Tsunami 2004 : 12 years after : Remembering those who lost their lives | Sunday Observer

Tsunami 2004 : 12 years after : Remembering those who lost their lives

25 December, 2016
Pic: Lake House Media Library

December 26, 2004 was an unforgettable day for all Sri Lankans as well as for the whole world. The tsunami tidal waves were caused by a series of earthquakes, measuring 8.9 on the Richter scale that occurred in the sea near Sumatra, Indonesia. The other neighbouring countries affected were Indonesia, India, the Maldives, and Thailand. Since many Sri Lankans did not have any previous experience of this nature, the damage caused to lives was unbelievable. Thousands of people were displaced and killed within a short time.

The Deputy Director, Disaster Management Center (DMC), Ministry of Disaster Management for Safe Communities and Sustainable Development, Pradeep Kodippilli said,“this year we are commemorating the 12th anniversary of the Tsunami, the tidal waves which struck the eastern and southern coasts of Sri Lanka as well as parts of the northern and western coasts sweeping people away, causing flooding and destruction of infrastructure. We have not organised any National level events to commemorate the day tomorrow, but some events and awareness programs will be held in the 25 district DMCs. A two minute silence will be observed from 9.25 am to 9.27 am.”

“The people who lost their homes were given homes by the government with the help of International organizations. At present, there are no complaints from those affected, about not receiving homes. We did not have a Disaster Management Centre in 2004, which was established only in 2006. I too am a victim of the tsunami and still remember that disastrous day. I was lucky enough to survive,” he said.

Kodippilli said, “My house, in Payagala by the Galle Road, where my parents and my brother lived, was partially damaged by the tsunami. In 2004 I was in Saudi Arabia and came to Sri Lanka for my vacation. My wife’s house was a little away from Galle Road. On the 25th night I went to my wife’s house. I suffered a chest pain that day and was admitted to the Kalutara Hospital but since it was not severe I was discharged after a few hours.”

“The next day, December 26, morning, I got a call from my mother saying that huge waves were emerging and people were running for their lives. Before I could talk to her the telephone line got cut off and all the phones were out of order. When I came to Galle Road the first wave had already come and I crossed the Dummara Modara Ela canal road. At the tail of the wave I was hit but escaped because I was swept away. My leg was severely damaged. In my village in Payagala around 17 people died. My house was completely covered with garbage and logs,” he said. He said, there was no heavy damage recorded on Galle Road but the beach suffered damage. “My parents and my brother escaped the fatal disaster, as the ground floor of the house was under construction, and they had to occupy the upper floor. Many of my friends died due to the lack of awareness,” he said.

Kodippilli said, “We have the alarm system, early warning system with 77 early warning towers around the coastal areas, and we have communication systems with every district DMCs. We also have an SMS system covering most communities in the country, while the media helps to spread our message it to vulnerable communities. We have an agreement with the Meteorological Department which is the technical agency to provide tsunami warnings in Sri Lanka and we collaborate with International Agencies. We update websites and facebook pages as well. It is very important and awareness programs are a must for the future generation to be alert. Now, we have good awareness programs conducted by the Ministry of Disaster Management.”

“I still remember the train, the Matara express, which was ravaged by the tsunami in Peraliya near Telwatte. It is considered the largest rail disaster in world history, in which more than 1,700 passengers lost their lives.

When tsunami reports first reached the dispatching office in Maradana, officials were able to halt eight trains running on the coastal line, but were unable to reach the Matara Express. Efforts to halt the train at Ambalangoda failed because all station personnel were assisting with the train, and no one was available to answer the phone until after the train had departed.

At 9.30 a.m in Peraliya, the beach saw the first of the gigantic waves thrown up by the earthquake. The train came to a halt as water surged around it. The first wave flooded the carriages and caused panic among passengers. Ten minutes later a huge wave picked the train up and smashed it against the trees and houses which lined the track, crushing those seeking shelter behind it. The eight carriages were so packed with people that the doors could not be opened while they filled with water, drowning almost everyone inside.

Due to the huge scale of the disaster, the local authorities were unable to cope with the devastation, and emergency services and the military were so overwhelmed that immediate rescue was not possible.

The authorities had no idea where the train was for several hours, until it was spotted by helicopter around 4.00 pm. The local emergency services were destroyed, and it was a long time before help arrived. Dozens of people badly injured in the disaster died in the wreckage during the day, and many bodies were not retrieved for over a week. According to the authorities, only about 150 people on the train survived.

The first anniversary ceremonies were held among the rebuilt town alongside the repaired railway, which still operates a Colombo to Galle service, employing the same guard, W. Karunatilaka, who was on the train and survived the disaster.

Locomotive #591 Manitoba and two of the damaged carriages were salvaged and rebuilt. A wave was added to the locomotive’s paint as a memorial. The rebuilt locomotive and carriages returned to Peraliya on December 26, 2008, and every year since, a religious ceremony and a memorial has been held to remember those who lost their lives. Overall, the tsunami affected two-thirds of the coastline of Sri Lanka, over 1,000 kilometres in total. Seawater penetrated hundreds of metres inland (in places thousands of metres), and typically drained away within 30 minutes.

During that time, between 31,000 and 37,000 people were killed by drowning or debris impact, and nearly 100,000 houses destroyed along with tens of thousands of vehicles and much infrastructure. About 27,000 fatalities were fishermen, and two-thirds of the nation’s fishing boats were wrecked. 


What happened in 26 December 2004 will always remain shocking and the sadness of those who lost their near and dear ones in this disastrous and natural calamity can never be consoled.