Samoa - Rescuers pulled bodies from the mud and twisted rubble and fished bloated corpses from the South Pacific off Samoa Wednesday as the death toll from a series of tsunamis climbed further.
A spotter aircraft circled the ocean looking for bodies, dropping smoke flares to pinpoint their location for a boat to collect. Within an hour five were hauled ashore and the aircraft proceeded with its gruesome search.
The death toll stood at 146 in Samoa, but officials said it was rising, with hundreds missing. Some 20 villages were destroyed in Samoa and scores flattened in nearby American Samoa.
We've seen pick-up trucks carrying the dead ... back to town, said New Zealand tourist Fotu Becerra. We were shocked when we saw the first one but after three hours, it seemed normal.
Four powerful tsunamis generated by a huge undersea quake crashed into Samoa and American Samoa Tuesday, destroying in minutes a paradise of palm trees, resorts and pristine beaches.
The waves, at least 6 meters (20 feet) high, ripped buildings apart and washed people out to sea, some still sleeping in their beds, survivors said. One mother watched in horror as her three children playing in the sand were swept away. Many died after being crushed by debris swirling in the floodwaters.
Two refrigerated shipping containers, on grass behind the main hospital in the Samoan capital Apia, served as makeshift morgues after the hospital morgue could accept no more corpses.
Along the southern coast of Samoa's main island Upolu, which bore the brunt of the tsunamis, palm trees had nearly all been flattened, snapped like twigs by the force of the ocean.
A layer of mud and sand covered many shattered buildings and boats and cars hung from trees, as survivors scavenged the debris. Survivors said people were collecting dead fish, washed ashore by the waves, to feed their families.
Sione Lousiale Kava, petroleum officer for the American Samoa government, said whole villages had disappeared.
U.S. President Barack Obama declared a major disaster in American Samoa, where more than 20 people have been killed, and ordered federal aid to help the recovery.
We have more bodies that are being found in the wreckage and being excavated and being brought to the hospital so we expect that the death toll will rise, said Dr David Bouslough at the main hospital in Pago Pago, capital of American Samoa.
Pago Pago resident Joey Cummings said buildings were not just destroyed, but had vanished, washed away by the waves.
The harbour area where the radio station was looks like a bomb went off, Cummings told U.S. television. If your building was not made of concrete it doesn't exist any more.
The waves hit early in the morning, almost without warning, leaving many villagers little chance to outrun waters surging 200 meters (650 feet) inland.
In the mountains behind the beaches men banged gas cylinders, like the church bells that call this deeply religious island to church Sunday, to warn of the danger approaching. Police drove along roads calling residents to go to higher ground.
Some, they have no place (to run), especially kids and the oldest, they lost their lives, Tua Taleu, who fled to higher ground as waves swallowed his village, told Australian radio.
Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi said it was fortunate that the tsunami struck in daylight. If it had come in the dark and the tide was high, the number of people who died would be much higher, he told Reuters.
The undersea 8 magnitude quake created small tsunamis which reached Hawaii, the coast of California and Japan within hours.
Radio New Zealand, quoting disaster authorities, said 32,000 people had been affected, with 3,000 homeless.
The devastation is frightening. Every family has been affected. One of my staff members has lost 13 members of her family, said Adimaimalaga Tafunai, director of Women in Business Development Inc (WIBDI) in Apia.
Authorities in neighboring Tonga confirmed nine dead and officials feared whole towns on outlying islands had been destroyed. Tongan officials fear 1,600 people are homeless.
The two Samoas and Tonga have a combined population of about 400,000 people and rely on subsistence agriculture, fishing and tourism.
The worst tsunami on record in the Indian Ocean tsunami on December 26, 2004 killed about 230,000 people in 11 countries.
(Additional reporting by Baris Atayman in Samoa, Adrian Bathgate and Mantik Kusjanto in Wellington, Rob Taylor and James Grubel in Canberra)
(Writing by Michael Perry; Editing by Sugita Katyal)