PHUKET: An unprecedented tsunami sowed chaos in Thailand's southern tourist playground yesterday, tossing cars around and bursting into luxury hotels on Phuket, flattening The Beach movie island and killing 223 people.
Witnesses spoke of a wave three storeys high which destroyed small hotels on the mainland and injured more than 5,000 people.
The government ordered evacuation of the stricken areas, which included the main beaches of Phuket, popular with Western and Asian tourists and at the height of their season.
We are in chaos, said Somsak Sunwansujarit, deputy director of the Thai disaster department.
Helicopters were sent out to assess the damage in a region of exotically shaped limestone islands scattered in the turquoise waters of the Andaman Sea and popular with the snorkellers and recreational divers among Thailand's annual 12 million tourists.
Rescue workers extracted about 70 Thai and foreign divers from the famed Emeral Cave and several dozen were found and evacuated from around other islands, officials said.
Two Thais were killed at Emeral cave, a major attraction for divers who have to swim underwater to its tiny beach and water illuminated by sunshine pouring through a hole in the roof, police said.
Officials said more than 600 tourists and locals were being evacuated by air and sea from Ko Phi Phi, the tiny island made famous by the 2000 film The Beach starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
Belgian tourist Christian Patauraux said there were many dead there.
There are a lot of bodies and a lot of injured. I'm not sure when the next ferry is coming. Everything has been flattened, he said.
The tsunami struck the west coast of Phuket, right along its main beaches, lined with luxury hotels and resorts.
British tourist Paul Ramsbottom told the BBC there were several surges of the sea before the main tsunami struck.
It happened in cycles. There would be a surge and then it would retreat. And then there would be the next surge which was more violent, he said.
And then it died for a little bit and then there was just one almighty surge. This was the one which was picking up trucks and motorcycles and throwing them around.
The tsunami, triggered by an earthquake measured at 8.9 magnitude by the US Geological Survey, which called it the worst tremor for 40 years, also struck the Thai mainland provinces of Phang Nga, Krabi, Satun, Trang and Ranong.
In the Phang Nga tourist spot of Khao Lak, a collection of about 20 small resorts of up to 40 rooms was wiped out, a hotel worker there said.
Before the wave hit, I saw sea water fell back around 100m from the beach and some minutes later there was a three-storey high wave moving toward the beach and everything collapsed, he said.
Stunned Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said the tsunami was unprecedented.
Nothing like this has ever happened in our country before, he said.
The disaster department put the death toll at 86 in Phang Nga, 66 on Phuket, 36 in Krabi, 23 in Ranong, seven in Satun and five in Trang.
It was not immediately clear how many of the dead were foreigners. Reuters