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700 Die in Papua New Guinea Wave

July 20, 1998

VANIMO, Papua New Guinea (AP) _ Australian military medics flew into this village today and worked non-stop treating survivors of a huge wave that killed at least 700, perhaps as many as 3,000, on this Pacific island nation.

The medics set up a tent hospital on a sports field and cared for victims sent by three overcrowded hospitals. Many survivors underwent amputations because bacteria-filled coral sand had infected wounds, causing gangrene, said Lt. Col. John Crozer, a surgeon.

The 23-foot-high wave struck an 18-mile stretch of Papua New Guinea’s northwest coast on Friday, destroying at least three villages. Today, local authorities said the official death toll was at least 700, mostly children and the elderly. But other officials gave much higher death count. An estimated 6,000 people were left homeless.

John Tekwi, governor of West Sepik province, where the wave hit, was quoted by Australian Broadcasting Corp. as saying at least 3,000 people died.

``Where is everybody else?″ Tekwi asked.

Missionaries and villagers were burying the dead where they lay on the beaches. Others patrolled the sea in motorboats, towing nets to reclaim floating bodies, while salt-water crocodiles reportedly fed on corpses.

``There were so many bodies together I had to move the boat slowly to pass through them,″ said fisherman Jerry Apuan. ``I was afraid. It was the first time I had seen so many bodies.″

The wave, also known as a tsunami, was created by a magnitude-7 undersea earthquake off the coast of Papua New Guinea, a nation on the island of New Guinea about 90 miles north of Australia.

Prime Minister Bill Skate appealed for more aid and doctors, saying that children were drinking unhealthy water, Australian Broadcasting Corp. television reported.

``People are lost, they are confused, they really don’t know what has hit them,″ Skate was quoted as saying.

The assistant defense attache at the Australian High Commission in the capital, Port Moresby, Col. Richard Humby, said today that more than 1,000 villagers died and at least 2,000 were missing. The estimates were based on accounts gathered by Australian aid workers.

Jim Croucher, a Roman Catholic missionary who is coordinating rescue and recovery efforts, said about 1,000 bodies had been buried and at least 3,000 people were missing.

However, area disaster coordinator Dickson Dalle put the number of confirmed dead at 700 _ most of them old people and children.

He said the villages of Arop, Nimas and Warapu had been swept from a low-lying sand spit into Sissano lagoon. Other villages along the heavily populated coastline were badly damaged.

``Schools in Arop, Sissano and Warapu will be closed because we don’t have the children,″ Dalle said. ``They’re all dead.″

``Several villages were completely washed out to sea and there is no trace left at all,″ said Australian Defense Department spokesman Col. Keith Jobson in Canberra.

Jobson said the primary concern was to treat the injured and provide them with food, water and shelter.

Marc Sindek, an oil company manager from Vanimo, about 60 miles west of the affected area, said villagers had told him salt-water crocodiles that live along the coast were feeding on the corpses.

The combined population of the affected district is not precisely known, but government chief secretary Robert Igara estimated it at between 6,000 and 10,000 people.

Many survivors were in shock.

``We heard a large bang, then saw the sea rising up. We had no choice but to run for our lives,″ Paul Saroya, a resident of Nimas village, told Australian Broadcasting Corp. television.

The first of three Royal Australian Air Force C-130 cargo planes arrived at Vanimo today with emergency supplies including a field hospital and 100 doctors, nurses and engineers. New Zealand was sending relief supplies and a medical team.

Papua New Guinea, with a population of 4 million, occupies the eastern half of the island of New Guinea. It has a mountainous, jungle-filled interior that has only been explored in the past 20 to 30 years, along with lush tropical beaches on the coastal plains.

The area hit by the wave consists of jungle and swamps where tribes rely on subsistence farming and fishing. Most live in homes made of jungle materials and built on beaches.

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