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Samoans flock to churches to mourn tsunami victims

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[October 05, 2009]  LALOMANU, Samoa (AP) -- Hundreds of survivors of the Samoas tsunami gathered at a church on high ground to mourn lost relatives, while pledging to rebuild their obliterated communities after a disaster that killed 177 people.

The Congregational Christian Church of Lalomanu was packed with about 1,000 people, including relatives from Australia and New Zealand and rescue workers, for a belated funeral service Sunday for 52 friends and loved ones. A national prayer service also was held in neighboring American Samoa.

Outside the church in Lalomanu, the bereaved hugged and wept. Failuga Gase, whose home was destroyed, cried silently for four family members.

"It's a special occasion to memorialize those" who died, the father of three told The Associated Press. "In our usual way, we have a grave ceremony for those who have died, one by one."

The losses were inflicted when tsunami waves roared ashore after an underwater earthquake struck last Tuesday with a magnitude of up to 8.3. The death toll rose by one Sunday to 136 in Samoa after officials identified decomposed human remains, government spokeswoman Vaosa Epa said. Thirty-two people were killed in American Samoa, and nine in nearby Tonga.

The church in Lalomanu was unscathed by the giant wave, because it is built on higher ground than the many beachside homes that were destroyed.

One woman said her family lost their mother but was grateful for the survival of other members.

Luluu Berns said her sister, brother-in-law and their seven children had all survived, although at one point the 16-month-old youngest child was missing.

"Five hours later, they found this little boy on the beach," she said. "He was face down and the father found him and brought him up and shook him a little and he was still alive."

Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele joined hundreds of Samoans for a memorial service involving most of Samoa's Christian denominations in the capital Apia, on the opposite side of Upolu's devastated southeast coast. Sailele's own village of Lesa was washed away by the giant wave, and two relatives were killed.

On American Samoa, a U.S. territory, about 1,000 worshippers packed the pews for a two-hour national prayer service at the Congregational Christian Church in the town of Tafuna.

Gov. Togiola Tulafono praised the generosity of residents and the Samoan spirit, noting that many have opened their homes to those who lost theirs.

"We can give thanks to the Lord for the blessings we received through this catastrophe. Although there were so many lives lost because of it, in retrospect, God has spared so many more," he said.

Residents are still taking stock of the physical damage caused by the tsunami. Villagers in remote areas of American Samoa were waiting for government officials to assess damage to their homes and shops before they can start cleaning up.

Five of American Samoa's 29 public schools won't reopen with the others Monday because of tsunami damage.

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New Zealand grief counselors and infectious disease specialists have flown to Samoa to help, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key told reporters, adding that the Samoan government has estimated it needs 200 million New Zealand dollars ($145 million) to rebuild wrecked infrastructure and restore water, electricity and roads.

But Key said the death toll could have been worse, had it not been for the quick thinking of staff at a Samoan tourist resort.

At Sinalae Reef Resort, on Upolu's south coast, staff noticed the ocean receding after the quake and immediately began dragging people out of their beach huts, even breaking down doors to warn occupants, Key said. Most of the 38 guests were New Zealanders.

"They dragged those people up the hill and within minutes, the resort was washed away," Key said. "If they hadn't acted so quickly then I think there would have been dozens more New Zealanders killed."

On Tonga, government spokesman Lopeti Senituli said one-third of the houses on the island of Niuas have been destroyed, affecting more than 600 families.

But he added that relief flights have already delivered food, tents and generators along with medical supplies, while a French navy ship's desalination plant is helping provide drinking water.

[Associated Press; By AUDREY McAVOY and ROD McGUIRK]

McGuirk reported from Apia, Samoa. Also contributing were Associated Press writers Fili Sagapolutele in Pago Pago, American Samoa, and Jaymes Song and Greg Small in Honolulu and AP video journalist Haven Daley in Leone.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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