TACLOBAN, Philippines — One of the strongest typhoons ever to make landfall churned through the Philippine archipelago in a straight line from east to west and devastated central province, killing at least 1,200, officials said Saturday.
The Philippine Red Cross estimated that more than 1,000 people were killed in the coastal city of Tacloban and at least 200 in hard-hit Samar province when one of the strongest typhoons ever to make landfall slammed into the country.
Gwendolyn Pang, secretary general of the Philippine Red Cross, said the numbers came from preliminary reports by Red Cross teams in Tacloban and Samar, among the most devastated areas hit by Typhoon Haiyan on Friday.
"An estimated more than 1,000 bodies were seen floating in Tacloban as reported by our Red Cross teams," she told Reuters news service. "In Samar, about 200 deaths. Validation is ongoing."
She said she expected a more exact number to emerge after a more precise counting of bodies on the ground in those regions.
Agence France Presse journalists who arrived in Tacloban on a military aircraft encountered dazed survivors wandering amid the carnage asking for water, while others sorted through what was left of their destroyed homes.
One resident, Dominador Gullena, cried as he recounted to AFP his escape but the loss of his neighbors.
"My family evacuated the house. I thought our neighbors also did the same, but they didn't," Gullena said.
Eight bodies had been laid to rest inside Tacloban airport's chapel, which had also been badly damaged, according to an AFP photographer. One woman knelt on the flood-soaked floor of the church while holding the hand of a dead boy, who had been placed on a wooden pew.
Pope Francis tweeted his support for the typhoon victims: "I ask all of you to join me in prayer for the victims of Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda especially those in the beloved islands of the Philippines."
Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla reached the fishing town of Palo by helicopter and said he believed "hundreds" of people had died just in that area.
The death toll from Typhoon Haiyan is expected to rise sharply as rescue workers reach areas cut off by the fast-moving storm, whose circumference eclipsed the whole country and which late on Saturday was heading for Vietnam.
Roads in the coastal city of Tacloban in the central Leyte province were either under water or blocked by fallen trees and power lines and debris from homes blown away by Haiyan.
Bodies covered in plastic were lying on the streets.
"The last time I saw something of this scale was in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean Tsunami," said Sebastian Rhodes Stampa, head of the U.N. Disaster Assessment Coordination Team sent to Tacloban.
"This is destruction on a massive scale. There are cars thrown like tumbleweed and the streets are strewn with debris."
The category 5 "super typhoon" weakened to a category 4 on Saturday, though forecasters said it could strengthen again over the South China Sea en route to Vietnam.
Authorities in 15 provinces in Vietnam have started to call back boats and prepare for possible landslides. Nearly 300,000 people were moved to safer areas in two provinces — Da Nang and Quang Nam — according to the government's website.
The national disaster agency has yet to confirm the toll but broken power poles, trees, bent tin roofs and splintered houses littered the streets of the city about 360 miles southeast of Manila. The airport was destroyed as raging seawaters swept through the city.
"Almost all houses were destroyed, many are totally damaged. Only a few are left standing," said Major Rey Balido, a spokesman for the national disaster agency.
Local television network ABS-CBN showed images of looting in one of the city's biggest malls, with residents carting away everything from appliances to suitcases and grocery items.
About a million people took shelter in 37 provinces after President Benigno Aquino appealed to those in the typhoon's path to leave vulnerable areas.
"For casualties, we think it will be substantially more," Aquino told reporters.
"WE THOUGHT IT WAS A TSUNAMI"
Officials started evacuating residents from low-lying areas, coastlines and hilly villages as early as three days before the typhoon struck on Friday, helping to limit the loss of life, several officials said. But not all headed the call to evacuate.
"I saw those big waves and immediately told my neighbors to flee. We thought it was a tsunami," said Floremil Mazo, a villager in southeastern Davao Oriental province.
Meteorologists said the impact may not have been as strong as feared because the storm was moving so quickly, reducing the risk of flooding and landslides from torrential rain, the biggest causes of typhoon casualties in the Philippines.
By Saturday afternoon, the typhoon was hovering 475 miles west of San Jose in southwestern Occidental Mindoro province, packing winds of a maximum 115 mph, with gusts of up to 137 mph.
Haiyan was the second category 5 typhoon to hit the Philippines this year after Typhoon Usagi in September. An average of 20 typhoons strike every year, and Haiyan was the 24th so far this year.
Last year, Typhoon Bopha flattened three towns in southern Mindanao, killing 1,100 people and causing damage of more than $1 billion.
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