VANIMO, Papua New Guinea (AP) _ Cleanup operations following a devastating tsunami were speeding up, but the overall situation was increasingly grim Tuesday. Papua New Guinea’s prime minister raised the official toll in the disaster to 1,200 dead and 6,000 missing.
Prime Minister Bill Skate raised the official confirmed toll to 1,200 known killed by the 23 foot-high tsunami that swept over low-lying fishing villages on the north coast Friday evening.
Skate said at least 6,000 _ two-thirds of the population of the stricken coastal villages _ people remain unaccounted for, and he is not optimistic about their fate.
More than 700 of the dead have been identified and buried and 500 bodies are floating in the sea and the Sissano lagoon. So far 2,527 people have been found alive, leaving more than 6,000 to be accounted for, Skate said Tuesday.
Most of the confirmed dead and the many missing are children.
``What chance would a 2-year-old or 3-year-old child have?″ asked the Rev. Austen Crapp. ``It wipes out everything, destroys everything, bounces people off trees, off obstacles, bowls them into the lagoon, before it turns, rushing back out to sea.″
``The children may be hiding somewhere; we hope so. But the fear is that they have drowned,″ the priest said.
Most children were home on a holiday when the wave struck rather than in religious mission schools further inland where they may have been safe. So many children died that some schools were not expected to reopen.
The wave, known as a tsunami, was created by a magnitude-7 undersea earthquake and destroyed several villages along an 18-mile stretch of Papua New Guinea’s northern coast. About 6,000 people were left homeless.
Stuart Weinstein, a geophysicist at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Honolulu, said the wave hit within six minutes of the earthquake.
``There’s very little we could have done for the New Guineans,″ he said. ``The earthquake triggered alarms here after 11 minutes.″
Papua New Guinea, with a population of 4 million, occupies the eastern half of the island of New Guinea about 90 miles north of Australia, where some live a near-Stone Age existence in the jungles and swamps.
The once-idyllic fishing villages that bore the brunt of the tsunami were eerily silent Monday; even the trees seemed to have been stripped of the birds that normally abound.
Tekwi wept for the missing children, and looked about in anguish, saying, ``Where is everybody else?″
Area disaster coordinator Dickson Dalle said the villages of Aitape, Nimas, Arop, Sissano and Warapu had been smashed. Other villages along the heavily populated coastline were badly damaged.
About 1,000 bodies had been buried so far and at least 3,000 people were missing, said Jim Croucher, a Roman Catholic missionary coordinating rescue efforts. The unofficial estimates were based on accounts gathered by Australian aid workers.
Missionaries and villagers buried the dead where they lay on beaches. Others patrolled the sea in motorboats, towing nets to try to reclaim floating bodies.
``Many more bodies are still stuck in the debris within the mangrove swamps, within the lagoon itself, caught between the debris of the buildings, the coconut trees, all the bush, the trees that have been thrown into the lagoon,″ Tekwi said.
Villagers said salt-water crocodiles that live along the coast were feeding on the corpses, according to Marc Sindek, an oil company manager from Vanimo, about 60 miles west of the affected area.
Rescuers also turned their attention to the injured, although many remain difficult to find after having fled in terror into the jungle-covered mountains.
``There are a lot of injured adults coming into the hospital,″ the Rev. Augustine Kulmana said. ``Many children have disappeared.
``One helicopter pilot said he saw a lot of bodies trapped in the mangroves and they were children,″ he said.
In a hospital tent in Vanimo, 4-year-old Blondy Ramea coughed weakly, his body twisting as he tried to eject sea water from his lungs. Bone showed through a 6-inch head wound, but his skull wasn’t fractured and doctors expected him to recover.
Prime Minister Bill Skate toured the disaster zone Monday, appealing for medical help and saying he would personally help search for survivors.
``The population around that area is around 8,000 to 10,000, estimated, but we just don’t know where most of the people are,″ Skate said.
The remoteness of the region also hampered emergency officials from Australia, Papua New Guinea and New Zealand, who were coordinating a rescue operation.
The first of three Royal Australian Air Force C-130 Hercules transport aircraft arrived at Vanimo on Monday with emergency supplies, including the field hospital and a 100-strong team of doctors, nurses and engineers.
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.
In Washington, State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said Secretary of State Madeleine Albright would stop in Papua New Guinea next week before a trip to Australia. American ambassador Arma Jane Karaer has offered $25,000 in U.S. assistance, he said.