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CNN NEWSNIGHT AARON BROWN

Devastating Tsunami Kills Tens of Thousands in South Asia

Aired December 27, 2004 - 22:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


TUCKER CARLSON, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening.
For untold thousands in South Asia on Sunday morning, death appeared on the horizon moving at the speed of a 757, waves, propelled by an earthquake that shattered the sea floor in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Sumatra.

At a magnitude of 9.0 it was the worst quake in 40 years; the tsunami that followed grabbed tourists sunbathing on the beach in Thailand, travelers waiting at a bus station in Sri Lanka, children celebrating a religious ceremony in India. They were swept out to sea or drowned where they stood by waves the size of office buildings.

Tsunamis may be the most natural of natural disasters. Governments don't cause them. Armies cannot subdue them. They just happen, a terrifying reminder of the limits of human power.

NEWSNIGHT's Beth Nissen starts us off tonight with an overview.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BETH NISSEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The numbers are almost impossible to comprehend, an estimated 22,000 dead in at least eight countries on two continents, 10,000 in Sri Lanka, 7,000 in India, 5,000 in Indonesia and thousands more still missing.

The quake unleashed tsunamis, monstrous waves some four stories high that traveled for hundreds of miles across the ocean's surface before hitting seaside resorts like this one in Thailand with horrifying speed and force. In Malaysia, the violent waves crashed through this resort turning paradise to a watery hill in seconds.

The worst was not felt in plush, tourist resorts but in poorer places like Sri Lanka, where rolling muddy water seemed to dissolve entire villages, swept hundreds under water as the waves poured inland, pulled hundreds more out to sea as the waves receded.

Overwhelmed, Indonesia has been unable to do more than estimate the count of its dead. In its one province of Ashay (ph) about 100 miles from the quake's epicenter, the death toll, say officials, might push past 10,000. The (UNINTELLIGIBLE) islands off the coast of India were so badly battered one official said some islands may have disappeared completely.

And international relief effort was quickly mobilized to start to bring in food, water and medicine for survivors who are now especially vulnerable to water-borne diseases.

COLIN POWELL, SECRETARY OF STATE: This is indeed an international tragedy and we're going to do everything we can to assist the nations that have been affected in dealing with this tragedy.

NISSEN: In the aftermath, government officials and seismologists and humanitarian crisis experts trying to calculate the scope of this natural disaster were beginning to use terms like "unbelievable," "unprecedented."

In the aftermath for the dazed survivors in Sri Lanka, Thailand, India, trying to calculate the loss of loved ones, the loss of life as they've known it, the only term was unfathomable.

Beth Nissen, CNN.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CARLSON: In Sri Lanka tonight, one in 20 people on the island, nearly a million in all are homeless. That is roughly the population of Detroit, Michigan. Entire villages are gone.

The island had no early warning systems so people stayed put and they died. They never what had hit them. Many are still missing. Some of them may never be found.

Joining us now from Colombo, Sri Lanka is CNN's Hugh Riminton. Hugh, what is the scope of the damage where you are?

HUGH RIMINTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, it doesn't matter what words get used, there's just simply no way you can get your head around the size of this. Sri Lanka seems to be the place where probably at least half of the deaths, although eight or more countries have been involved in this, more than half of the total number seem to have come out of Sri Lanka.

This is a teardrop island. It's a beautiful island. It's a beautiful-shaped island and it dangles down into the Indian Ocean. It got hit by these tsunamis and three-quarters of the island, almost all the way around the part in the northwestern sector were hit and hit hard.

The hardest area was in the south and southeast. We have single towns there where according to the most conservative estimates that have come out officially from Sri Lanka, those are police estimates, 1,516 people died in just one little town. That's confirmed dead. There are 120,000 people in that immediate district who have lost their homes, about a million people, as you say, across the island without homes.

We were at a shelter last night, people just sleeping out really just on the ground a lot of them just in the dirt. It was the comfort of other people sleeping around them, the comfort of being in slightly higher ground, the comfort that maybe there might be some food or water, some spare clothing that might become available but this is reality for so many people.

But it's funny, you know, out of the Vietnam War, even perhaps before for those who have longer memories, there was that talk of the 1,000-yard spare and by overnight in this period the first adrenalin shock of dealing with the disaster had worn off. There were people just sitting there staring into space and heaven only knows where their thoughts were.

TUCKER: Was there, Hugh, was there any warning at all? Did the Sri Lankan government, for instance, have any sense that the tsunami was coming and didn't make any effort to alert the population?

RIMINTON: You know there are several questions bound up in that question. Did they have any warning? We don't know and it's possible that they might have received some warning. Did it reach down to ground level? Not on any evidence that I've ever come across so far.

It's been a question asked in many areas. I haven't heard of any kind of warning that was officially given out into these areas. And one of the strange things that's happened, this is a story not just in Sri Lanka but is emerging again and again in so many other places that were hit is that people at first were fascinated by this drawing out of the water, out into the ocean where the beach suddenly appeared to be bigger, deeper, longer.

Some people were said to have trotted down the beach, run down the beach to sort of take in this experience of the sea going out. Of course, to anyone who knows much or anything at all about tsunamis that is the gravest warning sign of all because suddenly out from the sea comes this enormous tidal surge as the sea comes rushing back in again and behind the first wave usually, and in this case, other waves that were even bigger.

CARLSON: When the beach disappears, bad sign. Thank you, Hugh, very much.

Well, just when the scale of what's happening tonight takes your breath away, the smaller moments come along, the ones that quietly break your heart.

So, from southern India here is CNN's Suhasini Haidar.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SUHASINI HAIDAR, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Laying to rest one of the tsunami's tiniest victims residents of a small fishing village on the south of the Indian coast come to mourn this 8-month- old and relive the horror of all they've seen.

Their homes are destroyed and they've seen family members and friends drowned in the giant wave that hit the village of Kalapet. Most of the dead here were women and small children.

As relatives cremate 35-year-old (UNINTELLIGIBLE) they can't even dwell on their grief. They must think of where to go next. Many from Kalapet have already moved to this building nearby, some exhausted by terror and grief. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) says she can't believe this is all that's left of her wedding dowry but at least we saved our lives, she says.

(on camera): Thousands are now pouring into schools and public buildings across the state. Many here say their huts had washed away and they can't go home. Some say they've lost loved ones and are just too traumatized to consider going back to the scene of destruction.

(voice-over): Despite his fears, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) has gone back to look for his father's body. An earth mover did find the clothes his father was wearing in the debris of his home.

"I realized then that my father must have died" he says.

Many other villagers from Kalapet haven't been found, their families staying there. Anguish depends as they can't even give their loved ones a decent burial.

Suhasini Haidar CNN, Kalapet Beach, South India.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CARLSON: It's difficult to imagine from the pictures you've been seeing but the waves that did so much damage actually slowed down as they came ashore to about 40 miles an hour. That's down from close to 500 miles an hour in the open ocean.

Until yesterday the island of Phuket off the coast of Thailand was a paradise and now CNN's Aneesh Raman reports.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ANEESH RAMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The moment a tropical resort became a scene of horror, a massive wave, one of many, roaring into (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Beach on Phuket Island.

An Australian tourist on a rooftop capturing the beginning of a catastrophe, a wall of water engulfing buildings, surging in to the streets carrying people, vehicles and more, one snapshot of a disaster that has ravaged a continent.

Not far away, 26-year-old Belgian tourist Iolia Lebeau was among thousands of vacationers enjoying a break in the tropics.

IOLIA LEBEAU, TSUNAMI SURVIVOR: And I was just trying to spend the day on the beach and suddenly all the water went away and everyone was just looking at it and saying where is all the water? And then suddenly it was all coming at us and people just started to run and scream.

RAMAN: In seconds pristine tranquility turned into a hellish fight to stay alive.

LEBEAU: The building was collapsing, so I had to jump to another building and then a second wave came in and a third wave came in and people injured. I saw dead bodies floating and so then in a moment we decided with a couple of people just to run for it.

RAMAN: She's now at this hospital along with hundreds of other survivors from at least 20 countries, all in shock.

LEBEAU: I hope to be back for New Year's with my family. We'll never forget this Christmas.

RAMAN: But at least she has somewhere to go. Many who live here are still missing family members and have no home left.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

RAMAN: And, Tucker, now nearly 48 hours after those first devastating waves hit the shore, the Thai government really grappling with that dual challenge, helping these tourists desperate to get home but also helping their local citizens desperate to rebuild their lives -- Tucker.

CARLSON: Aneesh, there are probably a lot of stories like this one but one picture on the web caught our eye. It's a 2-year-old boy separated from his parents not far from where you are now. What can you tell us about him?

RAMAN: It is. It is likely to be, Tucker, one of the searing images that touches the world in terms of what the situation here is as we stand. The 2-year-old boy is out of hospital. It's unknown who his parents are, whether in fact they are alive.

The Thai media really picking up on this as well, stations that are traditionally in all Thai speaking in English as they hold up the picture, calling out for anyone that might know any information.

But it is really a great image that shows the tragic horror of the situation as people in absolute chaos were displaced from their loved ones and only now can try and reconnect, so the country here very hopeful that those parents are still alive and very much behind the effort to try and reconnect them.

CARLSON: Thanks, Aneesh, CNN's Aneesh Raman, thanks.

As we said at the top, what happened is humbling almost beyond words or numbers or facts, so for a moment just look and listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Hey. It's coming again, coming again! Bigger!

I ran into our beachfront bungalow to look for a camera. I guess I spent a minute looking for it, couldn't find it and I came back out again and the guy who runs the hotel was screaming at people to get off the beach. I looked out to sea and I guess at this stage it was about 100 yards, maybe 200 yards off the beach this wall of water heading our way.

And my wife screamed to me. She grabbed our daughter, Elizabeth, and I looked frantically for my 5-year-old son Peter and he was looking out to sea. He was mesmerized, hypnotized by the wall of water that was heading our way.

So, I just sprinted for the boy. I grabbed him and my wife yelled to me to get into the bungalow but I knew that Peter and I wouldn't make it, so we headed at right angles from the wave and I just ran as hard as I could.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Having stood in the water literally within two seconds from ankle height it came to shoulder height. You usually imagine a tidal wave is going to be much like you see in the movies, a big crest and wave.

Waves that hit Phuket and certainly from the reports I've had from other resorts they all came in very hard and fast. It was a bit like watching a bath run to the top.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I looked behind and I could see the wall of water coming towards us and eventually when we were I suppose 25 yards, 50 yards from the beach the wave caught up with myself and Peter and it washed us I guess another 5 yards into a (UNINTELLIGIBLE) swamp.

We were very lucky not to be hit by all the debris that there was that the wave carried with it. I mean it was carrying small boats with it. It was carrying logs, masonry. It was a terrifying experience.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CARLSON: Imagine now being awakened from sleep by a sound at the door, the sound in this case being the Indian Ocean. John Austin awoke from a dream to just such a nightmare and remarkably, amazingly is still with us to tell the story. He joins us now by phone from Phuket. Mr. Austin, are you there? What happened?

JOHN AUSTIN, TSUNAMI SURVIVOR (by telephone): Hello.

CARLSON: Yes, hi. Mr. Austin, tell us where were you when the wave hit and what happened to you after?

AUSTIN: Yes, John Austin here.

CARLSON: Mr. Austin, tell us where were you when the wave hit?

AUSTIN: Are you speaking to me?

CARLSON: Yes, I am.

AUSTIN: John Austin.

CARLSON: John Austin, the very same.

AUSTIN: I need to know if you're speaking to me or someone else. There's a lot of garble on the phone.

CARLSON: Speaking to you, Mr. Austin, and asking you where were you Sunday morning when the wave hit Phuket?

AUSTIN: OK. Well, I came back from my room. I was staying at a rather posh (UNINTELLIGIBLE) hotel. I was there last year but this year I was on the first floor. It was the last floor they had which is the ground floor actually and the pool was right in front of my room.

And I had woken up with several hours sleep and (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and so forth and turned on Discovery and was watching some program with Adolf Hitler and how he survived 27 assassination attempts.

I turned over and within no time I heard this wall of water approaching. I knew right away. I've been around boats and never seen one of these before but I knew right away it was a tidal wave and the sliding glass doors were right in front of the pool.

There was no protection for me at all. The rooms that I last had, had the lobby and the rooms to the right had the restaurant which were sort of a break, you know (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

CARLSON: Mr. Austin, unfortunately we're having difficult with our connection from Thailand. I hope we can get back to you later in the show.

Ahead on NEWSNIGHT, the systems in place to head off other disasters in the Pacific how do they work and are they enough, a break first?

This is NEWSNIGHT.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CARLSON: And for more on how you can help, you can also log onto cnn.com.

Now, could it happen here? It seems like that's the first question you hear whenever something terrible happens to other people in other places. Is it groundless hysteria manufactured by a ratings hungry news media? In part of course it is.

Yet, tomorrow morning people will still be buying beachfront property in Malibu and they probably should. On the other hand, asking whether it could happen here may throw some light on why it happened there and perhaps what can be done to stop it from happening anywhere in the future.

And so with that in mind, here's CNN's Adaora Udoji.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ADAORA UDOJI, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The terror of a tsunami triggered by an earthquake swept Valdez, Alaska off the map on Good Friday in 1964. More than 100 people were killed down the coast to California. Since 1946, tsunamis have hit Alaska four times causing death and destruction all the way to Hawaii. Today, scientists worry a tsunami could strike North America again. They worry about active fault lines causing earthquakes in the west, a triggering event for monster waves. Government officials worry too, which is why a federal warning system also monitors other potential triggers, volcanoes, meteorites and landslides.

D.L. JOHNSON, NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE: The warning systems are in their infancy. We're getting better and better at informing the public.

UDOJI: The East Coast hasn't been completely spared. A tidal wave bashed Newfoundland in 1929 killing 27. Another hit Puerto Rico in 1918.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We don't have big earthquakes here. We're not going to see that big type of tsunami.

UDOJI: But there are theories the East Coast may still be vulnerable. Some argue if the volcano in the Canary Islands, near Africa, suddenly erupted and collapsed into the Atlantic Ocean, it could send violent ripples to the U.S. coast within nine hours.

Other scientists worry about gasses escaping the continental crust, 50 to 100 miles off the coast of North Carolina. The idea of an explosive shift, argues Columbia University Professor Jeffrey Weissel, leads to troubling questions.

PROFESSOR JEFFREY WEISSEL, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY: We were surprised and everybody is surprised about the amount of gas that we found and we don't understand the full implications for exciting future submarine landslides which then might produce dangerous tsunamis.

UDOJI: Scientists say they just can't yet connect all the dots but many still believe the West Coast has a greater risk of getting hit.

Adaora Udoji, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CARLSON: Joining us now in Denver is Stuart Sipkin. He's a seismologist for the U.S. Geological Survey. Welcome to the program. So, should we be afraid? Is it possible that the West Coast, possibly even the East Coast could be hit by a tsunami? Is it real?

STUART SIPKIN, SEISMOLOGIST, U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY: Oh, it's certainly real. The West Coast has been hit by tsunamis in the past. It will be hit by tsunamis in the future. It's a little bit more debatable whether there's a tsunami danger in the East Coast but there's no question about it on the West Coast.

CARLSON: So, I mean does this mean it's time to, you know, dump the beachfront property in Malibu? I mean what does it mean? Is the West Coast going to be wiped out and if so, when? Tell us. SIPKIN: No. Well, of course, we don't know when these great earthquakes will occur but in the Pacific, at least, we have a fairly good tsunami warning system, unlike in the Indian Ocean and so if a tsunami-genic earthquake were to occur, we would have plenty of warning for people to get to higher ground. That doesn't help with the destruction of property but it certainly would help with the saving of lives.

CARLSON: So, how would they get that warning? Let's say I'm relaxing on the beach on the West Coast somewhere and a tsunami is approaching unbeknownst to me. How do I find out that it's time to head inland?

SIPKIN: Well, I believe the way it works is that the civil defense authorities in the various states have links to the tsunami warning centers, which monitor the tide gauges and the seismicity and the various warning signals that a tsunami is coming.

And there are, I believe, usual sort of civil defense warning signs. There are sirens. If you're on a beach and hear a siren, get off the beach. Go to higher ground.

CARLSON: Now what about, we've been hearing all day about this volcano in the Canary Islands that may collapse at some point and send a tsunami toward the East Coast of the United States drowning the Hamptons. Do you consider that a likely scenario, a possible scenario?

SIPKIN: You know, I hate to say things are impossible. One of the things about my job is that the earth keeps surprising us. I would say that it is not very likely that if it was possible there's no way of telling how, whether it's going to happen in 100,000 years and I don't even know what the likelihood is.

CARLSON: When was the last time the Continental United States was hit by a tsunami that took human life?

SIPKIN: The Continental United States was -- that was probably the 1964 great earthquake that happened in Alaska. There were several hundred people that were killed by that earthquake and some of those were killed by the tsunami that swept down the West Coast.

CARLSON: How -- but the contiguous United States, he mainland United States, can you remember...

SIPKIN: That's right. There were -- yes, there were some people in the Pacific Northwest and in the northern California area who I believe were killed by the tsunami from that earthquake in Alaska.

CARLSON: Now how big are the tsunamis you're talking about and how big for that matter were the tsunamis that hit south Asia on Sunday? There's been varying reports, 20 feet, 40 feet. How big do you think those waves really were?

SIPKIN: What I've heard is well over 20 feet. I wouldn't discount the reports that they were 40 feet. It's certainly possible but what I've heard was in excess of 20 feet.

The tsunamis that we were talking about from the Alaska earthquake that hit the West Coast were certainly I believe not that large and, as a matter of fact, the people who were killed, I've heard, were down at the beach to see the tsunami come in. There was warning and people knew it was coming but some people went down to see it.

CARLSON: Tsunami watching, dangerous.

SIPKIN: Yes.

CARLSON: And how far inland can a wave that big go?

SIPKIN: OK, now that really depends on the topography of the shoreline and along the West Coast of the U.S. there's quite a bit of topography, so being on a beach is quite dangerous but there are a lot of cliffs and a lot of hills and that would prevent the wave from going too far inland.

One of the problems with the tragedy that occurred in the Indian Ocean is that there's a lot of low-lying land, as one of your reports said. The (UNINTELLIGIBLE) islands are only a few feet above sea level and the waves washed completely over them. So, how far inland they go really depends on, as I said, the topography.

CARLSON: All right, Stuart Sipkin and a cautious warning against tsunami watching. We appreciate it.

When we come back, now that the waters are receding the health factor, how doctors are coping with what could be the next phase of this disaster.

Around the world this is NEWSNIGHT on CNN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CARLSON: For those of you just joining us here's a quick recap of our top story tonight, the earthquake and the waves that followed. The numbers are staggering, more than 22,000 dead. That's a number we've been able to confirm so far expected to rise.

Hardest hit, based on what we know now, the small island of Sri Lanka where 10,000 people died and as many as a million people were driven from their homes. Six Air Force cargo planes are awaiting orders to fly to Thailand with supplies for victims on the island of Phuket.

The U.N.'s head of relief operations tonight says the cost of putting things right may run into the billions of dollars and he called on the wealthier countries in the world to contribute a greater share of the tab.

Well, many of those who survived won't have it easy and neither will the people in agencies trying to help them. The raw fact of so many corpses, carcasses, mud and water is creating the likelihood that disease will compound this disaster.

With us to talk about the lingering health effects of the tsunami is Gerald Martone of the International Rescue Committee. Mr. Martone, thanks for coming.

GERALD MARTONE, INTERNATIONAL RESCUE COMMITTEE: Thank you, Tucker.

CARLSON: You all swoop in after a disaster like this.

MARTONE: That's right.

CARLSON: And try to make things right. What are the first things that you do?

MARTONE: Right. The International Rescue Committee, we often work in areas of political violence, warfare, conflict, refugee exoduses. In this case in the tsunami we'll be reacting in Indonesia. We'll do an assessment of the affected populations.

But the very first thing we're going to focus on is water sources, potable, safe drinking water sources. It's the leading killer of populations affected by flooding, by disasters, by migration.

CARLSON: So, you bring in huge amounts of bottled water, trucks of it? How do you get the water?

MARTONE: No, actually that's not a very sustainable way to do it. What you do is you locate the sources that people are getting their water from and you protect them. You wall them off with cement aprons. You can put protective fencing around them. You put drainage.

You teach people about the causes of that contamination, how to protect that water source, teach people about hand washing, how to chlorinate water, how to treat people who then are infected by contaminated water.

CARLSON: Now, what are the kinds of diseases people in areas hit by the tsunami are at risk for right now?

MARTONE: Right.

There's over 50 different diseases transmitted by water. Water is a hauntingly efficient way to carry diseases. One of the ones we fear most is cholera, the simple disease of cholera.

CARLSON: Now, what -- for people who don't live in regions affected by cholera, tell us, quickly, what is cholera?

MARTONE: Cholera is a severely dehydrating form of diarrhea. People can lose up to 10 percent of their body weight in just two hours, just a massive loss of fluid from their system.

CARLSON: That's remarkable. MARTONE: They dehydrate right before your eyes.

CARLSON: And how quickly does it kill people?

MARTONE: It can kill people in a couple of hours if they're not rehydrated appropriately.

CARLSON: So, what do you do about it? Someone is affected by cholera, is there treatment? Is it saline solution?

(CROSSTALK)

MARTONE: Yes, it's very simple to treat. One of the most basic things we do is teach people how to make a rehydration solution out of simple salt and some juices and water and how to painstakingly spoon- feed someone. You can even spoon-feed someone who's unconscious. And you can rehydrate them back to life.

Here in the United States, of course, we would start an I.V. We would rehydrate them through their veins. But in many of these places, they don't access to medical care. You've got to teach parents how to rehydrate their children. A very simple intervention costs less than 10 cents, saves their lives.

CARLSON: Now, I read that doctors are concerned about the spread of malaria in places hit by the tsunami. Why would a tsunami increase the risk of malaria?

MARTONE: Yes.

The risk of malaria is largely due to there's a lot more pools of standing water. That's breeding ground for mosquito larva. So that's part of the problem. People are displaced from their homes. Many people are now in zones where -- they used to live in zones where they didn't have malaria. Now they are in malarial zones. They don't have the basic immunity. They don't have access to health care to get treatment for it.

CARLSON: Now, when you all visit a country, say, Thailand or Sri Lanka, do you just fly in and take control of the situation? Do you need permission from the government?

MARTONE: You always work in concert with the government. You have to work not only with the government, but with local authorities and community-based groups. The most important partner in our disaster recovery relief efforts are the actual populations affected by themselves; 90 percent of aid workers are the beneficiary of aids themselves. They are the refugees. They are the victims of the disaster.

They make up our emergency teams. They are the ones going to the community, communicating the health messages, telling them what diseases are prevalent, how to prevent them, how to treat them.

CARLSON: And who pays for this? MARTONE: A lot of our funding is from government grants or United Nations grants. But the most precious funding we have is from public donations, from like your viewers.

CARLSON: Now, a country like Sri Lanka, does it have the resources or the plans in place to provide medical care for people affected by this or is it planning on relying on groups like yours?

MARTONE: Some countries, like India, have a strong tradition of disaster response. They actually have disaster preparedness protocols. They have communities trained in it.

A lot of the other countries are not. They're woefully inadequately developed. And they're very poor communities to start with. They haven't had good water sources to begin with. Their nutritional status isn't very good, so people are already somewhat weakened before it even happens.

CARLSON: Gerald Martone, thank you very much.

MARTONE: Thank you, Tucker.

CARLSON: When we come back, we'll talk to a reporter who may be covering the story of a lifetime.

But a break first. This is NEWSNIGHT.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CARLSON: The story we've been reporting all day long and night is also being told by hundreds of others in dozens of locations.

We want to go once again to Phuket, Thailand, and Peter Goodman, who has been reporting this story for "The Washington Post." He joins us now by telephone.

Mr. Goodman, quickly, I'm always interested in how reporters get to where the story is. How did you get to Phuket, Thailand, after a disaster like this so quickly?

PETER GOODMAN, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, I went to the Bangkok Airport and stood on a real, long line and begged and pleaded and bought myself a ticket to Phuket.

And the hardest thing was accommodation. But that seems sort of a trifling thing, considering you have got literally tens of thousands of people wandering around whose homes have been destroyed, people who have lost relatives. My own accommodation problems seemed a minor matter.

CARLSON: So what was the scene right when you arrived?

GOODMAN: Well, it's a strange thing to arrive in a place where there's still tens of thousands of people on vacation. The sun is shining. The beaches returned to normal. There are people swimming. But you don't have to look very far to see the line of shops and resorts and restaurants that have been totally destroyed, to go into villages where thatched roof and bamboo homes have been completely demolished. And I spent much of yesterday standing at a makeshift morgue, where vacationers -- these are people who booked trips thinking they were going to be on golf courses and sailboats.

And now they're standing on a veranda at a hospital, picking up plastic sheeting from bodies, hoping or maybe not hoping that that's their relative.

CARLSON: Now, this is a huge tourist destination. So, presumably, the government of Thailand has incentive to get things back in order as quickly as it can. Have they mobilized to do that?

GOODMAN: Well, you see a lot of people sweeping up debris from the street, shoveling sand. The beaches are getting cleaned up.

There's been a big effort to get people out of here who want to get out of here. There have been little stands set up where tourists can call relatives for free, where they can apply for new passports if they're documents got washed away. So, yes, there is a push to get tourism back.

And I should say, there's an unconfirmed report in the Thai press this morning that the Thai government had some knowledge that a big earthquake was likely in the vicinity and decided not to warn anybody because they were worried about tourism. So that force sort of pulls in both directions.

CARLSON: Is there any evidence that's true?

GOODMAN: Well, I pass that on because it's getting prominent ink here. And it's something that people are looking into. I certainly can't confirm that at this point.

CARLSON: Now, there are a ton of foreigners there, of course, Americans, Brits, lots of Europeans. Is there a strong presence of foreign governments there? Are American Embassy officials afoot, people from the British Embassy? Have you seen them?

GOODMAN: Yes, there are consular people around.

Again, they're giving people forms to get new passports and getting people on planes to Bangkok and sending them home. There are also consular people who have the grisly job of standing around morgues making sure that proper identification of bodies gets handled properly and then make sure that coffins get put on to planes for Bangkok and sent back for burial, wherever they go.

CARLSON: I believe it's morning where you are, so you're probably just figuring out what story you're going to write for today. What are you working on?

GOODMAN: Well, I'm really curious to know what could have been done to minimize some of the damage, whether people could have been evacuated, whether a warning system would have had an effect here.

I also want to know what kind of relief effort is under way. I mean, it strikes me, being here at a beach resort, that if something like this had happened somewhere like, I don't know, Ocean City, Maryland, a place I used to cover, probably things would look a lot different.

What's it like when something goes horribly awry in a Third World country, where you have this sort of mixing of two worlds? You have these expats spending hundreds of dollars on their vacations right next to villagers who have very little. And you have a government that has limited resources. So, I'm curious to poke into some of those issues.

CARLSON: That's a good question. It will probably a great piece. We'll read it.

Peter Goodman of "The Washington Post," thanks very much.

GOODMAN: Thanks very much.

CARLSON: Other news when we come back, including the unfriendly skies and crowded airports in this country. And, in Baghdad, taking aim at one of the top political leaders in hopes of derailing the chances of democracy.

This is NEWSNIGHT on CNN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CARLSON: An American soldier was killed today by a bomb on the streets of Baghdad. It happened not far from the site of an even more deadly explosion, this one aimed at Iraq's political future.

Reporting for us tonight, CNN's Jeff Koinange.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEFF KOINANGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Another bloody day in Baghdad in what has become an all too familiar scene. A suicide bomber drove his car right up to the headquarters of the city's largest Shia political party, killing six and wounding at least 33.

Sources say the intended target was this man, Abdel Aziz al- Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution of Iraq. He wasn't in the building at the time, but he was quick to issue a statement calling the blast an assassination attempt, and he urged his party faithful not to seek revenge against what he called Sunni Islamists, all this as a new audiotape purportedly from al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden aired on the Arabic language network Al Jazeera, urging Iraqis to boycott the January elections and back Jordanian born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as bin Laden's deputy in Iraq. The authenticity of the tape could not be immediately verified.

But some political parties already backing out of the January 30 poll. The leading Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party announced it's pulling out of the race, citing persistent violence and security concerns.

TAREQ AL HASIM, SECRETARY GENERAL, IRAQI ISLAMIC PARTY (through translator): Today, the party took a very difficult decision, which was to withdraw from the elections because it is convinced that the situation will not improve to allow conditions for credible elections within the timeframe.

KOINANGE: An election without Sunni involvement means bad news for the fragile coalition, as it would further isolate and disenfranchise the minority group that, until the fall of Saddam Hussein, ruled the country, leaving questions about the legitimacy of an election that is being touted as all inclusive.

(on camera): Monday's assassination attempt may have been unsuccessful, but a series of attacks on Iraqi politicians and activists in recent days shows a stepped-up campaign of fear and intimidation by insurgent groups bent on making sure that the January poll doesn't take place.

Jeff Koinange, CNN, Baghdad.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CARLSON: Well, a few more items now from around the country and around the world, starting in Ukraine, where presidential elections are over. And the challenger, Viktor Yushchenko, holds an eight-point lead. Mr. Yushchenko, who was poisoned quite dramatically during the campaign and who went down in defeat is earlier rigged balloting, is now claiming victory. His opponent at first seemed on the verge of conceding. He now says he will challenge the election in Ukraine's Supreme Court.

Federal authorities are launching an investigation into the foul- ups over the weekend that left people stranded in airports and their luggage stuck in limbo, if not purgatory. Comair canceled all flights on Christmas Day, blaming a computer glitch. U.S. Airways said a sick-out was to blame for canceled flights and lost luggage all across the Eastern Seaboard.

And how is this for a golden parachute, $1.3 million a year for life, plus benefits? That's what Franklin Raines is getting, despite being forced out of his job as CEO of Fannie Mae, the nation's largest mortgage lender, the government-chartered, taxpayer-guaranteed mortgage lender. Not what we get in cable.

Some better news, for a change, when we come back, families reunited with troops in Iraq through the miracle of television.

From New York, this is NEWSNIGHT.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CARLSON: Overall, it's been a pretty grim day all around. And it has not been the best of times either for Americans serving in Iraq.

Here now, we hope, a bright spot, an opportunity for a few lucky troops to be home for Christmas, if only on their screens.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SGT. TRUHONG PHAN, U.S. ARMY: Hi, ma. How are you?

MARLY PHAN, WIFE OF SGT. TRUHONG: I'm fine. We're OK here. I'm just so happy to hear your voice every day.

T. PHAN: I am, too. How's my little angel?

(CROSSTALK)

M. PHAN: She's good. She misses you, she kisses your picture beside the bed every day and before she goes to bed.

T. PHAN: That's great. That's my little baby. Is that her?

M. PHAN: Yes. She -- it's her.

T. PHAN: Is she teething, yet?

M. PHAN: Oh, no, no teeth, yet.

T. PHAN: Oh, wow. I'm sure it will come soon.

M. PHAN: She's so talkative, though.

T. PHAN: That's great. I miss you guys so much.

M. PHAN: I miss you so much, honey. Be careful all the times.

T. PHAN: I will always. Can't wait to be home to be with you guys.

M. PHAN: Yeah, we're here, we're waiting for you.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We have to.

M. PHAN: Waiting for you and pray for you everyday.

T. PHAN: Thank you. I really need it. Every one needs it over here, all the soldiers.

TONY HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: First of all, Julie, there he is, you can see him. What are your thoughts? What do you want to say to him?

JULIE LOPEZ, WIFE OF SGT. LOPEZ: He looks awesome. He looks really good, better than I was hoping.

HARRIS: Rick, talk to your family.

J. LOPEZ: I love you honey.

SGT. RICK LOPEZ, U.S. SOLDIER: I love you too, honey. I miss you guys. HARRIS: Rick, give me a sense of what it's like to see your family. How long have you been gone, and this moment for you when you get an opportunity to see so many of your family there and children there, I know it's difficult for you to be so far away from home, but, I don't know, what are you feeling?

R. LOPEZ: I miss them a lot. Wish I could be there with them, but, you know this is what I've got to do. So -- it's hard.

HARRIS: Julie, what would you like to say? How long has it been since you last communicated with one another? Do you get an opportunity to e-mail. Do you video conference? How do you guys stay in touch and when is the last time you had some words with one another?

J. HARRIS: We're able to talk on the phone several times a week. We try to get on the computer at least once a week with a web cam so we can see each other. We spoke a couple days ago when he called to inform me about this, so I am one of the lucky ones that gets to talk to him quite often.

HARRIS: Anything the kids want to say? Anything anyone else wants to say directly to Rick?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: As his mother, I'd like to say it's really good to see him, really good to see him. I feel much better now than I did yesterday or the day before. I miss you son, waiting for you to come home. We love you.

R. LOPEZ: I miss you too mom. I love you.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I know you do. I know you do. I do.

CAPT. DWAYNE LIMPERT JR., U.S. SOLDIER: It's good to see you, mom, and dad.

DWAYNE LIMPERT, SR., FATHER OF CAPT. LIMPERT: Even better to be seeing you.

CATHY LIMPERT, FATHER OF CAPT. LIMPERT: Yes, did you send a box to the house?

D. LIMPERT, JR.: For Christmas.

C. LIMPERT: For Christmas?

D. LIMPERT, JR.: Yes, I did.

C. LIMPERT: Well, can I open it?

D. LIMPERT, SR.: We figured that, why not spend Christmas together and open our Christmas present from you?

C. LIMPERT: OK?

D. LIMPERT, JR.: Yes, I told you to open it. Yes, this morning, open it up.

D. LIMPERT, SR.: Well, that's what we're doing.

C. LIMPERT: Is that what it is?

D. LIMPERT, SR.: Oh, wow, a digital camera. Now we can go and take some pictures and send them to you on the Internet.

D. LIMPERT, JR.: There you go.

D. LIMPERT, SR.: Fantastic. Thank you very much.

C. LIMPERT: Thank you. My love.

D. LIMPERT, JR.: I love you guys.

D. LIMPERT, SR.: We love you, too. How's it going for you over there?

D. LIMPERT, JR.: Yes, it's going pretty well. It was a little tough coming back into Mosul with the incident, but things are starting to get back to normal. And the brigade continues to do really good stuff. So you know, we're keeping it positive.

D. LIMPERT, SR.: Very good. Well, you're in everybody's prayers here. A lot of people want to know how you were. And everybody we know in town when we see them, How's Dwayne, how's Dwayne? So I'm so glad you're doing well.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CARLSON: That was U.S. soldiers, of course, stationed in Iraq, talking to their families on Christmas Day, brought to you with a little help from the Department of Defense.

We'll wrap things up in just a minute.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CARLSON: Before we go tonight, here is Heidi Collins, the fantastic Heidi Collins, with a look at what's in store on "AMERICAN MORNING."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HEIDI COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you, Tucker.

Tomorrow on "AMERICAN MORNING," we laughed, we cried, but did we shop? We're going to look back on the year in commercials. How did the best ads of 2004 get you to spend your money? And why did the worst ones make you reach for the remote? See if your favorites make the cut, tomorrow 7:00 a.m. on CNN -- Tucker, back to you.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CARLSON: And that is it. The hour is over. Happily, it happens again tomorrow. See you then, at 10:00. Good night.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com


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