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'The others were shouting 'tsunami' but we thought it's a joke'

September 30, 2009 - 12:51PM

Locals in Samoa have been told more than 100, and possibly "hundreds", may have been killed in the tsunami that hit the island this morning.

The confirmed death toll from the South Pacific earthquake and tsunami is at 36, with a minimum of 14 reported dead in both Samoa and American Samoa, according to the Red Cross and media reports.

But media in Samoa says the tsunami had devastated villages on the south of the island, and the number of people feared dead was far higher.

"It’s like nothing we’ve ever experienced before," said Tasi Uesele, who lives 10 minutes from the centre of the Samoan capital, Apia.

"There’s unconfirmed reports that are on TV right now that up to 100 people, including tourists, that are missing right now because of the waves that hit hard."

A large number of the dead were believed to be from Lalomanu, a village on Samoa’s south-eastern tip popular with tourists, she said.

"We don’t know if the 100 are from people swept out [to sea] or from when tremors shook and people were buried in their own houses.

"We just saw some footage of dead people being brought into the hospital ... we’ve only seen about three or four dead and a lot of people wounded."

A Samoan schoolgirl whose village was evacuated to the mountains around Apia also said local radio reported hundreds of people were killed when the tsunami hit Lalomanu.

"They’re still looking for other people, missing people, they said hundreds," said Sulu Bentley, who lives in Leauvaa, 15 minutes from Apia.

"There are no houses, clothes, and stuff is all everywhere."

Sulu said she was on her way to school in Leauvaa when she was forced to turn around and run to the mountains for safety.

"The others were shouting ’tsunami!’ but we thought it’s a joke but then when we went down (the hill to the markets) on the bus the police were shouting at us to go to the mountains.

"And then we saw ... the sea level was high, was rising.

"We ran to the mountains where the other people are running."

The tsunami was triggered by an earthquake measuring 8.3 on the Richter scale that struck midway between Samoa and American Samoa at 3.48am AEST today (6.48am local time, Tuesday).

Ms Uesele said the first wave hit so quickly after the tremor that locals had little time to react.

"One of the church ministers from that area said about five minutes after the first tremor died, the waves came in, so it was really fast," she said.

"According to the evacuation plans, after 15 minutes a wave will hit ... so people were taken by surprised."

Ms Uesele said she was nursing her son when the first tremor hit.

"This was like nothing we’d experienced, it just shook the whole house, glasses and everything fell and broke."

Ms Uesele said her house was about 10 minutes from the centre of Apia, and on higher ground, so she was in no danger from the sea.

"We’ve had the whole extended family congregating in our house."

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