Death toll in Samoas tsunami reaches 150

APIA, Samoa – Stunned Samoans combed through the sodden wreckage of their lives and told of the terror of being trapped underwater or flung inland by a tsunami that ravaged towns and killed at least 150 people in the South Pacific.

Officials expect the death toll from Tuesday's disaster to rise as more areas are searched.

"The devastation caused was complete," Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele told New Zealand's National Radio on Wednesday after inspecting the southeast coast of the main island of Upolu, the most heavily hit area. "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 and nearby American Samoa and Tonga.

A magnitude 8.0 quake struck off Samoa at 6:48 a.m. local time 1:48 p.m. EDT; 1748 GMT Tuesday. The islands soon were engulfed by four tsunami waves 15 to 20 feet 4 to 6 meters high that reached up to a mile 1.5 kilometers 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.

Tuilaepa said the death toll in Samoa was 110, mostly elderly and young children. At least 31 people were killed on American Samoa, Gov. Togiola Tulafono said. Officials in the island nation of Tonga said nine people had been killed.

Samoan police commander Lilo Maiava predicted the toll would rise.

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

The quake was centered about 120 miles 190 kilometers south of the nation of Samoa, formerly part of New Zealand, which has about 220,000 people, and American Samoa, a U.S. territory of 65,000. The two lie about halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii, just east of the international date line. That means the tsunami hit Tuesday morning there, while it was already Wednesday in Asia.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii said it issued an alert, but the waves came so quickly that residents only had about 10 minutes to respond.

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.

On the island of Upolu, taro farmer Tony Fauena said he ran for the hills when the deadly tsunami thundered across the coast while his niece ran to rescue her 6-month-old son. Villagers found the bodies of the mother and son entangled in uprooted trees and debris at the foot of lush mountains 200 yards meters from the ocean.

"Many parents died trying to protect their children," Fauena told The Associated Press from the ruins of a brother's home in the village of Sale Ataga on the southeast coast as he watched police search the same area for four more missing relatives.

McGuirk reported from Apia, McAvoy from Pago Pago, American Samoa. Also contributing were Associated Press writers Fili Sagapolutele in Pago Pago, Ray Lilley in Wellington, New Zealand; Tanalee Smith in Adelaide, Australia; Jaymes Song, Mark Niesse, Herbert A. Sample in Honolulu, Cara Anna in Bangkok, Amy Taxin in Santa Ana, Calif., and Seth Borenstein and Michele Salcedo in Washington.

A member of the special warfare command poses for photographs as he parachutes from a helicopter near Seoul. REUTERS/Jo Yong-Hak