Tsunami death toll mounts to nearly 55,000

Mourners in Sri Lanka buried their dead with bare hands today while displaced and hungry islanders in Indonesia looted stores following explosive tidal waves that the United Nations said may be history's costliest natural disaster. The death toll rose to 55,000, and officials expected it to rise further.

A dozen nations in a band of destruction from Southeast Asia to Africa tallied corpses as they filled tropical beaches and choked hospital morgues. Thousands of people were missing, and millions remained homeless.

Aid agencies feared malaria and cholera may add to the toll from Sunday's massive quake-sparked waves, and mounted what UN officials said would be the world's biggest relief effort.

"This is unprecedented," said Yvette Stevens, an emergency relief coordinator of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

But help wasn't arriving fast enough for Indonesia's Sumatra island, where residents turned to looting to find food.

"There is no help, it is each person for themselves here," district official Tengku Zulkarnain told el-Shinta radio from the island's devastated western coast.

In Sri Lanka, the waves flung a train off its tracks, leaving many of its 1,000 passengers dead or missing, police said today, as rescuers uncovered thousands of bodies, bringing the island nation's toll to 18,706. The train was called Samudradevi, or Queen of the Sea.

Sunday's 9.0-magnitude earthquake under the Indian Ocean shot concussions of water onto coastlines from Indonesia to Somalia, drowning thousands. Almost a third of the dead were children, the UN children's agency estimated.

About 19,000 were killed in Indonesia, more than 4,000 in India and more than 1,500 in Thailand. Indonesia's vice president estimated his country had as many as 25,000 victims. The estimated overall toll is 55,000.

Desperate foreigners sought kin missing from holidays in Southeast Asia, where news of an unclaimed, blond 2-year-old boy brought dozens of hopeful parents to a hospital in Thailand's resort island of Phuket. They all left disappointed - except for his Swedish uncle.

In Sri Lanka's severely hit town of Galle, officials mounted a loudspeaker on a fire engine to advise residents to lay bodies of the dead on roads for collection.

Elsewhere in Sri Lanka, residents took on burial efforts with forks or even bare hands to scrape a final resting place for victims.

The tidal waves and flooding have uprooted land mines in the war-torn country, threatening to kill or maim aid workers and survivors attempting to return to what's left of their homes.

Indonesia's Sumatra island was nearest the epicentre of Sunday's monstrous quake - the world's biggest in 40 years - and rescuers there battled to reach isolated coasts.

Troops and volunteers combed seaside districts and dug into rubble of destroyed houses to seek survivors and retrieve the dead.

"We are working 24 hours to get out people out," said Red Cross worker Tamin Faisil in Banda Aceh on Sumatra.

Red Cross official Irman Rachmat, also in Banda Aceh, said people on the island were in despair.

"People are looting, but not because they are evil, but they are hungry," he said. "We don't have enough people to bury the dead. We are worried that all the corpses on the streets will lead to disease."

In Thailand's once-thriving resorts, volunteers dragged scores of corpses - including many foreign tourists - from beaches, inland pools and the debris of once-ritzy hotels.

The stench of death hung in the air for a 30-kilometre stretch of beach in southern province of Phang Nga. Near the devastated Similan Beach and Spa Resort, where mostly German tourists were staying, a naked corpse hung suspended from a tree as if crucified.

Amid the devastation were some miraculous stories of survival.

In Malaysia, a 20-day-old baby was found alive on a floating mattress. She and her family were later reunited. A Hong Kong couple vacationing in Thailand clung to a mattress for six hours.

The 2-year-old boy in Phuket, Hannes Bergstroem, was sitting alone on a road before he was taken to a hospital where his uncle found him after seeing news of the boy on the Web. Reports said the boy's mother was missing, but that his father had been located at a different hospital.

"This is a miracle, the biggest thing that could happen," said the uncle, who identified himself only as Jim.

For others, the pain of their loss was almost impossible to come to terms with."Where are my children?" asked 41-year-old Absah, as she searched for her 11 youngsters in Banda Aceh. "Where are they? Why did this happen to me? I've lost everything."

The disaster could be history's costliest, with "many billions of dollars" of damage, said UN Undersecretary Jan Egeland, who is in charge of emergency relief coordination.

Hundreds of thousands have lost everything, and millions face a hazardous future because of polluted drinking water and a lack of health services, he said.

Scores of people also were killed in Malaysia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, and the Maldives.

The waves travelled as far as Somalia, with 110 dead, and Tanzania, with 10. A handful of deaths also were reported in Seychelles, Bangladesh and Kenya.

Officials in Thailand and Indonesia conceded that immediate public warnings of gigantic waves could have saved lives. The only known warning issued by Thai authorities reached resort operators when it was too late. The waves hit Sri Lanka and India more than two hours after the quake.

But governments insisted they couldn't have known the true danger because there is no international system in place to track tsunamis in the Indian Ocean, and they could not afford the sophisticated equipment to build one.

For most people in the region, the only warning on Sunday came when shallow coastal waters disappeared, sucked away by the approaching tsunami, before returning as a massive wall of water.

The waves wiped out villages, lifted cars and boats, yanked children from the arms of parents and swept away beachgoers, scuba divers and fishermen.

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