Wednesday, 24th December 2014
By Stroud Life
A DECADE ago, Stroud Life reporter Victoria Temple was in Sri Lanka when the tsunami struck.
Here we are reprinting her account, written at the time, of that devastating day.
'The sea is coming! The sea is coming!’
Irak, the young man who managed our guest house, was banging on doors and shouting. A moment before I had been lying beneath a fan and a mosquito net, reading and thinking that I really should get up and have breakfast.
It was about 9.15am, it was the last day of our holiday and I kept thinking how I should make the most of our day and go down to the beautiful beach. Our guest house was about 50 metres from the seafront of Mirissa, a tiny fishing village on the south coast of Sri Lanka with a beautiful sweep of golden sand lined with coconut palms, beach huts, and tiny restaurants.
I grabbed my dress, money belt and glasses and ran out the guest house. Unfortunately in my haste didn’t think to put shoes on – which was something I was to regret sorely later.
Initially we stood around in a daze, then ran towards the beach – and stopped. The hotel which had stood on the seafront in front of ours had been completely demolished, crumbled walls, and rubble on the street.
Beside me were a dazed British family who a moment before had been having breakfast.The boy, aged about 10, had a badly cut foot. His father’s legs were covered in cuts. Local people were running with ropes down to the sea, I guess to try and help people who might be trapped in the rubble.
I didn’t want to walk any closer, because of bare feet and the broken glass and debris anywhere, but Andy walked further down the beach to see what was happening.
At this stage I think nobody really understood or could grasp what had happened.Then suddenly someone was shouting run, run, and everyone, tourists, Sri Lankan men, women and children and old people started running up a dirt track into the jungle.
A Sri Lankan boy was struggling to carry the boy with the cut foot, so I went to help and grabbed his legs and ran into the jungle bare foot with his foot bleeding onto my dress. His name was Pip and he was remarkably calm. He had been sitting on a beach front terrace eating breakfast when suddenly the water surged forward and smashed through the hotel. They had lost everything. But the people in the rooms beneath the terrace were even worse, completely collapsed.
We ran up the track, women and babies crying. Everyone thought there would be more waves.Then we stopped in the shady garden of a house near the top of the hill, I guess about 60 or 70 metres above sea level, surrounded by banana plants and jungle.There were perhaps 50 people in the garden and six tourists.
At this stage I started to panic. The last I had seen of Andy he had been walking the wrong way down the beach. My heart was beating so fast, and I kept asking everyone who had come up the hill if they had seen him. I was with a little girl, Amy, who didn’t know where her father was and was also worried.
For 15 minutes or so we all waited. When a Sri Lankan man appeared in the garden with a first aid kit and told us there had been three more waves, I started to really fear the worst. But a moment later Amy’s father appeared – he was fine, although badly cut and only had the shirt he was wearing.He told me that there was another group of people gathered at a Buddhist temple further up the hill, so I ran through the jungle and found many families, tourists, Buddhists monks and Andy and our friend Leo.
I don’t think I have ever felt so grateful – but also faintly foolish for being so worried. We were the lucky ones. Andy was sitting next to a Dutch family with four little children, including a nine month old baby. They had lost everything, had had to grab their children and run from the beach in the middle of breakfast.
Everyone had a story to tell.One friend, an Irish girl Maraid, told me she was in Paradise Beach hotel, a beautiful complex of little bungalows and a restaurant right on the beach, where we had eaten Christmas dinner the day before.She was standing at the buffet with a bowl of cornflakes in her hand when suddenly her boyfriend shouted ‘run, run’.‘I was running through the restaurant trying to get out onto the road. The glass and walls were smashing behind us as we kept running. Then I looked down and I was still holding my bowl of cornflakes. I think I thought that at some point it would all be over and I could sit down and have my breakfast’ she said.
A Dutch girl who was in the same restaurant had to run through the sea and glass and told us how she saw the body of an old Sri Lankan man float past. I don’t know how many Sri Lankans died in the village, but someone said six tourists had been killed including two children who had been in that restaurant.People spoke about having to cling to the ceiling fans of their room to avoid being swept away.
We sat on the hill and waited. Everybody was frightened to go back down and there were rumours that there would be another wave. Sri Lankan families, old women were stunned. They had lost everything.Yet just an hour later people were carrying water, drink, rice and curry up the hill to feed us all. The people were so kind, so helpful. Many people came up to me to ask if I had found Andy.
We stayed up there for nearly six hours, listening to the radio, frightened dazed. Some people went back to there hotels and carried damp possessions up the hill and tried to dry their passports and flight tickets in the hot midday sun.
At about 3pm people stared to feel brave enough to go back down and I walked back through he jungle to the guest house. It was strange because on the way up my bare feet didn’t feel the pain at all – but on the way down the rocks and heat were terrible.There were lots of people at our guest house – it was probably the only one unaffected because it was back from the beach.
There was no electricity or drinking water or running water for the toilets and it was terribly hot. We knew we had to get to the airport, about 180 km away, for the next day, and also knew that it was going to be difficult to get out of Mirissa.
Our friend Leo Keating, also from Stroud, set off to try to find some form of transport.People were frightened to go on the roads, and there was a shortage of fuel – nobody wanted to waste what little fuel they had on transporting tourists. But then Leo had a stroke of luck – he met the leader of the Sri Lankan opposition party, Makinda Wigesekera, a member of parliament who was already driving along the devastated coast to see what help people needed. He said if we could get to his house in Matara 12km away he would arrange transport for us to the airport. It took about another hour to find a tuk tuk (auto rickshaw) driver who was prepared to drive us to Matara - and by now there were five of us who wanted to get out of Mirissa.So all six of us piled into the tiny tuk tuk, with bags - and set out on the journey.
I was sharing the driver's seat and hanging out of the front seat. The journey was horrific. Buses were thrown across the road into palm trees. Houses were completely flattened. I watched a man try to pick the things from his home, watched him walk down the street with a Singer sewing machine.
There were cars overturned, tuk tuks thrown across the road. Rubble, mud and furniture everywhere.But Matara was the worst site. It is a densely populated city of 45,000 right on the coast. The bus station is right on the coast and the sea had just surged through it, leaving buses heaped up in the mud.When we arrived at the Minister’s house, a palace in the middle of muddy mayhem, where houses had been flattened and a distraught Muslim man wandered round the rubble in a daze, our strange day took another surreal twist.
Mr Wigesekera welcomed us to his luxurious palace, told us to sit and drink tea while he arranged transport.‘Sit here and relax. I have to go. There are 500 dead bodies in the hospital,’ he said.
He had to go and arrange government funding for their funerals and also ensure that people were bringing their dead to the hospital for identification. He told us that morning he had sheltered 300 people in his home. He was an absolute saint. He returned from the hospital to tell us had a bus organised and opened a bottle of Johnny Walker red label to share with us.
That evening we set off in a bus to take the inland route through the mountains to the airport. The coast road had been washed away, so we had to take a road which was at times a single dirt track. At every petrol station we passed there were queues, and queues. Everybody wanted fuel – there seemed to be many people on the move through the night. We learnt later that there were 1 million homeless.
It was 3am when we arrived at the airport. Every hotel was full with tourists who had made their way from the coast. We couldn’t get a room, but a hotel owner took pity on us and let us sleep on cushions in their foyer, along with several other people. It was the longest, strangest, saddest day.
We were so tired, I had had almost nothing to eat, but we were alive and well.I keep thinking about the lovely people in Mirissa, where just the day before we had enjoyed the most beautiful Christmas Day.These people live beside the beautiful, sparkling Indian Ocean, which is their livelihood. Yet on that terrible Boxing Day, it turned their lives upside down.
I am worried about my friends, the people we left behind, crammed in that hot guest house with no water, no sanitation, little transport.
And for the kind-hearted Sri Lankan families I left sleeping on top of the hill who had nowhere else to go.I am about to get on a plane and fly away from the mayhem. For them the clean up and rebuilding of shattered lives is only just beginning.