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Sunday, 29 June 2014

Sri Lankan Tsunami: 10 years later

Written by Nick Marnell
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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.


Chaminda pointed to a scored mark on the wall of the old fire station, which was two miles from the coast.  He said that the mark recorded the height of the water that day.  The mark stood more than three feet from the ground.

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The destruction took less than five minutes. 


"People were running in front of the waves.  Mothers, children. People were floating in the water. I couldn't understand what was happening. What can I do?" said Chaminda, measuring his words, looking skyward, still obviously affected by what he experienced. 


The water receded in 20 minutes, baring all of the tragic evidence. "We had to be strong mentally," said Kumara. It was an unprecedented disaster, and the firefighters at first did not know what to do. They had never trained for something like this. The 24 Galle firefighters rushed into the devastation, without gloves.  Without boots. Without food. 


"Sixteen hours without sleep or food," said Kumara. "We had no time to think about ourselves. We thought only about others."


The first priority was the injured, he said. The small children, the elderly...they had to be removed from the area and put into a safe place. Kumara outlined his game plan in that time of high crisis.


"We had to act quickly, and we got the strong and uninjured to help us.  Plus we had to forget about authority (the Galle Municipal District).  We didn't need them; they had nothing that they could do for us anyway.


"Forget about things.  It's all about people."


With only ropes and axes as tools, the firefighters spent the first hour tending to the injured.  The second hour, they removed bodies and began to clear the roads. But in reality, they spent three to four days collecting bodies in the town. One of the fire engines became a makeshift hearse. 


"All the while, we were concerned that the tsunami may return," said Chaminda. Unconfirmed media reports had been suggesting that there indeed may be a major aftershock.


Death and destruction dominated the firefighters' lives for five days.  But Kumara did share an uplifting experience, few and far between during the final week of 2004.


"It was a four-year old boy," he said. "The boy fell into a hole, maybe three meters deep.  His mother had been washed away, gone, disappeared.  His father was stuck in a tree, 15 meters away. I used my rope and I pulled the young boy safely out of the hole. 


"It really affected me, because I had a child the same age."

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Help did arrive from around the world. The response included both government aid and international NGOs; Kumara and Chaminda spoke fondly of the Italian response. "They were the first ones here," said Kumara.


In two weeks, all of the Galle roads were cleared. Which prompted Kumara to bring up a situation that he could not come to grips with.


"I watched the Hurricane Katrina story on TV," he said. "I couldn't believe what I was seeing. How long the water remained on those streets. We don't have the money that you do, but we took care of our problem quickly. We are helpful to one another."


He shook his head as he added, "People don't think about other people."



I felt as stunned as the priest in "Amadeus" who listened to Salieri's confession. A little guilty, too. I wondered if a devastating earthquake hits in the Bay Area, what types of human interaction would occur? Would people be helpful to one another - "forget about things and think about people?"  Would efforts be thwarted by authority - the politicians and unions and lawyers? Would responders have the courage to ignore authority if red tape impeded rescue efforts - "we didn't need them; they had nothing that they could do for us anyway."


As I headed back to the golden beach lapped by the turquoise water, one thing I felt pretty sure about: if the "Big One" does hit, the Galle firefighters would muster everything in their power to help the westerners in distress.


And they would not wait for permission.


©Nick Marnell


Last modified on Monday, 30 June 2014