Australians missing as toll rises in tsunami

AT LEAST 23 people are dead and 167 others are missing - including nine Australians - after a powerful tsunami hit the west coast of the Mentawai Islands, a surfing destination off Sumatra.

The Australians on the Southern Cross, a vessel operated by the Sumatran Surfariis tour group, have not been in touch since the 7.5 magnitude undersea quake shook the region and generated the tsunami about 10pm on Monday.

Among those aboard is a former Pittwater MP, Alex McTaggart, who flew out on Sunday for a surfing holiday with seven friends from the northern beaches. The boat's skipper is Chris Scurrah, who grew up in Mount Eliza, Victoria.

The others are Clifford Humphries, Gary Mountford, Chris Papallo, Neil Cox, Jeff Annesley, Stephen Reynolds and Colin Steell. Last night Mr McTaggart's family said the group had already experienced problems trying to contact family at home before the tsunami hit.

Gary Mountford's brother, Ray, said the men had been going away together on surfing trips for years. ''I'm pretty concerned. I go on a few boat trips myself and I know what it's like to be isolated,'' he said.

Mr Scurrah, who has operated the surf charter for 13 years, was also one of three Australians reported missing when an earthquake hit the region this month.

''We wish he would come back and let us know he's alive,'' said his mother, Sandra Scurrah. ''There are many people waiting to hear from him.''

Another group of Australians were lucky to be alive after their boat, moored in the shallow and exposed waters of Pasangan Bay near the famed Macaronis break, collided with another vessel due to the force of the three-metre wave on Monday night.

Rick Hallett, the skipper of MV Midas, said surfers, including nine Australians, were carried 200 metres inland.

''We felt a bit of a shake underneath the boat … then within several minutes we heard an almighty roar … I immediately thought of a tsunami and looked out to sea and that's when we saw the wall of white water coming at us,'' he told Fairfax Radio.

''The bay we were in was several hundred metres across and the wall of white water was from one side to the other. It was quite scary.'' All those on board and those staying at the nearby Macaronis Resort, including 12 Australians, have been taken to a nearby village on Silabu island.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said diplomats were trying to contact the captain of the boat but they were hampered by poor telephone service.

with Aaron Cook, Dan Oakes and agencies

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