The Race To Save Millions

<B>Dan Rather</B> Reports On The Devastation In The Tsunami Zone

From Thailand to Indonesia, from Sri Lanka to India, relief workers and military personnel are trying to deliver tons of life-saving supplies to an estimated 5 million people left homeless by the tsunami.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, who has seen his share of war, toured Indonesia Wednesday, and said it was worse than a war zone. Pledges of government aid worldwide now top $3 billion -- much of it earmarked for the countless children orphaned by the disaster.

And there are disturbing new reports that some orphans may have been kidnapped by child-trafficking gangs.

Correspondent Dan Rather has been in the tsunami zone for five days, reporting on devastation unlike anything ever seen.

He spent time aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, which is operating in the Indian Ocean as the U.S. military plays a critical role getting relief where it's needed.

The ship represents 95,000 tons worth of war-fighting potential, making it one of the most awesome weapons in America's arsenal.

But today, the fighter aircraft have either been sent below or pushed to the sides, clearing center stage on this flight deck for two squadrons of helicopters that have transformed the USS Abraham Lincoln into a floating island of hope in a desperate sea of despair.

The epicenter of the massive undersea earthquake that created the tsunami is only 90 miles from here. At first glance, Aceh province in northern Indonesia looks like a lush tropical paradise. But as you travel along the coast, that paradise gives way to a desolate, muddy nightmare.

"The most shocking [thing] that I noticed was that there was nothing there. Where there was obviously a town at one point that was now gone," says Cmdr. Frank Michael, who leads the Saberhawks, one of the two helicopter squadrons based on the USS Abraham Lincoln. They have been running missions into Aceh for a week.

"Every place that we came to, the towns were completely obliterated, and you could see their foundations, and there was wood and debris everywhere, but nothing else," says Michael.

It's hard to believe that there was once a village here, and that each of these tiny squares was somebody's home. But the homes and the families that lived in them are gone – a whole community vanished.

Lt. Bo Beeman and Chief Petty Officer Jerry Schwartz make up Michael's crew. They and other Navy helicopter teams have been the only lifeline to remote villages. Navy cameramen captured one of the first relief missions.

"When we first landed, there was nobody out there, and then they saw Chief here bring out some food," says Beeman. "And they hadn't had anything for a few days. There was quite a bit of running and chaos there to get something."

What stuck in their minds the most during this experience? "Their eyes were absolutely piercing with desperation. It cut right to your core," says Schwartz. "And no words need to be spoken. You could tell they wanted food and they wanted it now. … Absolutely. They needed it yesterday."

To see this firsthand, 60 Minutes Wednesday joined Michael and his crew on one of these critical relief missions from the USS Abraham Lincoln.

Like a combat mission, it starts with an operational briefing. Then it is time to suit up, and head out to the helicopters on the flight deck. They are one key component of a massive relief effort now being led by the U.S. armed forces.

"It is almost mind-boggling, the death and destruction that has been caused in this region," says Robert "Rusty" Blackman, a three-star Marine Corps general who commands all of the American forces, providing relief to the millions left hurt, hungry and homeless by the tsunami.

"The soldiers, sailors, airman and Marines, who are a part of this and will be a part of this, are honored," says Blackman. "I think each of those young men and women feel challenged, but are rewarded every day as we continue to plan and deploy and execute these operations."

His command headquarters are at the Utapao Royal Thai Naval Air Force Base in Thailand. In just one week, it has been transformed into a high-tech, high-energy nerve center for U.S. forces throughout the Tsunami Zone. This kind of mobilization is routine for the military, but this mission is not.

"I don't think anyone could see this, any aspect of it, and not have a tear in their eye and just have their breath taken away by what they see," says Blackman. "I mean towns of tens of thousands of people, literally wiped off the planet."

Flexibility is the lifeblood of the operation at the postage stamp of an airfield near the regional capital of Banda Aceh in northern Sumatra.

It has become the central hub for distributing critical food, water and medical aid to the millions who live in a remote corner of Indonesia. The scope of this tragedy is hard to fathom without knowing what life was like there before the great wave.

Satellite pictures reveal that on the morning of Dec. 26, vast sections of the city were swallowed by the sea.

The small airfield is inland, and planes airlift supplies into it from all over the region for helicopters to ferry to isolated survivors. 60 Minutes Wednesday arrived as aid groups were racing against time to get help to those in need.

"We're assisting with the transportation of food and supplies in coordination with the government of Indonesia to where they believe the most critical needs are," says Kristin Dadey, who works for the International Organization for Migration, a relief group that helps displaced people around the world.

They have a medical unit ready to go in a tent, for those in critical medical need. There are signs of progress, but the problems of getting help out to where it's needed most are daunting.

"We have a real concern that we're going to run out of food and water soon," says Dadey. "We have plenty of food coming in, both from the Indonesian government and also from the Americans, from the Australians. But we have a real problem of landing the number of aircraft that need to be landed. [The airport is] pretty small and so they're limited in the number of planes they can bring in with food."

Michael Bock is with USAID, a federal agency that works in developing countries. He is in charge of the U.S. civilian effort on the ground.

"The disaster, the destruction is biblical," says Bock. "If you walk down the street in Banda Aceh, there are bodies everywhere. The smell. That side, the disaster side, is just worse than anything I've ever seen."

"Put the military operation in context for me," asks Rather.

"These guys are our angels. We're so glad that they came. When they dropped out two days ago with the helicopters, it was the best sound I've ever heard," says Bock.

"We had food piling up here and no way to get it out to the coast. And now we're running out of stuff to send out."

Hundreds of millions of dollars in aid are beginning to pour into the towns and villages that have been devastated by the tsunami.

But to fully understand the difficult work that is still ahead, you need to travel into the most remote and desperate parts of this region -- as 60 Minutes Wednesday did this week, flying by helicopter with U.S. military squadrons as they embarked on an extraordinary mission. They are racing against time to bring relief to where it is needed the most.

One beacon of hope on the shattered island of Sumatra is a small airfield near the capital city of Banda Aceh. It is the forward staging ground for all relief efforts in the area hardest hit by the tsunami.

It is also where Rather continued his report on a U.S. Navy helicopter flight bringing aid to a town cut off, and in desperate need of help.

The relief efforts in northern Sumatra are being conducted, literally, on the backs of helicopters. They are the sole means of getting aid to isolated towns.

"The roads are, they're generally paved roads, but they're broken, and they're impassible. And at least half of the bridges that we saw were washed out," says Cmdr. Michael, the pilot. "My sense is that [the bodies] washed out to sea, or perhaps I'm sure a large number of these bodies are in the rubble. There's just a tremendous amount of debris everywhere."

During the journey in, 60 Minutes Wednesday saw more evidence of the awesome power of nature's wrath. There were also signs of more people in need of help and how desperate some people had become. One Indonesian Navy vessel had rescued a small foundering boat packed with people in search of help.

On this mission, we are headed to the town of Kuede Teunom. The cargo consists of food, water, and medical supplies crammed onto two helicopters. As the choppers approach, dozens of weary townspeople emerge from the rubble. Working with Indonesian soldiers, Navy crewmen unload supplies.

Rather went into town to walk amid the wreckage and see the destruction firsthand. Townspeople, young and old, huddled in what little shelter remained. Looking at street after street of emptiness, just a stone's throw from the ocean, one can only imagine the vibrant community that was there just 10 days ago.

From the air, Rather counted over 100 foundations of houses that had been completely swept away in one of a string of villages along the Sumatra coast. The dead have been taken away from the debris by and large to a higher region away from the coast. It's an incredible scene that can't be described in words.

One central structure, surrounded by decimated buildings, seems to have miraculously survived the violent raging water. Nothing withstood the great wave, with the exception of a mosque that is extremely well constructed. The mosque is the only building that may be still standing.

With limited fuel, the Saberhawk helicopters can only stay for a short time on the ground. On the way back to the carrier, they comb the crippled landscape for survivors, presumably cut off from clean water or food for days. The crew spotted a cluster of men, so Michael brought the chopper in for a landing on what was left of a road.

The flight deck aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, off the coast in the Indian Ocean, continues to be a center of activity – with an intensity that was explained by Blackman, the commander of the U.S. effort.

"The sons and daughters of America that are here and will be here, are very proud of what they're doing," says Blackman. "Their hearts are broken, but at the same time they are very proud of what of they're accomplishing, and what they will accomplish in the weeks and months to come."

He says he's broken-hearted by what he's seen and experienced, but says that he feels, "perhaps for the first time in my career, a new sense of service."

"I've been in service of my country for 34 years, and this is a different kind of service," says Blackman. "It's perhaps one, when all's said and done, that I will be most proud of."