Eye witness: 'We watched our restaurant flout out to sea'

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The Independent Online

Chris and Wendy Booth fell in love with the South Pacific island nation of Samoa in 1996. Ten years later, they left their native Australia to open a beachside resort, Sea Breeze, there. Yesterday, they were almost washed away when giant waves crashed into the main island, Upolu, following a massive offshore earthquake.

Their resort was destroyed, but they count themselves lucky. At least 100 people died in Samoa, the neighbouring US territory of American Samoa and the country of Tonga, to the south, in the Pacific's worst tsunami for more than a decade.

Entire villages were flattened along Upolu's southern shore, which is also Samoa's main tourist area. In American Samoa, where the main industry is tuna canning, workers at a factory in the capital, Pago Pago, said they had only three minutes' warning before waves up to 30ft high struck the main island, Tutuila. At least 30 people are confirmed dead in the territory.

The headquarters of the National Park were wiped out, according to the park superintendent, Mike Reynolds, who called colleagues in California while sheltering under a coconut tree.

Joey Cummings, a radio broadcaster in American Samoa who was interviewed by US television, said the tsunami produced a destructive, muddy river that swept away trees, boulders, cars and boats. "If you have a building and it wasn't made out of concrete, it doesn't exist any more," he said. "You just have... debris strewn all over the place. It looks like a bomb went off."

The quake, which lasted several minutes and had an epicentre 125 miles south-west of Samoa, struck just before 7am. Six or seven minutes later, the first tsunami roared ashore. Then came another.

Mrs Booth told Australia's Fairfax Radio Network: "The second wave hit and came up through the floor, pushed out the back door and threw us outside... We managed to hang on to a handrail. My husband and I just hung on to each other... The furniture was pushed with the ferocity of the wave through the ceiling."

Mr Booth added: "Our restaurant just floated out to sea, complete, until it smashed up in the water."

The earthquake sparked a Pacific-wide tsunami alert, with Hawaii, Japan and New Zealand hit by smaller, harmless waves.

In Samoa, which was immortalised by Robert Louis Stevenson, Susili Dusi was among those jolted awake by the quake. As the walls of her house shook, she and her family ran outside to find the trees shaking, too, and they fled to higher ground.

Others were not so swift. Although sirens sounded and tsunami alerts were broadcast on the radio, some survivors complained that they received no warning. After the ground stopped moving, said one woman, who gave her name only as Ngutu, "everyone was just walking around normal... curious about what was going to happen".

Then, she told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, a wave "tall as the sky" smashed into her village, Ulutogia. "Everyone just started running inland towards the hills, running for our lives." In the mountains, young men banged gas canisters to alert those down below.

Samoa is considered one of the best prepared countries in the quake-prone region, but "if things happen so quickly, there's not a lot you can do", Peter Muller, the regional disaster response adviser to the UN's Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told The Independent.

As the US, Australia and New Zealand prepared to send aid to the region, emergency workers collected coconuts to provide survivors with food and water. The capital, Apia, was evacuated and a maritime surveillance plane sent by New Zealand searched for survivors off the coast.

The death toll is expected to rise, with bodies hidden by sand that was thrown on to the shore by the waves. People were also swept out to sea.

Hundreds were injured and thousands made homeless by the disaster, which levelled at least 20 villages on Upolu, including Lepa, the home of Samoa's Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi.

"So much has gone. So many people are gone," Mr Malielegaoi said. "I'm so shocked, so saddened by all the loss."