A 10-metre-high wall of water set off by a huge earthquake drowned almost 5000 people in six countries, swept away scores of tourists and villagers on Thai islands and left thousands homeless in South-East Asia.
The region was bracing last night for more tidal waves from the after-shock after the underwater quake - at 8.9 on the Richter scale the world's fifth biggest in 100 years - sent a tsunami racing yesterday morning.
Multiple quakes started off the tip of Indonesia's Sumatra island and sent massive waves across the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, killing an estimated 2134 people in Sri Lanka, almost 2000 in India and hundreds more between the Maldives, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia.
Five-metre waves swept up to 100 tourists into the sea on Thailand's most popular tourist island, Phuket, at the resorts of Patong, Karon and Kata. Another 100 tourists on diving holidays on islands off southern Thailand were missing, about 70 of them in the famed Emeral Cave. "We don't know whether they are dead or alive," an official said.
The official death toll in Thailand was 223 last night, with 2000 injured. "Nothing like this has ever happened in our country before," said the Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who ordered the evacuation of provinces in the south.
But the worst hit was Sri Lanka, 1600 kilometres to the west of the epicentre - because the tsunami had more time to gather strength before hitting land. The death toll was 2200, with 1 million more affected, about 5 per cent of the population. "I think this is the worst ever natural disaster in Sri Lanka," said the National Disaster Management Centre.
Sri Lanka's President declared a national disaster as thousands fled the coast.
A spokesman for the Sri Lankan military said half the navy's eastern fleet was looking for survivors. The navy said its base at Trincomalee, on the north-eastern coast, was under water.
In southern India the toll was almost 2000, with 1625 killed in the state of Tamil Nadu alone, more than 100 of which were in Chennai. The city's police chief said: "The bodies in the hospital are mostly young women and children."
Four-hundred fishermen were also reported missing.
More than 700 were killed in Indonesia, with the province of Aceh, on the north-western tip of Sumatra, bearing the brunt of the damage. Entire villages and towns were swept away and thousands were scrambling for higher ground. On the island of Nias, a surfing mecca for Australians off Sumatra's west coast, 75 bodies had been recovered.
An Australian boat captain, Edward Shiels, who was on the coast of Sumatra when the earthquake hit, told Channel Seven last night: "Basically the waters just drained out of the bay."
In Malaysia 29 people were killed, 21 of them in the popular tourist island of Penang.
The number of dead was climbing rapidly last night as reports from remote areas came in.
In the Maldives two-thirds of the capital, Male, was under water. Much of the Maldives, a string of 1192 coral atolls off the south-western coast of India, was inundated. A spokesman for the Maldives Government, Ahmed Shaheed, said: "The damage is considerable. [Male] is only about three feet above sea level and a wave of water four feet high swept over us."
There were no reports of Australian casualties, but Australian diplomatic staff in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and India were calling hotels and hospitals in areas where Australians were believed to be staying. A spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Department said its staff in Bangkok, Jakarta, New Delhi and Colombo were taking urgent steps to locate Australians.
A West Australian state MP, John Hyde, on Phuket, told ABC television: "Suddenly the streets are awash and people just running and screaming from the beach. And all the windows are blown in everywhere."
Another Australian, Simon Morse, was in a Phuket pub watching the cricket when it hit. "People were getting swept along still on their motorbikes on their sides. There were cars that had been picked up by the storm surge and they were getting pushed down the road."
It is peak tourist season in Thailand, and the rest of South-East Asia, and the resorts were booked solid for Christmas.
A geophysicist, Julie Martinez, said of the quake: "We've just updated it to 8.9 magnitude [from 8.5]. That makes it the fifth largest earthquake since 1900."
In Aceh panic-stricken people were jolted awake at 6.30am local time. "The ground was shaking for a long time," said a witness, Yayan Zamzani.
Experts said last night the earthquake could have been triggered by a tremor that struck 800 kilometres south of Tasmania on Christmas Eve. A spokesman for Geoscience Australia, Cvetan Sinadinovski, said Australia and Indonesia were connected by the Indo-Australian tectonic plate, and "the release of energy on one side of the plate could cause a release of energy on the other side".