PORT MORESBY, PAPUA NEW GUINEA — On this Pacific island north of Australia, there was nowhere and no time to run when three tsunamis swept homes, schools, and shops from the beaches of northwest Papua New Guinea.
Yet long after the waves smashed in Friday night, survivors were still emerging, digging themselves free of sand or grasping the hands of rescuers.
"They picked up a woman hanging on to a canoe for 18 hours ... and they also dug out a child half-buried that was still alive," Sister Francois, who works at the area's Roman Catholic mission, said yesterday. "So [the rescuers] are trying their best to find injured people who are still alive."
Rescue officials estimate that at least 1,000 people died when the tidal waves struck a 15-mile stretch of coastline. There were nine villages on the spit of land that fronted the Bismarck Sea. Few traces remain of some of the towns.
Survivors said their homes trembled as the earthquake that caused the tsunamis shook the seabed just off the village of Aitape. Then came a roar like the sound of a jet fighter landing. Three waves, the largest of which was 30 feet high, struck in minutes.
Tidal waves start as an insignificant ripple on the ocean's surface capable of passing under a ship unnoticed, but they become giants as they approach land. They are most common in the Pacific Ocean. Geological centers in Hawaii and Australia on Friday night monitored an earthquake in the Bismarck Sea measuring 7.
Probably the most destructive tsunami on record occurred Aug. 27, 1883, following an eruption of the Krakatoa volcano between the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra. More than 36,000 people were killed by the resulting tidal waves.