MEULABOH, Indonesia - In town after town, the scene was the same from the helicopter taking one of the first glimpses of Sumatra's ravaged coast: whole villages ripped apart, covered in mud and sea water. The only signs of life were a handful of desperate people scavenging a beach for food.
When the helicopter - bearing an Indonesian military commander and an Associated Press Television News crew - touched down, townspeople ran down from the high ground were they've taken refuge. For some, it was the first contact they had with the outside world for days.
Some cried, others whooped for joy.
One refugee described what many across southern Asia have said they saw in the last moments Sunday, the puzzling sight of coastal waters disappearing, sucked into the tsunami about to strike: "The water in the sea pulled back, then fifty minutes after that the huge wave came back to us and destroyed everything," the man said, without giving his name.
For some people on Sumatra's western coast, the destruction came even quicker. Sunday's earthquake, centered about 150 miles offshore, shook the area, then the gigantic waves it caused struck within a half hour - compared to 2 1/2 hours for ravaged Sri Lanka, across the Indian Ocean.
Authorities counted thousands of bodies on the west coast Wednesday, bringing Indonesia's death toll to more than 45,000. But that was only the start, with military teams only just beginning to collect the area's dead.
Three-quarters of the Indonesian island's western coast was destroyed and some towns were totally wiped out, said Maj. Gen. Endang Suwarya, the military commander of Sumatra's hard-hit Aceh province, as he led the helicopter tour of the region.
"The damage is truly devastating," he said. "These people are isolated and we will try and get them help."