A series of tsunamis smashed into the Pacific island nations of American and Western Samoa killing possibly more than 100 people, some washed out to sea, destroying villages and injuring hundreds, officials said today.
US President Barack Obama declared a major disaster in American Samoa, a US territory, and ordered federal aid to help recovery efforts, with a US C-130 military transport aircraft due to leave Honolulu for the tiny South Pacific islands.
Television images showed homes ripped apart, cars submerged in the sea or lodged in trees and large fishing boats hurled ashore by the waves generated by a 8.0 magnitude quake southwest of American Samoa.
Western Samoa disaster officials said at least 47 people were killed, but the toll may reach 100 as rescuers search for bodies buried under sand in flattened villages along the southern shore of the island of Upolu.
Twenty villages on Upolu's south side were reportedly destroyed, including Lepa, the home of Samoa's prime minister. The area is also the main tourist area, and the waves destroyed some resorts.
"Thankfully the alarm sounded on the radio and gave people time to climb to higher ground. But not everyone escaped," said Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, adding two children en route to hospital for flu treatment were swept away.
"Their car was just taken away. I'm so shocked, so saddened by all the loss," he told reporters on a flight from Auckland, New Zealand to Apia.
The Australian government said one Australian tourist was dead and six others missing. "It does look like there will be substantial loss of life in Samoa," said Australia's Aid Minister Bob McMullan.
In neighbouring American Samoa at least 24 people were killed and 50 injured, American Samoa Governor Togiola Tulafono said from Hawaii, with the southern portion of the main Tutuila island "devastated". The death toll there may also rise, said officials.
Director of American Samoa's homeland security Mike Sala said the waves that hit Pago Pago village were about 6 metres high.
"Some buildings were completely demolished by the waves, you know, there's no buildings anymore except the foundation," Sala told Radio New Zealand.
New Zealand said there were also serious concerns about the neighbouring island nation of Tonga after a 4-metre (13-foot) wave hit its northern coast. Tongan officials said they feared as many as 10 people had been killed.
The two Samoas and Tonga have a combined population of around 400,000 people.
A Pacific-wide tsunami warning was issued after an 8.0 magnitude undersea quake off American Samoa, with small tsunamis reaching New Zealand, Hawaii and Japan.
An Indian Ocean tsunami on 26 December 2004, which killed about 230,000 people across 11 countries, is the worst on record.
Shortly after local radio tsunami warnings were issued in American and Western Samoa, waves started crashing into the capital of American Samoa, Pago Pago, and villages and resorts on the southern coasts, witnesses said.
"It's believed as of now, there could be a number close to 100 deaths," said Ausegalia Mulipola, assistant chief executive of Western Samoa's disaster management office.
"They are still continuing the searches for any missing bodies in the area," Mulipola told Reuters, adding the southern side of the country's main island Upolu was the worst hit.
"Some areas have been flattened and the tsunami brought a lot of sand onshore, so there have been reports the sand has covered some of the bodies," Mulipola said. "So we need specialised machines to search for bodies that are buried under the sand."
The owner of the Samoan resort Sea Breeze on the southside of Upolu said she and her husband were almost washed away when the waves destroyed their resort.
"The second wave hit and came up through the floor, pushed out the back door and threw us outside," Wendy Booth told Fairfax Radio Network in Australia.
Samoa's Hotel Association chief executive Nynette Sass said many people fleeing the waves were washed out to sea.
"On the seaside there's quite a few families ... with all their children gone, washed out. Some tried to escape in cars, and the waves got the cars. It's really heartbreaking," Sass told Radio New Zealand.
Sass said people who escaped with only the clothes on their backs were now sheltering in makeshift camps on higher ground.
Red Cross teams had mobilised more than 100 emergency workers who were collecting coconuts to help meet early food and water needs, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said.