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Death toll in Samoas tsunami reaches 149

Stunned Samoans dug through the sodden wreckage of their homes and told of the terror of being trapped underwater or flung inland by the tsunami that ravaged towns and killed at least 149 people in the South Pacific.

Officials expect the death toll to rise as more areas are searched.

"The devastation caused was complete," Samoan Minister Tuilaepa Sailele told New Zealand's National Radio yesterday after inspecting the southeast coast of the main island of Upolu, the epicenter of the damage. "In some villages absolutely no house was standing. All that was achieved within 10 minutes by the very powerful tsunami."

His own village of Lesa was washed away, as were many others in Samoa, American Samoa and Tonga.

A magnitude 8.0 quake struck off Samoa at 6:48am local time on Tuesday. The islands soon were engulfed by four tsunami waves 15 to 20 feet high that reached up to a mile inland.

"To me it was like a monster — just black water coming to you. It wasn't a wave that breaks, it was a full force of water coming straight," said Luana Tavale, an American Samoa government employee.

Samoa Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele said the death toll there was 110, mostly elderly and young children. At least 30 people were killed on American Samoa, Gov. Togiola Tulafono said. Officials on the island of Tonga said nine people had been killed.

Samoan police commander Lilo Maiava said the toll would rise.

"It may take a week, two weeks or even three weeks" to complete a painstaking search for the many people still missing, he said.

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The quake was centered about 120 miles south of Samoa, which has about 220,000 people, and American Samoa, a US territory of 65,000.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre in Hawaii said it issued an alert, but the waves came so quickly that residents only had about 10 minutes to respond. Another system designed to alert aid agencies suffered a hardware malfunction that delayed notification, but that did not affect residents.

New Zealand school teacher Charlie Pearse choked back tears as she spoke to New Zealand's TV One News from an Apia hospital bed in Samoa, recalling how she was trapped underwater and thought she was going to die.

She was in the back of a truck trying to outrun the tsunami with about 20 children when a wave tossed the truck and it landed on top of them.

"We all went under the water and I think a number of the children died instantly," Pearse said.

"I asked, 'Is this my time to come home? Take me home, I'm ready,' and I let my breath out and I took a big gulp of water ... and I don't know, I just popped out (from under the water)," Pearse said.

The two-hour drive from the Apia airport to the heavily damaged southeast coast was little more than a link between flattened, mud-swept villages. Mattresses hung from trees. Police searched for survivors amid pulverized homes and bodies scattered in a swamp.

Along the southeast coast, several tourist resorts were wiped out, authorities said, but they had no solid number of visitors in the area.