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Monday, July 20, 1998 Published at 09:08 GMT 10:08 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Eyewitnesses tell their story

The tidal wave struck at 7:30pm

The devastating tidal wave that hit the north-west coast of Papua New Guinea struck in the early evening as families were settling down for the night.

Father Austen Crapp is a Roman Catholic priest in the area.

Father Austen Crapp
"First of all there was a severe earthquake about point-seven on the Richter scale and there were two tremors - the second one more severe than the first.

"Then about twenty minutes later there was a huge roaring sound like a jet plane approaching the shore and a wave - actually three waves - hit the shore and because it was then 7:30 in the evening it was too dark to see.

"We heard lots of screaming and yelling from the people in the village down below."

Paul Saroya was in one of the villages when the huge wall of water crashed into the shore.

Villager Paul Saroya
"I was right there in the village next to the coastline when the waves, after the earthquake, ten minutes after the earthquake, we heard a loud bang and then we just saw the sea rising up and then it started moving towards the village so we had no choice but to run for our life so I decided to run with my family across to the river."

The region is remote and news was slow to emerge - even those nearby were not immediately aware of the scale of the disaster. Father Crapp desribes how he discovered the full extent of the devastation.

Father Austen Crapp
"This morning, when we opened up the mission radio schedule to speak to the outstations, we found that one station was completely destroyed - they did not come up on the radio.

"That village had been wiped off the map by a tidal wave 10 metres high ... the whole sea front and the lagoon at the back of these villages is littered with debris and dead bodies."

At first reports of the number of dead were cautious although many more people were reported missing.

Local businessman Robert Parer was in touch with several villages.

Local businessman Robert Parer
"Malol said there was at least 100 missing. And Sissano, we've just heard from Sissano, which is further west, all the houses, well it's a big population based there and they all live right on the beach, they're right on the beach.

"At poor old Arops they live between the beach and the lagoon, there's only a spit of sand they live on 2 km long; and it's just between the sea and a lagoon, so they've only got 100 metres of beach between either, so we don't know what's happened there."

As rescue operations got underway, hospitals filled rapidly as survivors were flown in - Dr Manos Ria helped to treat many of them.

Dr Manos Ria
"A lot of people are suffering from symptoms caused by drowning, or close to drowning.

"Also, because people were in the water, they have been hit by floating trees, so a lot of them are having multiple fractures, that means femur fractures, arms are broken, they've got major internal bleeding."

Amid the destruction there were some remarkable tales of survival as this unnamed rescue worker describes.

Rescue worker
"I heard a splashing noise behind the back of a canoe and there was a woman holding onto the canoe.

"She had probably been in the water all night, so we pulled her in and than carried her back up to where the helicopter was coming - [she had] a fractured femur."

As many as 2,000 villagers are still missing - rescuers hope that many are on high ground in the bush, fearful of returning to the beach.

But one survivor's bleak announcement sums up this tragedy more than any final body count can.

Survivor makes schools announcement
"The schools in Arop, the schools in Sissano and the schools in Warapu will be closed because we don't have the children - they're all dead."

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