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By Moshoeshoe Monare, Jeremy Gordin, Shaun Smillie, Natasha Joseph and Sapa-AP
At least one South African has been among more than 11 500 people killed by tsunamis that have battered Pacific and Indian Ocean coastlines.
Paul Sender, 28, of Norwood, Johannesburg, was holidaying with his girlfriend Gaby Barron on the picturesque Thai island resort of Phi Phi when disaster struck on Sunday. Phi Phi, where the movie The Beach was filmed, was one of the worst-hit resorts in south-east Asia.
Sender and Barron were apparently staying in a hut on a beach that collapsed when a huge wave struck. Sender fell on Barron to protect her, but was then swept away. His body was later found.
Sender's distraught family were too upset to comment on Sunday evening.
Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand were hit by waves up to 10m high, caused by an earthquake measuring 8.9 on the Richter scale off the north-west coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra at about 7.30am SA time on Sunday. Shorelines as far away as East Africa were swamped in the aftermath.
Bangladesh, Myanmar, Malaysia the Maldives, Mauritius and Reunion were also affected by the tsunamis.
The earthquake was the world's fifth most powerful since 1900 and the strongest since a 9.2 tremor slammed Alaska in 1964, US earthquake experts said.
At least four South Africans holidaying in Thailand remained unaccounted for last night, according to Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Ronnie Mamoepa, but efforts were being made to establish their whereabouts.
Two Johannesburgers, Craig Lyons, 32, and his girlfriend Ricci-Lee Schwab,32, who were holidaying on Thailand's Phuket island, were among those not accounted for.
"The devastation was absolutely horrible - the scene next to the sea was one of the worst I have ever seen," former South African Ruth Gordin-Steele said from Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Sunday.
Sri Lankan officials said the massive waves had killed at least 4 500 people and displaced a million others.
Gordin-Steele, 61, and her husband Jonathan, who were visiting family in Colombo, experienced the chaos first-hand.
"We were safe in Colombo, but we went down to some villages south of Colombo, which lie between a railway track and the beach. The villages, about 50m from the sea, were completely flattened."
"There were flattened trees and debris everywhere. It was chaos," Gordin-Steele said.
She said the villagers seemed stunned - "people were wandering around in a daze" - and Buddhist temples close by had taken in about 3 000 homeless people.
"What was most bizarre is that one would have thought that the tidal waves - there were two of them, the first smaller than the second - would have struck the east side of the island only. But the island was as badly hit on its west coast, where Colombo is situated," she said.
Three young South Africans stranded on a hill in Krabi, Thailand, told how they fled their wooden beach hut early on Sunday morning as a huge wave bore down on them.
Silas Howarth,25, who was on crutches, and his brothers Cairo, 22, and Calvin, 20, contacted their parents, Johannesburg couple Viv and Neville Howarth.
"We got a message saying 'We've been hit by a tidal wave, but we're all okay'," Neville Howarth said from their holiday home in Hermanus.
"I thought it was some kind of joke! They were renting a house just off Rally beach, and early in the morning they were woken by people running up the beach yelling 'big wave coming'."
The men grabbed their passports, cellphones, money and ran.
Neville Howarth said: "They managed to get away okay and now there are hundreds of holidaymakers up on a hill keeping away from the beach and trying to find some food."
None of the men were injured, but Silas had cracked a bone in a foot a few days ago and was on crutches.
"I asked him how he got out and he said it was a combination of hopping really fast with the crutches and being dragged along by his brothers and friends," said Neville Howarth.
In Phuket, well-known Cape Town auctioneer Rael Levitt, 33, the chief executive of Auction Alliance, and a group of friends fled for their lives into nearby mountains from their Holiday Inn.
He assured his mother, Shirley Levitt, that he was fine, but had managed to locate only one friend, David Gordon, who also sought refuge in the mountains.
"He was, however, very worried about his other friends. He had not located his other friends (when I spoke to him). It was quite a crowd (of friends), maybe more than 10," she said.
"He was without any personal belongings because he just left the hotel and ran as fast as he could when he realised that their hotel was going to be affected."
"Rael said that seeing that wave bearing down on him was a very frightening sight."
Levitt managed to return to his hotel later and collect his passport. He was to seek accommodation higher up, away from the beach.
Gordon's mother Rita said she was worried but at the same time relieved to hear from her son, who had called "from someone else's phone".
"He did not say much but assured me that he was fine. He told me that he ran to the mountains and found a restaurant up there. That's where he is at the moment," she said.
A Johannesburg family were also apparently stranded in Thailand, with their family back in South Africa having not had any word from them.
"They left South Africa for Phuket on Tuesday and were planning to go to Malaysia and Singapore," a relative said.
Meanwhile the South African charity Gift of the Givers on Sunday said it had donated R1-million to the affected countries.
Chairperson Dr Imtiaz Sooliman said the organisation had also launched an emergency-relief campaign and would urge all South Africans to support the initiative.
"We are already in contact with the Department of Foreign Affairs and are hoping to do things jointly," Sooliman said.
Mamoepa said South African missions in Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Maldives "are doing everything in their power to co-ordinate with authorities in those countries to determine whether South Africans are affected.
"At this stage we suspect that maybe four South Africans are affected in Thailand and we are in the process of verifying reports," he added.
Mamoepa said the government had extended "our heartfelt condolences to the governments whose citizens were affected by this disaster".
A 24-hour operations centre has been set up in Pretoria for people seeking information about missing friends and relatives.
Anyone seeking information should call the following numbers: 012-351-0035, 351-0050, 351-0063 or 351-0064