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updated 3/13/2011 12:36:17 PM ET 2011-03-13T16:36:17

Tears streamed down Maisara Mucharam's face as she watched aerial shots of the tsunami pummeling Japan's coast and remembered the day, six years ago, when her youngest daughter was ripped out of her arms by the heavy salty sea.

Survivors of the 2004 tsunami that started off Indonesia sat glued to their TV sets, stroking each other's hands, as images of last Friday's disaster in northern Japan flashed repeatedly across the screen.

"I heard someone screaming and ran to see what was going on," said Mucharam, who also lost her husband and two other daughters.

"I tried, but couldn't stop watching," the 38-year-old said, her voice trembling. "It was exactly the same, except they have this horrible footage, events unfolding right before your eyes."

The magnitude 9.0 earthquake that struck on the morning of Dec. 26, 2004, spawned a tsunami that smashed into coastal communities, beach resorts and towns in 12 nations, killing more than 230,000 people.

Two-thirds of them died here in Indonesia's remote Aceh province, and it took days for images to emerge. Even then, most showed the aftermath: crumpled buildings, flattened landscapes and row upon row of swollen corpses.

"Unbelievable," whispered 39-year old Cut Chalidah, who lost a son and nine other family members, as she watched the 23-foot (7-meter) high wall of water wash over Japan's coast, rolling up everything in its path. "So this is what it looked like."

She sat silent as the television showed cars, ships and even buildings lifted up and carried inland, tossed about in the debris-strewn water like floating toys in a running bath.

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The images left 13-year-old Zaki Ramadhan, orphaned in the 2004 disaster, struggling to breathe.

"My chest was tight, I couldn't feel my legs," said the boy, now being raised by his grandparents. "All I could think of was my mom and dad, my sisters. ... They disappeared under water, just like that."

In Sri Lanka and Thailand, both also hit by the 2004 tsunami, some survivors said the pictures brought back tears and nightmares that had all but stopped.

"It's exactly like what happened in my village," Tharmalingam Komila, who lives in Sri Lanka's coastal village of Passikudah, said as she watched the rescue operations in Japan on TV.

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"I was dragged away by the wave into the sea," said the 29-year-old, who lost more than two dozen relatives. "I was holding onto a big plastic jar and a log for five hours before people in an army helicopter saw me and saved me."

For others, the unfolding events reminded them of Japan's outpouring of support after the 2004 tsunami, the food, medical supplies and other assistance delivered to Indonesia by ship, plane and helicopter even after others had scaled back operations.

"I wish there was something I could do," said Muhammad Nazri, 42, who lives in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital. "I'd like to go there, really, even if it was just to share my feelings of grief."

The only piece of good news, some said, was that it appeared the 2004 disaster had raised awareness in coastal area of the dangers posed by tsunamis.

Tsunami warnings were issued in many countries and widely heeded after Friday's earthquake off Japan. Even in remote corners of Indonesia, far from the epicenter, villages turned into ghost towns as thousands of people, responding to warnings on television or mobile phone text messages, fled to the hills.

The waves never came, but at least they knew what to do, said Zainal Abidin Latif, an Aceh resident, who lost all three of his children in 2004.

Others said they hoped the latest disaster would serve as a loud warning to governments to improve alert systems, most of which rely on electronic buoys to detect sudden changes in water levels.

Among them was Maitree Chongkraichak, who lost his father, nephew and about 40 other relatives when the 2004 tsunami hit Thailand.

"I feel so sad for what has happened in Japan," he said. "I know what it's like for their families right now."

___

Associated Press writers Grant Peck in Bangkok and Krishan Francis in Colombo, Sri Lanka, contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: With city in ruins, survivors struggle to cope

  1. Transcript of: With city in ruins, survivors struggle to cope

    LESTER HOLT, co-host (Tokyo): We want to turn now to the ground zero of this disaster, it's the city of Sendai . This is where we saw some of those pictures of the huge waves. These are areas where people are cut off. NBC 's Ian Williams has made his way there and has this report for us.

    IAN WILLIAMS reporting: It remains difficult to reach the worst affected areas, so we traveled as far north as the helicopter could take us. Then a further two-hour drive brought us to Sendai , the closest city to the epicenter of Friday's huge quake and

    this: the muddied and shattered remains of homes and vehicles swept away by a tsunami that here reached around two miles inland, destroying just about everything in its path. One of the worst affected areas, this industrial and housing zone around the airport. This is the parking lot of the Sendai flying school, now amid the wrecked cars sits this training aircraft, dumped here by the wave, swept from the hangars over the back there. Soldiers and rescue workers scoured the area on the ground and in the air. The authorities say they found 300 bodies in just one area close to here. We found desperate relatives searching for missing family members, this couple looking for a sister while others struggle to navigate around a neighborhood brutally reshaped by the force of nature.

    Unidentified Man:

    WILLIAMS: 'The ground's fallen by two feet up there,' this man warned. 'You can't go that way.' There's no power, no water, and what few shops remain open are being swamped. This couple's searching for milk and diapers for their one-year-old daughter.

    Unidentified Woman:

    WILLIAMS: 'I saw the tsunami coming,' her mother told me. 'I grabbed my baby and fled.' As we filmed, panic struck the neighborhood, emergency vehicles warning through blaring loudspeakers there's a tsunami coming, a tsunami, move to higher ground . We joined that exodus, though thankfully, the surging water didn't return. It was a false alarm. Though that will be little comfort to this battered and traumatized city. Ian Williams , NBC News, Sendai .

Data: How a tsunami forms

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