THE STORY broke, like the tsunami itself, with a rumble that was portentous but gave little idea of the scale of what was to unfold. It was 1.59am (UK time) on Boxing Day when an 18-word alert was dispatched by a bureau of the Associated Press in Jakarta. "A seismologist says a massive earthquake rocks Indonesia's northernmost province of Aceh, causing dozens of buildings to collapse."
One minute later, a four-paragraph report emerged from Reuters staff in Indonesia, where deputy bureau chief Dean Yates had been monitoring the state Antara news wire. That was the start of a head- to-head battle between the world's biggest news agencies to provide the most comprehensive coverage of the most important natural disaster story of modern times.
Yates's report - referring to "thousands of people" fleeing their homes and "widespread panic" - upped the importance of the story to international news desks around the world.
But Reuters' Jakarta bureau chief Jerry Norton, who was to spend the rest of the week working relentlessly on the story, says that his team were at first unsure of its significance: "I don't think there was necessarily an atmosphere of instant excitement, because Indonesia is earthquake-prone."
Because of the remoteness of Aceh - and the high levels of security in what is a closed militarised zone - it had taken a full hour between the initial earthquake and the first AP alert. There was no immediate indication of any casualties and, in global terms, the story was of limited interest.
John Whitney, duty news editor at BBC News 24 that morning, recalls the first stories about the disaster dropping on the agency wires. "I remember a flash saying there was an earthquake. I often read stuff where there are tremors off the coast of Japan and no one injured. This didn't feel any different in the beginning."
At 2.57am came another AP alert, which suggested the sea may have played a role in what had occurred. "Witnesses say earthquake in north- western Indonesia triggers large waves along coast; some damage reported" was the 14-word snap. Eleven minutes later AP sent a lengthier dispatch. It gave the first indication that the story was an international one: "The quake was felt as far away as the Thai capital, Bangkok," it said.
Still, there were no confirmed casualties. Then at 3.22am, nearly two and a half hours after the quake, AP stated: "Local radio station reports nine dead in earthquake in northwestern Indonesia." Seven minutes later, Reuters had the same figure and reported sightings of bodies in "flash floods".
At this stage, AP was making the running on the story, reporting at 4.11am that the quake had registered 8.5 on the Richter scale (Reuters had 6.4 at that point). But as other regions became part of the story, Reuters came back strongly. A piece from its Chittagong bureau reported panic in the Bangladeshi port. Then at 4.50am, the London-based agency introduced the T-word that has become …