Image: Liu Fuifatu
Eugene Tanner  /  AP
Liu Fuifatu, an officer with the American Samoa Police Department, helps out with the cleanup at Asili Village, located on the western side of American Samoa, on Thursday.
updated 10/2/2009 7:16:01 PM ET 2009-10-02T23:16:01

The village of Leone is a picturesque enclave that has been a mainstay of the Samoas for centuries, a place where residents gather under beach meeting houses for rituals that are sacred to the local culture.

Today, the village is a bleak landscape of rubble.

An overturned van is sticking into the roof of one of the beach houses. Four elderly villagers were killed while gathered on the shore to weave Samoan mats and artifacts. A 6-year-old boy and two sisters were swept away on their way to school. The post office is gone, so is the grocery store.

The carnage in hard-hit Leone offers a glimpse into how this week's deadly earthquake and tsunami in Samoa and American Samoa decimated centuries of culture on two islands that are steeped in tradition.

Samoans have been forced to forgo burial rituals because their villages are gone. Some bodies were discovered in such decomposed states that they couldn't be buried according to proper Samoan custom. The beach gathering spots, known as fale, were overrun by the tsunami.

"We need these guesthouses to be put back. This is our meeting house," territorial Rep. Vaiausia Yandall said.

The death toll from Tuesday's disaster rose to 170, including 129 in Samoa, 32 in American Samoa and nine in Tonga, as the relief effort entered its fourth day Friday. Medical teams gave tetanus shots and antibiotics to survivors with infected wounds and survivors wore face masks to reduce the growing stench of rot.

Not coming back
Some frightened residents who fled to the hills after the disaster vowed never to return to their decimated seaside villages. More headed to the hills after an aftershock shook the region.

"It's a scary feeling, and a lot of them said they are not coming to the coastal area," Red Cross health coordinator Goretti Wulf said near the flattened village of Lalomanu on the devastated south coast of Samoa's main island. "The lesson they learned has made them stay away."

Video: Thousands left homeless from Samoa tsunami Workers at Lalomanu's makeshift emergency supply base began carting water, food, tarps and clothes to 3,000 people in the hills. Wulf said drinking water was the most pressing problem. It is the end of Samoa's dry season, when rain is scarce, and the water pipes that supply the villages were destroyed.

Villagers gathered under a traditional meeting house to hear a Samoan government minister discuss a plan for a mass funeral and burial next week. Samoans traditionally bury their loved ones near their homes, but that could be impractical because many of their villages have been wiped out.

The reaction to the proposal was mixed, with some relatives wanting to take the bodies and have their own burials, while others wanted a mass funeral delayed for a week to allow relatives to return to the islands from overseas.

9 in one extended family buried
Families who were able to carry out proper burials did so under duress.

One family in Lalomanu buried nine family members from four different generations this week, from ages 2 to 97.

Seven relatives were placed in a single, hastily dug grave. One body had been retrieved from the ocean only hours earlier. A young mother, Sina Edmund Taufua, kissed the cheeks of her dead son and daughter, ages 6 and 5, at the edge of the grave as her bandaged arm was supported by a relative.

The family dead were buried without coffins, their bodies covered with a woven mat, during a service that blended traditional Samoan culture with a Christian church ceremony.

"I'm not sure the word 'shock' fully describes our sense of loss," relative Ben Taufua said. "Nothing makes sense at all. ... The beach where all of this happened, all those lives were lost, it was paradise on Earth."

Coastal village devastated
In Leone, about two dozen soldiers and airmen from the Hawaii National Guard on Friday had the heart-wrenching task of searching through muddy debris and rubble for the missing 6-year-old boy, identified by family members as Columbus Sulivai.

Bill Hopkinson, a Leone village chief, said the boy was on his way to school with his 8-and 10-year old sisters when the quake struck. "When the earthquake hit, instead of seeking higher ground, they came running back home," Hopkinson said.

Both girls died.

Leone residents estimate the tsunami destroyed about one-third of the coastal village, population 3,000. The victims were mostly elderly or toddlers; the adults and schoolchildren were already out on their way to work or school when the tsunami hit.

Villager Charissa Siu witnessed the tsunami and managed to save her young nieces who were sleeping. But she was unable to save another relative, Michelle Eneliko, who was sick in bed and was unable to move. The body was found 50 yards away. A Korean man who operated a store next to her house was also killed.

"It was very bad, a very horrifying experience for me when I saw the high waves heading to our village," said Siu.

Leone is one of the largest villages in the territory and was once the main harbor for the main island of Tutuila.

In 1830, the Rev. John Williams, a British missionary, chose the village to be his landing place. The area eventually became the center of Christianity on the island, with a monument to Williams still standing.

The fale have long been the center of the villages. Extended families gather in the guesthouse every Sunday to eat brunch or lunch and trade stories.

The meeting houses are also used for traditional Samoan ceremonies featuring awa, a drink made from a plant root that's popular in many Pacific island nations. The buildings all have barren floors, no walls, and pillars to support the roof. In the old days, everyone sat on woven mats, but today people sit in chairs.

Save L.A. Tuitele said the tsunami has had the unexpected consequence of bringing villagers together. The 62-year-old Tuitele was among about 10 men who sat in a circle next to the foundation of a destroyed house, sharing stories with old friends.

"It's sad that it happened," Tuitele said. "But this brings most of the people back here, it brings back the pride that most of the people have here in Leone."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Tsunami strikes Samoa islands

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  1. A car is embedded in the wall of the Jehovah's Witness hall in Pago Pago, the tsunami devastated capital of American Samoa on Saturday, Oct. 3. The ferocious waves were unleashed by a 8.0 magnitude undersea quake which rattled the region on September 29, leaving as many as 180 people dead in American Samoa. (Torsten Blackwood / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. An aerial photo shows the debris left behind in a lagoon by the tsunami that ravaged the town of Leone in American Samoa on Saturday. (Rick Bowmer / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A television sits at the water's edge at the tsunami destroyed village of Saleapaga on Samoa's southern coast on Friday, Oct. 2. (Tim Wimborne / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A Samoan policeman searches for tsunami victims in the village of Saleapaga on Samoa's southern coast on Friday. (Tim Wimborne / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A New Zealand Air Force plane surveys the damage over the southern coast of Samoa on Sept. 30. At least 149 people have been confirmed dead after a tsumani triggered by an undersea earthquate destroyed coastal settlements in Samoa and Western Samoa. (Torsten Blackwood / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Tsunami damage outside Apia, the capital of Samoa on Wednesday. (Brett Phibbs / New Zealand Herald via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A man searches through the rubble of a destroyed village outside Apia on Sept. 30. Samoan police commander Lilo Maiava said that search and rescue efforts may take a week or more. (Brett Phibbs / New Zealand Herald via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Samoan police carry the body of a tsunami victim found in the water near Matavai on the southern coast of Western Samoa. (Tim Wimborne / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. The devastation caused by the earthquake-generated tsunami is seen on the south coast of Western Samoa in this aerial photograph. (New Zealand Defence Force via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A young boy sits on a milk crate playing a guitar in the rubble of a destroyed village outside Apia on Sept. 30. (Brett Phibbs / New Zealand Herald via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Bodies are carried to a waiting hearse at Motootua Hospital in Apia, Samoa, to be transported to the morgue. Samoa Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele said most of the Samoan dead were elderly and young children. (Brett Phibbs / New Zealand Herald via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Survivors in the devasted streets of Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa. (Ausage Fausia / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. The tsunami, which most impacted the South Pacific islands of Samoa, also struck Hihifo on the western side of Tonga. (Pesi Fonua / Vava'u Press Ltd via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. People walk amongst the debris in Lalomanu, Samoa, on Sept. 30, a day after a quake struck the island nation as well as neighboring American Samoa. (Phil Walter / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. A man surveys the devastation at the beach in Lalomanu, Samoa. (Phil Walter / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A damaged building and truck in Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa, after an 8.0-magnitude quake and tsunami struck in the early morning of Sept. 29. (John Newton / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A resident walks past debris in a playground and a tennis park in Pago Pago. The quake also caused damaged in neighboring Samoa, which is an independent island nation. (Fili Sagapolutele / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A damaged boat inside a building in Pago Pago, on American Samoa. (John Newton / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A scientist at Germany's Geoscientific Research Institute, GFZ based in Potsdam, south of Berlin, shows a graph on a computer monitor registered during the earthquake off the Samoa islands region. (Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. A destroyed structure lies amid debris near a church in the village of Leone, American Samoa. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. People salvage their belongings from a house damaged from the tsunami that struck the village of Leone, about 10 miles west of the port city of Pago Pago. Everyone in the house survived the tsunami. (Raj Borsellino / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A resident walks past one of the two caskets with human remains unearthed by the tsunami at the Satala cemetary, which is located just yards away from the ocean in Fagatogo, American Samoa. (Fili Sagapolutele / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Debris is strewn around a church in Leone, American Samoa. (Ardie Roque / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. A main road in the downtown area of Fagatogo, American Samoa, is flooded by water. (Fili Sagapolutele / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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