Boxing-day tsunami : Swedish couple recollects memories | Sunday Observer

Boxing-day tsunami : Swedish couple recollects memories

Per and Shanaz Sandberg with R. Milton, the guide who saved their lives.
Per and Shanaz Sandberg with R. Milton, the guide who saved their lives.

“My first thought was that there was something wrong with the salterns,” Per recalls. They were a couple of metres away from the Hambantota salterns at the time. He was filming the event and through his camera he saw what is considered to be Sri Lanka’s worst catastrophe to date - the Tsunami

“The sea is coming! The sea is coming!” a man bellowed as he ran down the road. He was not alone; a large number of other men, women and children ran with him. Water gushed down the road. Along with it came debris - pieces of wood, trees and other things.

This is the most harrowing memory Per Sandberg, an electrical engineer and technician from Sweden, had of that day. He was vacationing in Sri Lanka and was on his way through Hambantota to Colombo with his wife who was half Sri Lankan, and three other family members, when this incident took place.

“My first thought was that there was something wrong with the salt fields,” Per recalls. They were a couple of metres away from the Hambantota salterns at the time. He was filming the event and through his camera he saw what is considered to be Sri Lanka’s worst catastrophe to date - the Tsunami.

It was December 26, 2004. Per’s wife Shanaz was in the island to celebrate her birthday. They were enjoying a tour arranged by Tangerine Tours with our tour guide R. Milton, the guide who will later save their lives. The tourists were in the van driven by Milton who has over three decades of experience in the industry and thought that there was something serious going on when the roads started to flood. He immediately reversed the vehicle and drove it up the nearest hill. Within seconds a titanic wave was in view.

Without skipping a beat Milton drove on through a narrow forest covered path, passing equally perplexed people who were escaping from at the time they didn’t really know what. That day started off unusually for Shanaz. “I was 20 minutes late, and I am never late. I am notorious to being on time,” she said adding that it was the luckiest 20 minutes of her life.

If they were 20 minutes early, they would have been in direct contact with the wave. There wouldn’t have been a hill for Milton to drive his vehicle on to. No man to scream “The sea is coming! The sea is coming!”

The time could have been 9.50 - 10.00 am.

As they drove through the path more into the inland, the exhausted group craved for some tea.

“We went into a house in Suriyawewa and asked for tea. The lady made us a whole jug of tea,” Milton says remembering the incident and smiling. After the tea break, they continued their journey till they ended up in Ratnapura. The time was 3.15pm. That is when they got phone signals. Till then the signals were barred. They weren’t able to contact anyone. Shanaz was afraid that her parents had heard about the disaster and were worried about them. Milton was concerned about his family- his wife and two children - who were living in Wadduwa, a town that did not escape the wrath of the tsunami.

Shanaz remembers that contacting Sweden was easier than calling anyone within the island. Nevertheless, the few phone calls assured that all was well.

On their way through Ratnapura to Colombo they switched on the radio. That’s when the numbers came in. Five - hundred dead in Galle. Three - hundred in Bentota. The numbers gradually increased. According to statistics by the UN the Indian ocean tsunami left around 35,000 people dead in Sri Lanka.

“When we arrived in our hotel in Colombo at around 7.00pm the place was crowded. People were sleeping on the floors,” Shanaz said. Their rooms were given away too.

“The hotel people knew we were travelling in the coastal area. Maybe they thought we would not return.” However, they managed to get the rooms back.

That day when relief organisations visited the hotel, the couple gave everything they had from clothes to medication keeping only what they needed for their trip back. And when they went home, they sent funds to trusted groups that were aiding those affected people.

Last week the Sandbergs visited Hambantota for the first time in 14 years. Their memories of that day are still vivid.

“I felt very guilty for being alive. We would have died that day,” Shanaz said to the Sunday Observer. The husband, wife duo expressed their gratitude to Milton, who Tangerine Tours delegated them this time too, for saving their lives.

They also shared their views of the remarkable recovery the island nation has had following the event.

“The roads are well built. Back then we had to go on bumpy roads,” Per says. Now where the bumpy roads were is a highway. The forest covered path is non existent. Per says he couldn’t recognise the area till Milton took them to the small hill they drove on to when the wave crashed.

“We understand that a lot has been done for those affected. They have rebuilt homes, and have been helped in other ways. It is nice to see all of this,” Per said.

Sri Lanka was resilient enough to rebuild life again, but the country will always remember all the lives that were lost that day.

Comments