Samoa death toll nears 150 after deadly tsunami

Rescuers reached scenes of stunning devastation on Thursday after a killer tsunami obliterated Samoan island villages, killing at least 148 people and leaving scores more missing.

As distraught relatives picked through the rubble of homes and tourist resorts destroyed by Tuesday's 8.0-magnitude earthquake that triggered a tsunami, aid workers were left breathless at the catastrophe.

"The devastation was astronomical, worse than anything I have ever seen," said Peter Bendinelli, head of the non-profit group Caritas Samoa.

The death toll is expected to rise dramatically after the Samoan islands' worst quake in nearly a century unleashed walls of water that pounded the coast, echoing Asia's deadly 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. Country profile: Samoa

Survivors described seeing truckloads of bodies in Samoa, an idyllic Pacific holiday destination which counted 110 dead, and expected the toll to rise further as bodies are recovered from wrecked buildings and the sea.

"It's not paradise any more -- it's hell on earth," one survivor told Australia's Sky News as the morgue at Apia's hospital was forced to use a refrigerated shipping container to help handle overflow bodies.

Entire villages were laid to waste and the pristine white beaches that once wooed bathers were strewn with the mangled wreckage of buildings and cars as well as luggage, furniture and poignant personal items.

"We lost everything," said Meleisea Sa, a village chief in the decimated fishing hamlet of Poutasi, as villagers searched for loved ones and personal possessions in the twisted ruins of their homes.

"I must rebuild this, or I have nothing," he said as he salvaged parts of his ruined house near four generations of family graves completely destroyed by the waves. "I look at the water now and I am frightened," he told AFP. Recent major quakes, tsunamis

At least 31 were killed in neighbouring American Samoa and seven lost their lives when the tsunami hit Tonga, 1,000 kilometres 600 miles away.

Looters roamed the devastated streets of the American Samoan capital Pago Pago in search of food and other items after 7.5 meter waves 25 feet smashed homes and hurled cars into treetops.

Raiders were targeting liquor and cigarettes and other saleable items, but "were mainly taking food, frozen chickens and things like that," said local journalist Aufage Fausia. Witness account: Pamela Stephenson

Some 2,500 people were forced from their homes by the disaster and were being housed in relief shelters in the remote US outpost that President Barack Obama declared a major disaster zone.

Looters also struck in Samoa, where aid workers and property owners were defending what remained of their property from being ransacked. Related article: Looters roam streets

"We poured our life and our life savings into this place. I just can't watch it be taken away from me," said Chris Booth, who employed security guards to protect his ruined Sea Breeze Resort on Samoa's southern coast.

As aid planes arrived in Samoa from Australia and New Zealand, rescuers bringing food, clothing, medicine and fresh drinking water to survivors saw the full extent of the catastrophe.

Australian planes carrying search-and-rescue, medical experts and other items flew into the Samoan capital, Apia, to join the search for residents and tourists and help treat the waves of injured.

Tonga reported significant damage on the small island of Niuatoputapu with at least seven dead and three missing. However, other countries saw only large waves at worst despite a brief, Pacific-wide tsunami warning.

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