Monday, December 27, 2004
The Dead are Many, But Each Has a Story
The tragedy was epic in scale. Philip Cornford and Connie Levett trace it from its first rumblings beneath the sea.
It was a tranquil Sunday morning, a Full Moon Day for Buddhists, Boxing Day for Christians. Along the coastlines of three countries which arc around the Bay of Bengal, fishermen and villagers went about their chores in a balmy sun cooled by sea breezes. The seas were calm and gave no indication that in the ocean deep, a colossal force was surging towards the shores.
For the vast majority of victims, there was no warning of the catastrophe that was to kill at least 22,000 people in India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Burma, Kenya, Somalia and the Seychelles. It would leave a million displaced.
The force that could not be stopped was a tsunami, a tidal wave or surge, and it was going out in every direction at a speed of about 800kmh, a deadly ripple of destruction triggered by an earthquake 40 kilometres below the seabed. At 9.0 on the Richter scale, revised from 8.9 yesterday, it was the fifth largest recorded since 1900. It was followed by multiple quakes along fault lines in the Earth's crust known as the Rim of Fire.
of a Phuket hotel. A report said his body was later found a kilometre away.
Photo: Hellmut Issels
On the Indian shore, 1000 kilometres west of the epicentre, Brajita Poulose, 45, was strolling along Marina Beach near Chennai with her husband, two sons and four other relatives. Fishermen hauled in nets, young men played cricket, vendors shouted their wares.
"Behind me, suddenly, we saw a huge wave coming at us," Mrs Poulose said. A wave 10 metres high, now moving at 100kmh, overwhelmed them. Her husband, one son and four relatives were drowned, among at least 5697 dead in India.
To the east, an Australian, Edward Shields, was on board his yacht moored off Patong Beach on the Thai resort island of Phuket.
"We had no warning whatsoever," he said. "There was no actual wave that you could see come in from the sea. The whole sea level of the bay dropped dramatically and then rose to twice its [previous] height just as fast, and then this water surged straight inland."
The dead here numbered at least 800, including as many as four Australians. At least 5000 were injured.
To the west, on the island of Sri Lanka, disaster struck beneath a faultlessly clear blue sky. It came deceptively to the village of Dehiwaha, where fishermen had finished the morning's work and were taking it easy.
"All of a sudden, the water from the sea rose up close to our houses. Then it went out again," said J. W. Kanti. It went out 1000 metres, scraping the seabed clean."
"The stones looked like elephants," Emil Chandradase said.
Then the sea came back and destroyed the village. Even so, fortune blessed the people of Dehiwaha, for none of them was killed. But along the island's coast, more than 10,000 died and 1 million were left homeless.
The only victims to have any warning were on the Indonesian Island of Sumatra. Its northern province of Aceh is only 160 kilometres from the epicentre of the earthquake. In the capital, Banda Aceh, the earthquake shockwaves collapsed high-rise buildings. Thousands ran into the street panicking. Then the earth stopped heaving. They didn't know it at the time, but death was coming from the sea in a 10-metre-high wave. An estimated 4500 were killed, thousands more lost their homes.
Many of the dead were the young and old, drowned in a torrent so fierce it churned along huge rocks, logs and the remnants of homes felled in the original shock.
In Banda Aceh, more than 1000 homes were destroyed. The death toll is expected to rise. So bad is the destruction that many missing people are buried beneath wreckage. Others are lost in swamps and rivers not yet searched.
In all the countries hit, most of the victims were poor villagers who struggled for an existence, and when the deadly waters receded they left behind a landscape in which their poverty was sadly evident, crushed huts and their sparse contents: a tin plate, a battered cooking pot, a plastic cup, worn bedclothes, crude furniture, bundles of rags some called clothes. Among the destruction, there was little to attract looters, for life had brought these hardy people little of value, except themselves and their families. And for so many, their loved ones were gone, too.
Some of the victims heard the tsunami coming but many survivor accounts tell of two distinct phases. First the sea seemed to rush out, and then it reversed and came in again, the sea level rising so quickly it could not be outrun.
"We saw it sucked out, and it seemed to go on and on," said Les Broadman, 56, from Cronulla, who was strolling along Patong Beach on Phuket Island with his wife, Dianne, 53. "Then all of a sudden, it reversed and the boats started to come back in. My wife said, 'This is bad', and we ran."
They got 20 metres before the water caught them. Mr Broadman clung to a pole. A car and a utility were swept past him. Mrs Broadman, 53, was smashed to the ground. "A car came down on her, then the next wave took it off her and she popped up," her husband said. They found sanctuary on a balcony.
An Austrian, Andreas Grugl, his wife, Brigit, 39, and son, Sebastian, 10, were on the ground floor of a Phuket hotel when waves burst in on them. They ran but were blocked by a locked door. The force of the water broke the door open.
"I held my son with my hand and we were slithered onto the street and then I lost my son," he said. "I felt I was crashed against a wall, a sofa crashed on me, then a refrigerator. That was the one thing I could stand on. I looked around me and I saw nobody. There were no people. I was alone." His wife and son were drowned.
Jonathan Delaney, 13, from Dublin, was trapped in a room with water rising to his neck, pinning him against the ceiling.
A South African woman was in the same predicament. It was pitch black but they found a window and swam out.
At Marina Beach near Chennai, India, Dev Anand was one of the young men playing cricket when Mrs Poulose went walking with her family. Mr Anand, 22, and his four friends were swept inland by the same surge of water that brought tragedy to the Poulose family. Later, they could not find one of their friends. He, too, was taken by the sea.
In the Chennai shantytown of Pattinappakan, 50-year-old Ekambal Nayakar swam to safety while neighbours saved her 75-year-old mother. "The water entered the house neck-deep," she said. "Then I heard voices outside: 'Seawater! seawater!"'
In Sri Lanka, an elderly British couple and a teenage son wearing an England football jersey carried a bundle from which poked white feet. "My brother is dead," the lad said.
A Sri Lankan photographer, Gemune Amarasinghe, had planned a day of reflection to celebrate Poya, the day of the full moon, when Buddhists believe Buddha was born and attained enlightenment.
"People were running everywhere and the first waves hit the road," he wrote. "They were not huge, not too destructive. They brought fish to the shore and people rushed to collect them. Smiling boys ran with fish dangling in their hands."
But the waves kept coming, stronger and bigger. He struggled to high ground with others, some of whom were carrying their dead.
"White-capped floodwaters raced over the streets and between the houses. I counted 24 bodies in just under six kilometres. Bodies of children were entangled in fences."
One of them was a frail girl in a blue dress. But the emergency was so overwhelming, no one stopped to free her body. They were busy with their own dead, or their living.
"I was still in a daze and the enormity of the tragedy still hadn't dawned on me until I came upon the girl in the blue dress, caught in the fence," Mr Amarasinghe wrote.
It was not possible to get to her until the waters receded. The girl was between four and six years old.
Even in a great catastrophe, when the dead are all around, death is personal. One victim speaks for all.