoa, was quoted as saying by a parks service spokeswoman.

The Samoan capital, Apia, was virtually deserted by afternoon, with schools and businesses closed. Hours after the waves struck, sirens rang out with another tsunami alert, and panicked residents headed for higher ground again, although there was no indication of a new quake.

In American Samoa's capital of Pago Pago, the streets and fields were filled with ocean debris, mud, overturned cars and several boats as a massive cleanup effort stretched into the night. 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.

In Washington, President Barack Obama has declared a major disaster for American Samoa.

Samoan police commissioner Lilo Maiava said police had confirmed 63 deaths but devastated areas were still being searched.

At least 30 people were killed on American Samoa, Governor Togiola Tulafono said, adding that the toll was expected to rise from searches by emergency crews. "I don't think anybody is going to be spared in this disaster," said Tulafono.

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

Joey Cummings of radio station 93KHJ in Pago Pago told the BBC that he and his colleagues watched from a balcony as a 5-meter tsunami wave struck, and "the air was filled with screams."

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

Some people searched for trapped survivors, he said, but others looted stores. Bodies were stacked in the back of pickup trucks, he added.

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.


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