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From the air, and on the ground, devastation

MEULABOH, Indonesia -- In town after town, the scene was the same from the helicopter taking one of the first glimpses of Sumatra's ravaged coast: whole villages ripped apart, covered in mud and sea water. The only signs of life were a few desperate people scavenging a beach for food.

When the helicopter -- bearing an Indonesian military commander and a television news crew -- touched down, townspeople ran down from the high ground were they had taken refuge. For some, it was their first contact with the outside world for days.

Some cried, others whooped for joy.

One refugee described what many across southern Asia have said they witnessed Sunday, the puzzling phenomenon of coastal waters disappearing, sucked into the tsunami about to strike. ''The water in the sea pulled back, then fifty minutes after that the huge wave came back to us and destroyed everything," the man said, without giving his name.

For some people on Sumatra's western coast, the destruction came even more quickly. Sunday's earthquake, centered about 150 miles offshore, shook the area, then the gigantic waves it caused struck within a half hour -- compared with 2 hours for Sri Lanka, across the Indian Ocean.

Authorities counted thousands of bodies on the west coast yesterday, bringing Indonesia's death toll to more than 45,000. But that was only the start, with military teams just beginning to collect the area's dead.

Three-quarters of the Indonesian island's western coast was destroyed and some towns were totally wiped out, said Major General Endang Suwarya, the military commander of Sumatra's hard-hit Aceh province, as he led the helicopter tour of the region.

''The damage is truly devastating," he said. ''These people are isolated and we will try and get them help."

From the helicopter, shattered villages were seen covered in muck or nearly completely flooded by the sea.

Most of the simple wooden homes that typify the coastline appeared to be flattened, and those that still stood had their tin roofs torn off. A solitary mosque and green treetops were all that broke the water in one town.

The crew touched down in the fishing town of Meulaboh, where Sunday's disaster took a heavy toll. Officials had recovered 3,400 bodies, but they expected to find at least 10,000, which would amount to a quarter of Meulaboh's population.

At Calang, a nearby village that was inundated Sunday, people picked through debris amid overturned cars.

''We prayed and prayed that someone would reach us," said Sukardi Kasdi, a Calang resident.

But no one came, and days later he left on his own, setting out on a perilous six-hour trip in a small boat on a sea filled with bloated corpses floating on huge waves.

Now in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, he said survivors in Calang had passed their days praying and tending the injured with traditional medicine, wrapping wounds with bits of soiled cloth.

In Banda Aceh, bulldozers in a field shoved more than 1,000 unidentified bodies into mass graves. The corpses had been picked off the city's streets.

''We have to do this because of the smell and the health concern. We're a facing a major health hazard if we leave them lying around," said Aceh's acting governor, Azwar Abu Bakar.

It could be days or longer before large-scale relief reaches Sumatra's western coast.

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