APIA, Samoa — The truck packed with schoolchildren raced toward high ground, but not fast enough to escape a wall of water moving as fast as a jet plane.
From her hospital bed, New Zealand schoolteacher Charlie Pearse choked back tears as she spoke to New Zealand's TV One News, recalling the moment on Tuesday when the two-story-high tsunami flipped the truck she was riding in with about 20 children.
"We all went under the water and I think a number of the children died instantly," Pearse said.
"I asked, 'Is this my time to come home? Take me home, I'm ready,' and I let my breath out and I took a big gulp of water . . . and I don't know, I just popped out (from under the water)," Pearse said.
Two days after an earthquake off the coast of the Samoas unleashed a barrage of 15- to 20-foot waves on the South Pacific islands, survivors continued the grim task of searching for at least 150 victims among the flattened homes and debris-filled swamps.
They recounted the harrowing aftermath of the earthquake about 7 a.m. Tuesday when the four waves surged ashore unchecked at speeds approaching 530 miles per hour.
On the island of Upolu, taro farmer Tony Fauena said he ran for the hills when the deadly tsunami thundered across the coast while his niece ran to rescue her 6-month-old son. Villagers found the bodies of the mother and son entangled in uprooted trees and debris at the foot of lush mountains 200 yards from the ocean.
"Many parents died trying to protect their children," Fauena told the Associated Press from the ruins of a brother's home in the village of Sale Ataga on the southeast coast.
Robert Bebrouth, 52, told the Sydney Morning Herald he was asleep in a hut when the earthquake hit. The surf first dragged them inland, then out to sea, then a second wave swept them back to land again. "I thought I was going to die."
The New Zealand Herald recounted the story of Salamasina Taufua, whose three children, Jesasa, Uena and EJ, were swept away when the waves hit the family's home in Lalomanu just after dawn.
"When the earthquake (struck) she yelled out to another girl, who lives with them, to take Jesasa and Uena up to the mountain," Taufua's father said. "She grabbed the baby, but it was too late to run up — the wave was coming. She said she ran back in the house with the baby to hide in the toilet. And then, bang! The wave just smashed into the house and it blew up like a piece of paper. Just ripped open."
Taufua was swept along with the wave, trying desperately to keep her baby's head above water. "She said she tried to hold on to (the) baby but she just couldn't, she was being pushed down and knew they were both going to die." After 45 minutes Taufua was swept on to a flat patch on a mountain. She was later operated on for broken limbs.
"She's hurt. Her hands, arms are broken and she's cut everywhere. But that's only physically," her father said. "Her children are truly gone and that's what's painful to her."
Information from the Associated Press and the Guardian newspaper was used in this report.