Tsunami hits Solomons, wipes out village

( AP ) - A bone-rattling earthquake sparked a tsunami that sent 10-foot high waves crashing into parts of the Solomon Islands on Monday, wiping out one village and killing at least three people, officials and witnesses said.

The large waves struck the western town of Gizo, inundating buildings and causing widespread destruction within five minutes of the earthquake.

"There wasn't any warning - the warning was the earth tremors," Alex Lokopio, the premier of the Solomon's Western Province, told New Zealand's National Radio. "It shook us very, very strongly and we were frightened, and all of a sudden the sea was rising up."

Lokopio said he witnessed a large wave crashing into the island.

"I saw the wave ... all of a sudden the water was just rising up and moved toward the island and hit all the houses on the coastal area, and all of their property was washed away to the open sea," he said.

Reports on the number of deaths varied and there was no immediate word on numbers of people missing. Emergency officials have yet to be able to reach the area hit by the tsunami and communications with the area is limited.

A man who answered the telephone at the Gizo police station said there were initial reports that eight people, six of them children, had been killed by the tsunami but they were still unconfirmed. The phone cut out abruptly before the man gave his name.

Julian McLeod of the Solomon Islands National Disaster Management Office said there were unconfirmed reports that two villages in the country's far west were flooded.

"Two villages were reported to have been completely inundated," McLeod told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio. "We have received reports of four people missing."

Mcleod told Sky News only three deaths had been reported, while national police spokesman Mick Spinks told The Associated Press there were unconfirmed reports of four deaths.

"Our biggest problem is communications, because most of the high frequency radio system there was submerged," Spinks said.

Gizo resident Judith Kennedy said water "right up to your head" swept through the town.

"All the houses near the sea were flattened," she told The Associated Press by telephone. "The downtown area is a very big mess from the tsunami and the earthquake," she added. "A lot of houses have collapsed. The whole town is still shaking" from aftershocks.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the quake measured magnitude-8.0 and struck at 7:39 a.m. about 6 miles beneath the sea floor, 217 miles northwest of the capital, Honiara.

The Pacific region from Australia to Hawaii went on high alert for several hours after the quake struck between the islands of Bougainville and New Georgia.

But the region-wide warnings were downgraded as the danger period passed. There was no repeat of 2004 tsunami disaster, when a magnitude 9 quake sent massive waves slamming into the coastlines of a dozen countries around the Indian Ocean's rim, killing or leaving missing about 230,000 people.

Gizo, a regional center, is just 25 miles from the earthquake's epicenter.

Another witness in the town, dive shop owner Danny Kennedy, Judith's father, estimated the height of the wave at 10 feet.

"I'm driving down the street - there are boats in the middle of the road, buildings have completely collapsed and fallen down," he said in a telephone interview.

"We're just trying to mobilize water and food, and shelter for people at the moment because ... in the town alone there's going to be between 2,000-3,000 homeless. It's not a very good scene at the moment."

Harry Wickham, who owns a waterfront hotel in Gizo, said the damage was widespread.

"The waves came up probably about 10 feet and swept through town," he told Australia's Nine Network television by telephone. "There's a lot of water damage and a lot of debris floating around," he added.

"Ten feet of water washing through town - you can imagine what damage it has done here."

A town in the west, Munda, was believed to be badly damaged, officials and the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corp. said, but details were not confirmed.

Solomon Islands deputy police commissioner Peter Marshall said an airplane was to fly over the devastated areas later Monday to assess damage.

The Hawaii-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center reported the quake at magnitude 8.1, and said a temblor of that strength could cause a destructive tsunami and issued a warning bulletin for the Solomon Islands and neighboring Papua New Guinea. The alert was later lifted, and no reports of a wider tsunami or damage elsewhere emerged.

Australian officials closed beaches anyway along the length of the country's east coast, from near the Great Barrier Reef in the north to Sydney and it's famous Bondi beach in the south. Ferry services in the city were canceled.

It ordered a lower-level "tsunami watch" for other places, including most South Pacific countries, but later canceled the alert. The center said a 6-inch wave had been reported in Honiara.

Police Sgt. Godfrey Abiah said in Honiara that police in Gizo had received warning about a possible tsunami and were helping people leave the town for higher ground when the wave hit.

"We have lost radio contact with the two police stations down there and we're not getting any clear picture from down there," he told the AP by telephone.

A spokesman for Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, Deli Oso, said the quake was felt in Honiara but there were no reports of any damage.

The Solomon Islands is a poverty-wracked archipelago of more than 200 islands northeast of Australia, with a population of about 552,000 people, that lies on the Pacific Basin's so-called "Ring of Fire," an arc of volcanos and fault lines where quakes frequently happen.

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