Sunday, December 25, 2005

"Rolling Cloud of Black Smoke" -- 12/26/04

On December 26, 2004 a set of twin tsunamis wreaked devastation on both shores of the Indian Ocean. A few days later, my wife Lan, a friend Adam and I brought care and hygene packages to many of the thousands of homeless children in Sri Lanka's relief centers. As we made our way from camp to camp, we stopped to watch the recover effort taking place in a grove of trees along the coast.

The sand crunched under my feet as I made my way to the recovery site. Overhead, I spied ripe coconuts hanging in the trees. As I wound my way through the trees, I had to watch my step to avoid walking on clothes, purses, and other personal effects. In the distance the sound of a diesel engine was heard, the heavy-lifter that was even now, nearly two weeks later, still working to right the compartments.

This site, located just outside Hikkaduwa on Sri Lanka's western coast, has become for the Sri Lankan's symbolic of the entire tsunami disaster. At 9:55 am on December 26 over 1,500 people lost their lives on this site. Most were passengers in the #50 Train, making the post-holiday return home from Colombo to Matara over two hundred kilometers to the south.

The #50 started the morning at 7:30 am with its departure from Colombo's train station. On board were nearly 900 passengers, mostly families, returning from visiting family and friends for Christmas. As the train paused in Moratuwa, Pandura, Kalutura and other small towns, a few more passengers boarded, until the number peaked at around 1,000 passengers as it pulled out of Kahawu, ninety kilometers south of Colombo, at 9:25 am. The passengers were tightly seated in the train's eight burgundy rail cars, all of which was being pulled by the single light-blue diesel engine.

The train's track meandered through the coconut forests parallel to the Sri Lankan coastline. For most of the trip, the passengers could look out the right-side windows and see the emerald water. Even at this early time of the morning the air was warm and humid, and almost without exception each passenger lifted their window open to allow the fresh ocean air into the train compartments.

As the train neared the two kilometer mark from Kahawu, the passengers watching the ocean to the west glimpsed the first sign of trouble. Looking through trees, coming at them with tremendous speed was what one person would later described as a "rolling cloud of black smoke". It was in fact the first wave of the tsunami. Filled with sand and debris, the wave took on the appearance of a living, moving wall of water. Just before the it hit the train the passengers felt the cool spray of the approaching destruction.

As the wave engulfed the train, it drowned the train's engine, stopping the train in a small clearing about 500 yards from the coast. The water settled around the passengers' knees, indicating it was about 8 feet deep. When the local farm people saw that the train had remained mostly erect, they began swimming towards it. As they reached the sides, the passenger's yelled down to them to lift their children up through the open windows. Over the next half hour, nearly 500 local inhabitants would join the train's passengers in what was thought to be a safe location to wait out the receding waters.

One passenger, Supun Jayansinghe, left the train. Supun was on his way to a holiday party being hosted by some friends in Hikkaduma, the next stop on the rail-line. Not trusting the circumstances that he was witnessing, Supun made his way to a nearby coconut tree, and worked his way up to the tree's top branches. At its peak, the tree was nearly 50 feet high.

Below him the passengers were screaming and crying. No one understood what was happening. The weather was clear, and there was no apparent reason why a wave should have come into land this far. As time passed and nothing further happened, the passengers began to calm down. Many had made their way to the roof of the train, and were sitting there gazing out at the water below them. The farm houses appeared to still be fine, and many locals had taken refuge on the roofs of these buildings as well. All could see that the water was receding. Most felt things were going to work out, and they would soon be on their way again.

Twenty-five minutes after the first wave had hit, Supun and the others heard a building roar once more coming from the ocean. Still more local farmers and their children appeared in the clearing, screaming in terror at the approach of the gigantic second wave. All would have seen the tumultuous thirty-foot wave as it made its way over the highway, engulfing the trees and buildings, hurdling in their direction. As tall as most of the coconut trees, the wall of water would have looked enormous from the ground and the train. As the wave hit the farm houses, it lifted the roofs and collapsed the walls, blowing the stranded people into the foamy water. In what was no longer than a few seconds, most of the train's passengers realized they were about to die.

The force of the water broadsiding the train forced it off its tracks and flung the cars sideways into the sand. Most fell on their sides, throwing those on the roof into the dark water, and allowing the sand and foam to pour into the train's compartments. Within seconds the cabins were full, and although many tried to make their way out of the open windows, the foamy water disallowed many from escaping. Within a matter of a few minutes, Supun, his eyes closed to the bedlam and screams of those below him, looked down upon a quiet, almost tranquil scene. Bodies and debris floated around him, the train invisible underneath the more than 20 feel of water.

Days later, the rescue teams would find nearly 500 bodies in the area immediately surrounding the train, and more than 900 inside the train itself. It would take nearly a week to recover and bury the victims.

As I walked to the recovery area 10 days later, the bodies were gone but their screams still filled the air. Most of the passenger cars had been restored to a short stretch of track. Clothing, purses, and other belongings hung from the open windows. The cars stood damaged but not destroyed. Rescue workers, most wearing light blue surgical masks, continued to labor to clean up the mess.

As I have witnessed the scenes of utter desolation in the wake of the two tsunami waves that washed over the coast of Sri Lanka, I have felt largely detached from the human suffering that must have taken place here. In a measure of emotional self-preservation, you always imagine that this family must have survived, or that these people got out of the way before the second killer wave struck. But in walking around the wreckage of Train #50, you know that almost 1,500 people perished inside the cabins you are seeing. You can easily imagine what they saw, what they experienced in the last few seconds of their lives. It is at once harrowing and impressive.

Even now, two weeks after the event, and before the last cleanup efforts have been completed, the tourists and onlookers are appearing. The site feels like sacred ground, and one is compelled to whisper. More than any other, this place will grow to represent the suffering and pain of the Sri Lankan people. For me, it brings home the power of nature, and the enormity of the event that transpired here.

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