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Tsunami: Scenes of grief, viewed from van of death

December 21, 2014

Some 230,000 people were killed in the Indian Ocean tsunami set off by a magnitude 9.1 earthquake on Dec. 26, 2004. A dozen countries were hit, from Indonesia to India to Africa’s east coast. Scores of Associated Press journalists covered the disaster, and as the 10th anniversary approached, the AP asked 10 of them to describe the images that have stuck with them the most. This is the fifth of their stories, which are being published daily through Dec. 26.

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Jim Gomez, the AP’s chief correspondent in the Philippines, was deployed to the worst-hit area, Banda Aceh, Indonesia:

I accompanied a body-collecting team as it plumbed wrecked villages in Banda Aceh. The body collectors followed swarms of flies, and the stench, to find bodies hidden under collapsed buildings. Once their rickety van was filled with bodies, it would dart across the city to a mass grave at the outskirts, siren wailing.

I rode beside the driver, who unlike me wasn’t even wearing a medical mask. Behind me was a small window through which I could see the pile of rotting human remains in the back.

Everywhere you looked, the sights were simply graphic. But the images that lingered long in my mind were not the terrible scenes of massive death. What moved me were the sights of people along the street as the van drove by with a smell so strong there could be no doubt about what it contained.

Most people turned their backs and walked briskly away. Some did not, including a despondent, unkempt man who looked like a father by his lonesome, and a downcast woman with a child. They covered their noses like everyone else, but examined our passing van as if whoever they were looking for might be inside. I watched them as we rolled away. Their eyes stayed fixed on the van until it vanished from sight.

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