Thelgamu Oya tragedy : Where there is life there is death | Sunday Observer

Thelgamu Oya tragedy : Where there is life there is death

“Time is everything. Five minutes makes the difference between victory and defeat”, said Lord Horatio Nelson, Vice Admiral of the British Naval forces whose gallantry is recorded in history, who knew the value of five minutes.

Yes, it was all over in five minutes. Time was what they didn’t have. Losing their battle with the raging waters of Thelgamu Oya, eight members from two neighbouring families were defeated in the war of life on Saturday, November 4.

“Five minutes. If they had just five minutes,” weeps grandfather Siriwardhana Jayasinghe, turning his face away from his 5-year-old grandson, the sole survivor of his only child’s family. Sounds of a remote controlled car and innocent giggles echo in the large sitting room. That is where the bodies of his father, mother and two elder sisters lay, just a day before. Emptiness not only entered the house; but the lives of those associated with it – in just five minutes. His two grandfathers sit forlorn, accepting condolences from visitors; attending now and then to a household matter - while the two grandmothers stay confined to their rooms overwhelmed with grief.

It is still busy at his neighbour’s. Four caskets lay side by side. The trickle of relatives, friends and associates becomes a stream as time draws near for last rites. However, time, or the lack of it when disaster struck is a common thread running in conversations carried out in hushed tones. “They had only got in the water. It was very low, just a few inches, a foot maximum. All turned downstream because someone’s slipper got washed away. I can’t remember whose. Actually two times, two of them lost slippers. So they stopped in the middle and were asking people downstream to get it for them. Suddenly, I saw that wall of water and screamed for them to get away. Run, run, fast - I shouted. But, they simply didn’t have time. I saw my wife hugging my little angels as they were caught in the whirl of water. And then, gone. All of them were gone,” sobs grandfather Rupadasa Marasinghe.

It was a devastation that brought a tear to many an eye. When two businessmen school mates and long term friends, Kingsley Rathnayake and U. D. Raveendra Lasantha who renewed their friendship after becoming neighbours decided to spend the long weekend away from their abodes in Nattandiya. They certainly wouldn’t have expected tragedy, but a quiet relaxing time with their families.

However, their visit to Thelgamu Oya that fateful afternoon, Saturday 4th November ended with the loss of 8 lives - that of the two businessmen, their four daughters, Raveendra’s wife and Kingsley’s mother-in-law. The only survivors were Kingsley’s wife, father-in-law and Raveendra’s 5-year-old son.

They are sadly missed – Vinuki and Hiruki, Kingsley’s daughters. Evident by the letters bidding adieu, from their friends at Sussex College, Wennappuwa. Hiruki who studied at the Upper Kindergarten seems to be a favourite among her sister Vinuki’s friends of Grade 8. “A little princess, and a rose in the garden of our hearts,” they call her. Yes, the children had a world of promise before them, says a close relative of the family. While both had fairly good academic achievement, Hiruki had been a quick learner, able to perfect anything after a few tries. Vinuki had been involved in sports, dancing and other activities. “Though you have now left our class, you will always be in our hearts,” notes the letter from Vinuki’s best friend.

Childhood friendships continued into manhood are the best kind. They continue, in carrying out the responsibilities and duties for friends, even after death. “I didn’t want this place to be empty,” says Dr. Tharindra Pradeep of Base Hospital Marawila a friend and family doctor for both families at his friend Raveendra’s house. “It was their custom to go out with their families. Both of them. Never alone, but with their families. Kingsley always ended up in Riverston where he was building this hotel. He enjoyed it so much we used to joke about it. We had visited the place a few times with him. Raveendra and his family spent holidays with other friends as well.

And we had had a good time,” he reminiscences showing a photograph of Raveendra’s family during the last holiday they had taken together. School mates at Dhammissara National School, Nattandiya and close childhood friends, who fortified their friendship which withstood the long years. “Many a time, we had bathed at the same place where this happened. But,” he heaves a long sigh.

Sighs and tears; silenced in the quest to provide ‘strength and stability’ to loved ones is rampant in both houses. “When I received the call from the Police, Saturday late afternoon, I went cold,” explains Ariyadasa Marasinghe, a close relative of Kingsley’s family. “I heard my brother’s voice on the other side.

He said all of them were ‘gone’. I knew he needed me but I had lost my strength by then. In no position to drive, I left for Laggala immediately in a hired vehicle. By the time I was there, 5 bodies had already been found. Sunday morning, Hiruki’s body was found. But, Vinuki’s and Raveendra’s youngest daughter’s bodies were missing. Villagers informed us that they had not seen such an amount or force of water as long as they remembered – may be for the past 30 or 40 years. As I had to attend to the release of the bodies from Badulla hospital, I returned.” As Ariyadasa and his wife had had no children, his brother’s children and grandchildren had been the joy of their lives. “Vinuki and Hiruki were the ones our hope rested on. And now, we have lost all hope!,” his face distorts.

“I was hoping. I know, I know it was very slim. Yet, I was hoping. Do you remember the tsunami? How people clung to trees and survived. So, I was hoping,” moans the distraught mother, Dulika Marasinghe(Kingsley’s wife). Her last thread of hope that her elder daughter Vinuki Ratnayake would have survived “somehow” was shattered Monday morning, when the girl’s body was found within a few metres of the site in a rock pool under a boulder. “I was the one who went in with my younger daughter Hiruki,” explains Dulika of the incident.

The two young wives had taken their four daughters to a small rock-pool on the other side of the stream where their children loved to frolic. Once they had taken a few steps forward in to the river, Dulika’s mother Kanthi Marasinghe had suggested that her father could also join the group as there was little water in the stream. However, as he usually needs help to negotiate the crossing, Dulika had returned to help her father, handing Hiruki over to her mother’s care. “As I was returning they were standing somewhere in the middle. Calling the people bathing downstream to catch their slippers. Then my father saw the water and screamed. They didn’t have time to run. Raveendra Aiya (brother)gave his son to his driver and jumped in, so did my husband. All held on to each other as the waters tore on. I ran, ran along the bank. Shouting to people downstream to catch my little darlings. Then, in the vehicle we went to the Thelgamuwa bridge and I screamed asking them to catch my girls. I saw some bathers running to higher grounds, ” she laments. Perhaps this mother’s warning had saved the lives of many there.

While many ran away from the raging waters, the two fathers jumped in, in a bid though futile to save their loved ones.

“He didn’t have to die. He could have saved his life. He had jumped in to save his family,” wails U.D. Gamini Ubeysena. Raveendra was his only son. “My son was a very quiet person. He started small and rose to prominence but, never sought publicity. I remember once, when some group had requested his presence at an opening of a ‘Thorana’ (pandal) many times, he finally said “Thaththa, you go there for me. You know I’m not interested in these photographs and all,” and he sent me there. He lived a pious life, more pious than I. Never had birthday parties but donated ‘dane’ (alms) to a children’s home, elders’ home or such place. This time also, before they left on this trip they had donated alms to a home, for Vageesha’s birthday,” he weeps.

Piety and humility may have been a trait running in this family. “She was so humble and acted so ordinary, for a long time I didn’t connect her to her family,” says Anusha Dilrukshi, teacher of Rishadi Vageesha, (Raveendra’s elder daughter) about her student. Vageesha’s sudden death had left her class immobile. “I didn’t want to step in to the class. I didn’t know how to answer the questions of other children. She was a very popular figure in the class just because of her humility. She passed the scholarship exam, but decided to stay on in this school,” she explains, a tear running down her cheek - unchecked.

Vageesha had been a grade 7 student at her father’s alma mater Dhammissara National School while her sister Dimashi Vidusha studied at grade 3.

“She was a bundle of joy. The first to come to school. Swept the school ‘Budu Medura’ (place of worship) every day. She would wait for me to step in to the school and run in to get my bag. She loved to carry it to the class, which may have made her feel important. Mischievous and friendly she was well liked by all – both students and teachers,” says R. M. Sajani Shyamali, Dimashi’s teacher. “She was to take part in the school concert on Tuesday.”

“We cancelled the concert and declared a week of mourning, in honour of the two students. We have organized an alms giving, with the support of parents of the two classes,” says the Principal, D. Sumathipala Silva. Since his appointment as Principal two and a half years ago, he had known both the businessmen, past pupils of Dhammissara National School, as philanthropists though he didn’t know them personally.

One person who knew both businessmen personally and from childhood is the Chief Organiser of the Nattandiya Traders’ Association, Kurukulasuriya Rajith Prasanna. According to him, Kingsley hailing from a business family and inherited his father’s business; and Raveendra a self-made businessman who was reaching the heights of his trade were both “goodhearted and generous donors who never declined an offer to help,” whether it was another person or organization/institution in need. They had always supported the philanthropic efforts of the Traders’ Association wholeheartedly.

The question “Why?” looms in the air shrouded in sadness. In hushed conversations and piercing wails. “Why had such people had to go through this kind of disaster?” And that, only God can answer.

But one truth remains. Where there is life, there is death. “Life and death are one thread, the same line viewed from different sides” – Lao Tsu.

Pix. By Shan Rupassara