In Sri Lanka all of the travel clichés apply. Friendly people, exotic food, elephants, turquoise waters lapping golden sandy beaches. But I can name dozens of spots that reflect all of that travel brochure jargon. I couldn't write better commentary on those aspects of the country than is already published in mainstream travel guides. I came to Sri Lanka in search of a different, unreported Sri Lankan experience.
Through the hill country I traveled, to Kandy, into the capital, down the coast to all of the southwest beaches. Finally, as I walked through the city of Galle, along the southwest coast, I found what I was looking for.
Near the downtown area, I saw a building that housed the Galle Fire Brigade - the local firefighters. I wondered if any of those folks may have been working there in 2004, when the tsunami hit. That was ten years ago, but, I had nothing to lose. I walked into the station.
I introduced myself to the chief...the "leader"...and I told him that I covered local fire district news for an American newspaper and that I wanted background for an article on the tsunami that I may write for a publication back home. Were you there, I asked? Were any of the current firefighters there ten years ago? He smiled and he asked me to wait for a moment and he pointed to a couch in the open, tile floored lobby.
He shortly returned with another firefighter. I donned my journalist's hat and I listened to two men who were among the first responders to the tsunami, and they told one chilling, heartwarming story.
Rajith Chaminda was on duty for the Galle Fire Brigade the morning of Dec. 26, 2004. The firefighter was eating his breakfast when he heard a dull roar outside the station. The sky was cloudy, but it was not raining; a storm was not the cause of the unidentifiable sound. The noise grew louder. Chaminda got up from the table and he walked thirty feet to the station entrance to check out the cause of the disturbance.
What came next was something that he could never have imagined.
“I don’t like to talk about it,” said brigade leader Ravindra Sri Kumara. He softened his stance in less than one sentence. “So many children, so many elders, families…” he said, his voice trailing off. Kumara pressed his right hand against his forehead as he spoke nearly despairingly. The leader – a firefighter then - had also been one of the first responders that December morning. Suddenly his eyes brightened, and he stared ahead, almost defiantly.
“People don’t know what it means. A tsunami,” he said.
People may not know what it means, but most know what it did. The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami was one of the deadliest disasters in recorded history. The tsunami inundated coastal communities with waves up to 90 feet high. It killed more than 230,000 in 14 countries, hitting Indonesia the hardest, followed by Sri Lanka. 35,000 were killed there, and thousands more were displaced or otherwise affected. In Galle, Sri Lanka’s fourth largest city, more than 4,000 perished.