Major tsunami thrashes SE Asia
A massive tsunami swept across southeast Asia Sunday, killing more than 8,000 people.
One of the most powerful earthquakes in history Sunday triggered a tsunami that swept across thousands of miles of shoreline in southern Asia, swamping fishing villages in India and Sri Lanka as well tourist resorts in Thailand and the Maldives, and killing more than 8,000 people.Skip to next paragraph
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This tsunami - a wall of water up to 30 feet high - was spawned by an 8.9 magnitude underwater earthquake off of Sumatra.
While tsunamis are relatively rare in the Indian Ocean, the devastation is likely to prompt calls to extend a 26-nation tsunami warning network in the Pacific, where most tidal waves occur. And strong aftershocks could trigger more tsunamis. The earthquake may also have created new quake zones hundreds of miles away.
"Tsunamis occur in all oceans," and the warning center the US runs in Hawaii "does a good job of monitoring the Pacific," says Harley Benz, chief scientist for the US Geological Survey's National Earthquake Information Center in Golden, Colo. But this event was outside the area monitored by the network.
This tsunami originated where two plates in the Earth's crust - the India and Burma plates - collide. A 620-mile segment of the boundary snapped. Suddenly the Burma plate's margin stood at least 15 meters higher than the India Plate. With a preliminary magnitude of 8.9, the quake was the strongest anywhere in the globe in the last 40 years and perhaps the strongest ever recorded in this region. It followed by three days a magnitude 8.1 quake off of Tasmania. The sudden shift in plate-boundary heights was like slapping the underside of a full pail of water. It triggered a tidal wave that reached an estimated 20 to 30 feet high when it made landfall.
Depending on a location's distance from the undersea quake or landslide, warning times may be short. In the open ocean, a tsunami can travel several hundred miles per hour, with the distance between wave crests stretching for 300 to 400 miles. At sea, a tsunami's height may only reach a foot or two above the surrounding ocean. Only when it begins to feel the sea floor's friction along a coast does it slow down and rear up.
Hardy Bebuch, a German tourist staying on Thailand's idyllic Phi Phi island, was looking out over the bay from his second-floor hotel window when the first wave hit about 10:30 a.m. local time. Moments before, he recalled by phone, "The sea went back. I said to my wife, 'I've never seen those rocks before, they must be hundreds of meters away.' It was incredible," he said. Then the first wave swept into his beachfront hotel, submerging the floor below. Wooden boats were hurled into trees. "We were staying in a strong building. It didn't collapse. But there were many villas washed away."
Associated Press reported that 200 bungalows were destroyed on Phi Phi island, where "The Beach," starring Leonardo DiCaprio, was filmed. It's off the southwest coast of Thailand.
Mr. Bebuch said the first wave was one (3.3 feet) meter high, the second was almost 10 feet high, with a gap of two and a half minutes between them. "People were running everywhere," he says. He joined hundreds of tourists and tourist workers in scrambling to higher ground on the island, as more waves crashed onto the shore.
Kim Yongmi, an oil painter from Korea who was vacationing on a small island off Phuket, Thailand, said by phone that she and half of the island's tourists sought refuge in a Buddhist monastery on a hill on the island. They plan to spend the night there.
On Phi Phi, electricity and phone lines were cut by the tsunami. Army and police helicopters landed on the island later Sunday afternoon to evacuate some 600 tourists.
Bebuch left on a private ferry bound for Phuket and met a Dutchman who was asking if anyone had seen his wife. "They were walking on the beach when it happened, and he said they were running away, but they went different directions. He didn't see her after that," says Bebuch.