LHOKSEUMAWE, Indonesia - Mulyana, a 24-year-old housewife, had just sat down to a wedding party on Sunday morning when the tsunami struck. She ran and held on to a coconut tree. Still, the water dragged her far out to sea.
‘‘I was alone in the middle of the ocean,’’ Mulyana said on Tuesday from her hospital bed in this town on the northeastern coast of Aceh Province, the area of Indonesia hit hardest by the disaster. ‘‘I was afraid of being pulled all the way to India.’’
Mulyana, who cannot swim, said she clung to a coconut tree floating nearby. With the weight of her clothes pulling her down, she ripped off everything but her bra and prayed to God to help her. Four hours later a group of fishermen found her still alive as they were pulling bodies from the water. Each morning’s tide brings with it the bodies of more victims who, like Mulyana, were washed out to sea, but who were not so lucky. Others have been found tangled in branches of trees where the waters hurled them.
Mulyana is one of more than 200 survivors who have filled the hospitals here, many with similarly harrowing tales of how they survived a tempest that Indonesian and international relief officials fear may have killed more than 30,000 people in this country alone.
‘‘We’re seeing devastation and death beyond belief,’’ said Michael Elmquist, who leads the U.N. assistance office in Indonesia, speaking in an interview in his office in Jakarta. ‘‘I’ve been through many disasters around the world, but I’ve never seen anything like this. There’s really nothing to compare it to.’’
While relief workers rushed Tuesday to get food and medical supplies to the survivors to stave off starvation and disease, Indonesian officials said 4,775 people had been confirmed dead in North Sumatra, where Aceh is located, near the epicenter of the quake. Local officials were preparing makeshift graves even as unclaimed bodies remained on streets and shorelines.
The U.N. office in Jakarta received an unconfirmed report late Tuesday that as many as 40,000 people had perished in the town of Meulaboh on Sumatra’s western shore.
‘‘If that is true,’’ Elmquist said, ‘‘that’s going way beyond any of our initial estimates.’’
Some officials said they fear that many more people may also have drowned in a remote set of smaller Indonesian islands off Sumatra, including the island of Nias. But officials emphasized that for now it was difficult to assess the full extent of the devastation.
In Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, reports are filtering in of thousands of bodies, some lined up outside a city mosque. Others are being carried away in army trucks.
The U.S. Consulate in Medan, more than 200 miles south along the eastern coast, received reports that the waters around Banda Aceh had swirled as far as 10 miles inland. Tadepalli Murty, a professor at the University of Manitoba in Canada who has modeled the potential of tsunamis in the Indian Ocean, estimated that the waves that hit Banda Aceh could have been as tall as 50 feet.
The waves were reported to have inundated one city hospital, drowning patients inside.
Local television stations broadcast images from Banda Aceh that showed a city drenched with mud and debris, with bodies lying in the street or wedged among the debris.
Where the bodies have been lined up, anxious survivors peer under makeshift shrouds in search of loved ones.
Muktarudin Daud, a fisherman from the village of Pusong Lama, had just returned with his morning’s catch when the first of the two giant waves struck.
When the waters rushed out after the first wave, many of the village children walked out to collect the fish left on the exposed land, only to be caught by the second, much larger wave.
Muktarudin Daud said he managed to escape with his wife and three children, running for an hour ahead of the rising water, but everything they owned was washed away.
‘‘We are traumatized,’’ he said. ‘‘We are afraid it will happen again.’’