Samoa plans mass burial; at least 180 feared dead

08/10/2009 07:37


By Cherelle Jackson (AFP)

APIA, Samoa -- Samoa is planning a mass burial for victims of the tsunami that devastated the Pacific island earlier this week, the government said, as the death toll from the disaster crept towards 200.

Many families were already burying their loved ones in unmarked graves on high ground less ravaged by Tuesday's walls of water that wiped out coastal settlements, but Samoa has offered a mass funeral for around 100 others.

“The government has met with the families of the dead and made the offer of a national burial and is offering a place for all those victims to be buried together,” government press secretary Uale Papalii Paimalelagi told AFP.

“Some of the victims have already been taken by their families and buried, so we expect around 100 to be laid to rest in the mass burial,” he said, adding it was up to relatives to accept the offer, but most had agreed.

The ceremony is tentatively planned for Tuesday, but may be postponed at the request of families to allow time for overseas relatives to arrive, the office of Women, Village Council and Social Development Minister Fiame Mataafa Naomi said.

The mass burial plans were revealed as the number of those feared dead in the region reached at least 180, with officials warning it would rise further.

Following the tsunami spawned by a massive, 8.0-magnitude undersea quake, at least 139 people were feared dead in Samoa, with 129 confirmed killed and 10 missing. Another 32 were confirmed dead in neighboring American Samoa and nine in Tonga, about 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) away.

Heart-wrenching accounts emerged of nine people killed in a single family as dead children were found under rubble and in treetops, underlining the extent of the catastrophe in the remote South Seas islands.

“When you see flatbed trucks coming into the town with dead bodies on the back ... I never expected to see it here in my lifetime in Samoa,” said the head of aid agency Caritas Samoa, Peter Bendinelli.

Three days after the disaster, the death toll was still rising in Samoa, where thousands were left homeless and hundreds injured when the tsunami flattened tourist resorts and fishing hamlets.

“Volunteers are still finding bodies and as time goes on the chances of finding people alive are slimmer and slimmer,” said Rosemarie North of the Samoa Red Cross. “I think we have to assume the missing are probably dead.”

Several officials said they believed more than 150 people had died in Samoa, pushing the regional toll to above 190, but some deaths were not formally recorded and the missing have not been registered as dead.

At least seven foreigners were killed when the popular tropical getaway turned into a disaster area. At least four Australians, a New Zealander and two South Koreans were confirmed dead.

Aid workers assisted by military were bringing fresh water, food, clothes and material for shelters to survivors who have been housed in makeshift camps as fears of an outbreak of disease in the tropical heat grew.

The Red Cross said 3,503 Samoans were sleeping rough following the disaster while the government said at least US$57.8 million of damage had been wrought.

In American Samoa, most search and rescue operations have ended, with swathes of coastline wrecked and more than 1,000 homeless people huddled in shelters.

Governor Togiola Tulafono told the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency that while a few people remained missing, workers had “essentially completed the bulk of the search and rescue,” according to FEMA chief Craig Fugate.

In Tonga, a bank manager in the area where the tsunami struck not only saved people's lives as the waves approached but also rescued people's life savings.