Phuket, Dec. 26 (Reuters): An unprecedented tsunami sowed chaos in Thailand's southern tourist playground today, tossing cars around and sweeping into luxury hotels on Phuket, flattening The Beach movie island and killing 279 people.
Witnesses spoke of a wave three stories high which destroyed small hotels on the mainland and injured more than 5,000 people.
The government ordered evacuation of the stricken areas, which included the main beaches of Phuket, popular with Western and Asian tourists and at the height of their season.
Hospital officials in Phuket and Krabi, another hard-hit province, confirmed six foreigners had died. More than 450 foreigners were being treated for various injuries. Disaster officials said 86 people were killed in Phuket and 36 in Krabi.
'We are in chaos,' Somsak Sunwansujarit, deputy director of the Thai disaster department, said.
Helicopters were sent out to assess the damage in a region of exotically shaped limestone islands scattered in the turquoise waters of the Andaman Sea and popular with the snorkellers and recreational divers among Thailand's annual 12 million tourists.
Rescue workers extracted about 70 Thai and foreign divers from the famed Emeral Cave and several dozen were found and evacuated from around other islands, officials said.
Two Thais were killed at Emeral cave, a major attraction for divers who have to swim underwater to its tiny beach and water illuminated by sunshine pouring through a hole in the roof, police said.
Officials said more than 600 tourists and locals were being evacuated by air and sea from Ko Phi Phi, the tiny island made famous by the 2000 film, The Beach, starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
Belgian tourist Christian Patauraux said there were many dead there.
'There are a lot of dead bodies and a lot of injured. I'm not sure when the next ferry is coming. Everything has been flattened,' he said.
The tsunami struck the west coast of Phuket, right along its main beaches, lined with luxury hotels and resorts.
'I just couldn't believe what was happening before my eyes,' Boree Carlsson said from a hotel 500 metres from Phuket's Patong beach.
'As I was standing there, a car actually floated into the lobby and overturned because the current was so strong,' said the 45-year-old Swede, who wrapped himself around a pillar to avoid being swept away.