Bodies, stomachs bloated and arms outstretched, scores of them, lay along the downtown boulevard where they finally came to rest after the waters caught them.
They lay along the muddy median strip, unclaimed, unknown. They rested in the middle of intersections and atop heaps of wood and corrugated metal from the shops that once did a brisk business in electronics, tailoring and groceries. Some were covered with ragged sarongs and tablecloths, others were naked, discolored and staring blankly into the tropical sun. Many were small children, as overlooked as the abandoned stuffed animals that lay nearby.
Along four blocks of Panglima Polim Street, about 75 corpses lay in clear sight Tuesday afternoon. There were gruesome clues to even more death. A lone hand jutted from a pile of wooden planks; a head protruded from pieces of a shattered coconut palm. The stench of decaying bodies and the moist mud was overwhelming and inescapable, mixed with the sea breeze.
This was the scene in the oceanfront capital of Aceh province. Located on the tip of Indonesia's western island of Sumatra, the area absorbed the double shock of the world's worst earthquake in 40 years, centered about 160 miles to the southeast, and the tsunami. The magnitude 9.0 quake, which hit at 7:58 a.m. Sunday, toppled houses and office buildings, dumping debris onto the streets.
Within minutes, a tsunami generated by the quake, moving as fast as 500 mph, inundated the wrecked coast, killing tens of thousands and leaving many more injured and homeless. Officials said at least 27,000 died in Sumatra, roughly half of the total deaths caused when the tsunami tore across South Asia, and the toll is expected to rise.
Standing among the dead and the rubble along Panglima Polim Street was Emi, 42. She had returned to the neighborhood Tuesday to see if the body of her 9-year-old son, Joanda, was among the bodies. The boy had slipped from his father's hand as they sheltered from the flood in a treetop.
Haggard with unkempt, jet-black hair, Emi, who like many Indonesians uses one name, recounted how she and her family had dashed from their home in fright Sunday morning when the earthquake rocked the province, followed quickly by the onslaught of the dark sea.
As the water poured across Panglima Polim Street, many tried to outrun it. But the wall of water came too fast.
"Then, people started yelling, 'The water is coming! The water is coming!' " Emi said. "I asked everyone to get into the car."
'The water kept rolling us'
Her husband, son and two grandchildren clambered into the family's jeep. Emi caught a ride from someone on a motorcycle. The beachfront was more than a mile away, but it took the ocean no time to flatten buildings for blocks in every direction and whisk vehicles off the pavement. Wooden fishing boats up to 75 feet long were heaved ashore, setting down atop houses and against storefronts. Emi's two grandchildren, she said, were drowned instantly.
"The water kept rolling us, rolling us," Emi continued, tugging anxiously on her brown-and-white sarong. "I ended up on a rooftop hanging on. My husband ended up in a tree."
From the branches, he clung desperately to the hand of their son. But the boy slipped away, dropping into the churning waters, vanishing. "So I keep searching and searching," she said. "How can I know the reasons for it? It is the power of God."
As she retold the story, the neighborhood was eerily still. In front of Emi was a broad lake where her block once stood, with islands of blasted brick walls and household furniture.
The waters compounded years of suffering in Aceh province, the scene of a guerrilla rebellion by the separatist Free Aceh Movement, which wants control of the area's considerable oil resources. The Indonesian government restricts access by journalists and aid groups. On Tuesday it loosened those controls and flew journalists in on a C-130 transport plane. Aid groups are being allowed freer access as well; rebel groups have promised to honor a cease-fire to allow speedy passage of relief supplies.
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono toured Banda Aceh on Tuesday. "The last three days have been the most difficult days of my presidency, and a most trying moment for my nation," he said. "I was devastated to witness the human casualties and destruction."
Indonesian health officials reported Tuesday that perhaps half of the 27,000 people killed in Sumatra were in Banda Aceh. Yudhoyono also referred to "frightening reports" that there were many deaths in still-unreached western portions of the province.
Yudhoyono said officials have struggled to respond to the disaster because roads and communications across the province had been cut. Restoring telephone service and organizing the distribution of food and medicine were his highest priorities, he said.
He said the government was also turning its attention to resettling tens of thousands of Acehnese families, who have found refuge in tent camps, mosques and schools, and in the shade of awnings and metal overhangs of shops along Banda Aceh streets.
One mass grave
Efforts to recover and bury bodies have also been set back by a fuel shortage and by the deaths of hundreds of soldiers and police officers. There is at least one mass grave; hundreds have been buried outside the capital. Soldiers were hoisting bodies onto trucks for delivery to the branch office of the Indonesian Red Cross.
In a parking lot outside the office on the outskirts of Banda Aceh, dozens of bodies were arrayed under the midday sun waiting to be identified. Twisted, swollen arms and legs protruded from under orange tarps, bedsheets and sarongs. The odor forced pedestrians to cover their faces with scarves or to cross to the far side of the muddy street.
Around Panglima Polim Street, few bodies were being removed Tuesday. A pair of men, stepping nimbly across cracked wooden planks and other debris, hauled away a child's corpse wrapped in a purple sheet, suspended from a pole between their shoulders.
Mahdi, 33, a civil service worker who lives outside the city, made his way back to his childhood neighborhood near Panglima Polim Street, looking for the remains of most of his family. He said his mother, sister, brother, sister-in-law and nephew had been killed.
"I hope I can find the bodies and bury them properly," said Mahdi, wearing a blue baseball cap pulled down over his deep brown eyes.
When he arrived, he spotted a body facedown in front of the wreckage of the house. The head was jammed into the rubble. He believed he recognized the blue pants.
"I thought it was her, my mother," he said, after taking a closer look. "But I just can't tell. It's gotten so bloated."
Dedi Suryadi, 30, had already lost hope for his two sons and a daughter. They were suffocated by mud as they cowered on a rooftop. Barefoot and in clothes lent by a friend, he returned to the neighborhood to retrieve his black van, which he drives for a living.
When the earthquake struck, Suryadi had dashed from his home, unsure where his wife and children were. "The buildings began to collapse and I got in my car and drove it over there," he said grimly, pointing to the van, now stranded deep in a wasteland of rubble. "The people started shouting that the floods were coming. I saw the water was as high as a mountain."
The water surged onto the street from two directions, trapping Suryadi and his neighbors in massive pincers movement.
'We ran faster'
"I didn't even have time to go back and rescue my wife and kids," he said, his mud-caked hands extended in futility.
Suryadi recalled leaving his marooned vehicle and grabbing another minivan as it swept by. He said he rode the wave for a half mile. His wife and children were beached atop a tile roof of a long two-story building, he recounted, pointing to the rooftop littered with jetsam. Only his wife survived.
Amid the destruction, a few people who live along the boulevard softly mustered stories of good fortune.
Mohammed Jamil, 23, stood outside the twisted metal gates of the tailor shop where he worked, facing a pair of fishing boats that had come to rest against the shattered showroom windows of a motorbike dealer. Cars littered the street. Several neighboring buildings that remained standing had sunk several feet into the soggy terrain, A dead white cat lay half-buried in the mud at Jamil's feet.
But Jamil himself had outrun the tsunami. He said he was mopping the floor when a friend bustled into the shop and announced that the seawater was rising. Then they heard what sounded like an explosion and, stepping outside, spotted boats being swept forward on the wave in the distance.
Jamil sprinted to his friend's car. Together, they screamed up the boulevard as the waves crashed down from the side streets.
"As fast as the water came," he said, "we ran faster."