BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — Pilots dropped food to Indonesian villagers stranded among bloating corpses yesterday as up to 5 million people around the tsunami-struck Indian Ocean rim struggled to stay alive without clean water and food.
With the death toll topping 117,000, a U.S. Navy flotilla from Hong Kong raced to the shores of Sumatra, and an American cargo plane touched down in the Sumatran city of Medan with relief supplies and body bags.
The death toll in Indonesia could reach 400,000, because many affected areas remain beyond the reach of rescue operations, Indonesia’s ambassador to Malaysia told reporters, the Malaysia Star newspaper reported.
The ambassador, Prince Rusdihardjo, said his estimate was based on air surveillance by Indonesian authorities, who found no signs of life in places such as Meulaboh, Pulau Simeulue and Tapak Tuan while several islands off the western coast of Sumatra had “disappeared.”
“There are so many affected areas that we have not reached yet, where there is no communication and the final count might reach 400,000,” the Star newspaper quoted Mr. Rusdihardjo as saying on its Web site (thestar.com.my).
Along with the airport at Medan, officials converted a Thai navy air base used by U.S. bombers during the Vietnam War into a hub for the colossal international relief effort, which also will include humanitarian operations for Sri Lanka and India.
“As soon as we received word that the earthquake victims needed our help, we immediately activated forces to provide assistance,” said Col. Mark Schissler, commander of the 374th Airlift Wing at Yokota Air Base, just outside Tokyo.
Relief efforts suffered a hitch when a false alarm of more killer waves sparked panic in India, Sri Lanka and Thailand and sent survivors and aid workers fleeing.
Indian women at a makeshift camp in a marriage hall said their children were going hungry.
“For the past few days, we were at least getting food,” said Selvi, 35, who uses one name. “Today, we didn’t even get that because aid workers fled the town after a fresh alert was issued this morning.”
The false alarm from the Indian government was just one of the new and sometimes unexpected threats facing survivors.
Police in a devastated provincial capital of Indonesia stripped looters of their clothing and forced them to sit on the street as a warning to others.
Sister Charity, a 32-year-old nun rescued by an Indian navy ship from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands on Wednesday, said confused and hungry crocodiles were on the loose.
“As we were returning [to the ship], two or three crocodiles started coming toward us. The navy officers had to fire their revolvers to ward off the crocodiles to protect us,” she told the Associated Press.
In the remote Indian islands near the epicenter of Sunday’s magnitude-9.0 earthquake, entire villages were wiped out.
With only 400 bodies found so far, the region’s administrator said 10,000 people were missing. Survivors who reached the archipelago’s main city, Port Blair, said they had not eaten for two days.
Around the Indian Rim and beyond, families endured their fifth day of not knowing the fate of friends and relatives who had taken a holiday-season vacation to the sunny beaches of Thailand, India and Sri Lanka, which bore the brunt of the tsunami.
Thousands were still missing, including at least 2,500 Swedes, more than 1,000 Germans and 500 each from France and Denmark.
The U.S. death toll was officially raised from 12 to 14, with seven dead in Thailand and seven in Sri Lanka.
About 600 Americans who were listed as missing have been found, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, but several thousand had not been located four days after the disaster struck.
Death tolls across the region continued to grow. Indonesia led with about 80,000. Sri Lanka reported 27,200, India more than 7,300 and Thailand about 2,400. A total of more than 300 were killed in Malaysia, Burma, Bangladesh, the Maldives, Somalia, Tanzania, Kenya and Seychelles. Madagascar also was hit.
Military ships and planes rushed aid to Sumatra’s ravaged coast. Countless corpses strewn on the streets rotted under the tropical sun causing a nearly unbearable stench.
Food drops began along the coast, mostly of instant noodles and medicines, with some of the areas “hard to reach because they are surrounded by cliffs,” said Budi Aditutro, head of the government’s relief team.
Pledges of U.S. assistance remained at $35 million, dwarfed on paper by amounts promised by many European countries.
But separate Pentagon operations, for which no cost estimates were available, expanded by the hour.
The relief included the arrival of four C-130 cargo planes in Thailand loaded with food, water and sheltering material, and a large supply of rice and other food and assistance was due to arrive in Indonesia by today, a senior U.S. official said.
The United States, India, Australia, Japan and the United Nations have formed an international coalition to coordinate worldwide relief and reconstruction efforts.
In Galle, the graceful old city on the southern tip of Sri Lanka, German and Finnish teams helped set up water plants and mobile clinics.
A U.S. Air Force plane arrived in the capital, Colombo, bringing 26 medical specialists from the Army, Marines and Air Force, which form part of the Pacific Fleet Command.
American planes already have delivered 1,400 body bags to southern islands in Thailand, where Interior Minister Bhokin Balakula said more than 3,500 bodies have been found.
Rescue and forensic teams from Australia, Japan, Germany, Israel and other nations fanned out across Thailand trying to find survivors and identify rapidly decomposing corpses.
“We have to have hope that we’ll find somebody,” said Ulf Langemeier, head of a German team that combed a wrecked resort with three body-detecting dogs under huge flood lamps early yesterday.
There likely will be up to 1,000 U.S. military personnel arriving in Thailand in the next week, Lt. Col. Scott Elder said.
Australian and New Zealand military cargo planes have flown supplies and water-purification plants into Indonesia. A Pakistani navy ship has been diverted to rescue survivors on outlying islands in the Maldives. Singapore is sending eight helicopters, a navy ship and more than 500 military personnel.