It was 7:58 a.m. when the tremendous quake struck beneath the Indian Ocean 160 miles west of Sumatra. Not only did it register at approximately a 9.3 magnitude (only the 1960 Chile earthquake measured higher at 9.5, though there may have been stronger tremors prior to the invention of seismographic equipment) and last nearly 10 minutes, the quake moved a full 750 miles of underwater fault line earth up to 40 feet. The movement of the earth–there is evidence that huge boulders weighing thousands of tons were pushed several miles along the ocean floor–caused a massive displacement of water. It is estimated that the resulting tsunami had two times the energy of all the bombs used during World War II.
Within 15 minutes, tsunami waves were crashing the coast of Sumatra. At the north end of the island was a heavily populated region known as Aceh. There, waves reached 80 feet high over large stretches of the coast and up to 100 feet in some places. Entire communities were simply swept away by the water in a matter of minutes. The death toll in Indonesia is estimated at between 130,000 and 160,000 people, with an additional 500,000 people left homeless. About a third of the victims were children.
The huge waves missed the coast of Indonesia on the north side and went on to Thailand, where between 5,000 and 8,000 people died. The tsunami also moved east across the Indian Ocean. In Sri Lanka, the tsunami came ashore about 90 minutes after the earthquake. Although the waves were not as high as in Aceh, they still brought disaster. Approximately 35,000 people lost their lives and half a million others lost their homes. In addition, about 15,000 people died in India. The killer waves even reached 5,000 miles away in South Africa, where two people perished.
In total, about 190,000 people are confirmed dead with another 40,000 to 45,000 missing and presumed dead. Although billions of dollars of humanitarian aid poured in to the affected region in the aftermath of the disaster–an estimated $7 billion within the first 18 months—some areas are still suffering from the massive devastation.
One year prior to this earthquake and tsunami, almost to the hour, a 6.6-magnitude quake rocked Bam, Iran, killing 30,000 people.
– History.com Staff