2 Friends and a Big Wave (Boxing Day Tsunami Anniversary)

This is a very special guest post. Written in early 2005 by Timothy Barco (then Senaviratne) from Sri Lanka. I’m publishing it again today with author’s consent as a reminder of the 2004 tsunami. The title of this post is from me and it refers to Tim’s children story “3 Friends and a big Wave”.

Some scenes described in the story are pretty graphic – paragraphs containing such fragments are marked with <!>.

Some facts*:

  • The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake occurred at 00:58:53 UTC on 26 December with the epicentre off the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia
  • The shock had a moment magnitude of 9.1–9.3. It was the third-largest earthquake ever recorded on a seismograph
  • Tsunamis triggered by the earthquake killed 230,000–280,000 people in 14 countries.
  • Sri Lanka was the second hardest hit country (after Indonesia) – with 38 195 deaths confirmed, 16 665 wounded, 23 000 missing and over half a million displaced
  • More than 10 thousands British citizens were in the affected areas (Sri Lanka and other countries). 149 deaths were confirmed.

* source: Wikipedia PL and EN

TheCoachingParent.com editor – Adam – lived and worked in Sri Lanka from June 2003 till June 2004. After the tsunami he went back to Sri Lanka to support some of the relief efforts. Adam knows Timothy personally and the story below was confirmed also by Michael mentioned in it.

Now let’s hear from Timothy:

It was the 26th morning I think at about 9am. I was in Unawatuna with a friend (Michael from Poland), when the waves hit. The building was only 20 meters from the sea. The rooms facing the sea were completely washed away. Our room was not facing the sea and so lost only its door. Our room was the only room left standing. I still don’t know why I am alive when a lot of others died. It’s not fair. I hate everything about this. Everything!

1.1.2015, Hikkaduwa, Sri Lanka

We were sleeping and suddenly I woke up for no reason. Not knowing why, I looked out the room window and saw the wave coming through the window. I woke Michael up just as the wave broke in and the water level rapidly began to rise (15 feet). As the room door broke, the water washed in a foreigner and his daughter (6 years old I think)

The little girl kept asking her father what shall we do? What shall we do? The father and Michael wanted to leave the room but I said no we are going to stay in, and not go out, the only thing that stopped me from panicking was the little girl on my shoulder. I said the only thing we can do is pray, and I convinced everyone in the room to stay, even as the water kept rising till we were 7 inches from the ceiling. We floated up and held on to the ceiling fixture and breathed the air trapped between the water and the roof. And the then the water started to go down at some point; I still don’t know how long we hung on to the fans.

My first instinct was to run out and look to see if anyone needed help, and I did find many (at least 4 people, and about 3 dogs that I put on top of the roofs!) That’s when I cut my feet on the corral.

I helped a fat Sri Lankan lady, who was crying oh my god, oh my god. Why did this happen? I couldn’t move her, so I just pulled her out and placed her as high as I could on some construction planks lying nearby. I also found a little girl who was stuck. She ran off after I released her and that was a relief. I don’t know who she was but she just ran inland.

Then I helped some other Sri Lankan people… My feet were bleeding badly from the coral cuts by now.

At one point, the whole bay had emptied and the naked seabed looked like hell on earth, with the rubble from the land that sea had dragged back scattered all over it.

After all this I ran back to the main road with Michael, there were dead bodies all over, people running all over; it was as if the whole world has gone crazy. I got to the main road (700m away) and went in to a hotel; some people gave us some tea and bandaged my wounds. Michael was in shock, and I did not know what to do or say to help him. A foreign tourist (nurse I think) bound up my foot.

Then this family that we had met the night before came to my mind, and I told Michael that I was going back to find them. It was hard for us to go back as we were both injured, and besides we were the only ones heading back towards the beach with everybody else heading in the opposite direction.

I did something very unfair I think, by asking Michael to come along; it was very hard for him and kind of mean of me to ask him to! But I am so thankful he did.

We made it to this hotel called the Rock House, which was on top of the hill, and it seemed like all the world had turned up there! I saw my friends – the Lambert family – from afar and I felt so much joy and peace in my heart. I just said thank you God!

Michael and I decided that we were going to stay with them till this ended.

At some point someone shouted that there was another wave coming our way, so everyone ran up the hill again. It was crazy as no one knew what was going on or what to do. We ended up at the temple on the top of the hill, where we found shade among the trees. Just then the 2nd wave hit, it came a bit closer to the hotel, but this time no one was hurt! We were all safe, but confused about what to do! After some time we all went back to the hotel only to find that the water had not come there, so we stayed there for some time.

But the problem was there was no water or food or anything there, no one had been prepared for something like this. So I told Michael that we needed to go back to the road and get some stuff from one of the shops there. He said “NO!”, but as usual I did not listen and just got a bag and any cash I could find and set off. Michael gave in and we ran to the road. Both of us were injured and my feet were hurting like hell, but I knew this had to be done. We got to the road only to find out that all the shops were closed, so we hunted down the owner and got it opened from the back so that we could get our hands on some water, food, candles and whatever else that was available.

Getting back to the hotel was not made easier by the rumors of another wave on its way, but we pushed on. Michael was having a difficult time with his injuries I knew, but I just keep pushing him on and on.

We got to the hotel and still no wave had come our way. I soon realized that the food and water we had brought back was not enough for all of us. So I decided to head back to the beach where I found some cool boxes that had got washed away from the hotels, with cool drinks still in them. I filled a bag with these and returned to the hotel.

That night we found out that all the roads were closed and that we would be stuck here for another 3-4 days at least. Michael and I had gotten so close to the Lamberts that we felt like we were a part of their family. They were so worried about us and did their very best to take care of us. They wanted us to sit down and rest, but we could not as there was so much to be done.

I had found some strength in me that even I was unaware of until that moment. It was as if I was a new person. Shan, the doctor who dressed my wounds, asked me not to move around, but that was the one thing I could not do! I said to her, “If you stop to rest, then so will I”. She had 3 kids to take care of but she was untiring in her efforts to help others.

The hotel provided daal and rice that night for everyone, but I don’t think any of us ate anything. I tried sleeping but even that did not help! Nightmare after nightmare ensured that I got no rest.

I got thinking about the hotel owners – they were not that well off, but there they were taking care of 200 people for free. How were they doing this? Then there was Shan, who had a big family of 3 kids but could not be with them as she was desperately needed by so many others. At one point I said to her, “Shan, you are a heroine!” But she just turned to me and said, “The real heroes are my kids, they have been so good and helpful!”

Just outside the room where we were sleeping, was an old English man – Stewart. His wounds were so severe that I half expected him to die any moment. He could not even lie down as his back throbbed and his ribs were broken. He was incredibly brave though and kept up a constant stream of funny jokes and kept the rest of us laughing. The Lamberts were like a team of angels, who went around trying to do what ever they could to help! I think they took such good care of Stewart that he made it through; I made it through some things also thanks to them. That night we slept with only the light of the moon and one or two candles to keep us company.

More people had come in through the night and most of them were wounded. Everyone who was able got involved and began to care for them. Here, nobody was being selfish; it was like one big family, like it’s supposed to be. Everyone rose above the usual social barriers and came together and did what needed to be done.

Again we heard “The waves are coming!” We all ran up the hill, to the side of the temple then came back down again when we realized that there wasn’t going to be another tsunami. This happened several times and soon we all smartened up, resolving to verify our facts before taking any action. We also decided to make our retreat in a more orderly fashion, making sure that everyone was moved and no one was left behind by chance.

We realized there were no provisions for the night, so Michael and I collected money from everyone who had it, and went to buy food and water. We got a team of about 7 strong men together. Most of them abandoned us near the road however, when they heard the rumors of another wave. Only Michael, I and one other brave man resolved to push on. At one point, they both wanted to turn back. I wouldn’t hear of it, and when they tried to head back I just kept going on and so forced them to follow me. I realize now that it was not right for me to push these people like this, but I really felt that we needed these supplies.

We got to the road and got the same shop opened. This time, however, they were not going to give us all we asked for. They had begun to ration things. I told the shop owner that there was like 250-300 people at Rock House (the name of the hotel), but he would not believe me. So we just took what we could get and returned to the hotel. Our bags were full of all the water and food that we could find. Their weight made walking increasingly difficult.. Another alert had been sounded and everyone on the beach was moving inland. The 3 of us were the only ones running in the opposite direction.

This time even I began to feel frightened. The others wanted to take another path, one that was supposedly safe but way longer. I knew I would not be able to make that walk as my feet were killing me. If we cut through the beach though, it would be infinitely easier and more importantly would take ten minutes at the most. So against the wishes of the other two, I began to head that way. I thought they had decided to opt out as they didn’t follow me. Once they realized that there would be no turning me from that path however, they relented and decided to come with me; only on one condition though – we would run all the way. That turned out to be the one thing I could not do. I did try my best to run, but my feet hurt so badly. On our way, just in front of the beach, I saw a broken-down shop with 3 crates of drinks in front. I knew the water we were carrying would not be enough by far and so I got in to the shop and called the boys back. Each of us hoisted a crate of drinks.

Now our loads had doubled (or even tripled) and my feet were starting to feel like jelly. The other two men ran fast, but I was so far behind that I soon I had lost sight of them. Thankfully Michel came back and asked me if I was ok. I told him I felt fine and encouraged him to keep going. I also asked him to drop of his stuff and come back to help with mine, if he could manage it.

<!> I stopped a man who was running away from the beach and he helped me put the case of drinks on top of my head. It was only once I had it there that I remembered the 3 day old hairline fracture I had at the base of my skull. Now my head began to hurt like hell. I got the case down and sat on fallen pillar from where I could see the beach clearly. I looked around me and I saw something crazy. I saw a man’s face in the sand and thought it was a dead body buried under the sand, but it turned out to be the face alone. It had been ripped off and was lying on the sand.

I was only 5 meters away from the beach and the whole place was deserted. The sea looked mad and angry and I said to it, “If you are going to take me you will have to take this crate of drinks with me, coz there’s no way I’m going back without it.” I got to my feet again and started to walk back with the drinks, I was making very slow progress, but I was getting there. I was within 20 meters of the hotel when Michael came back to help me, like he said he would.

I got to the hotel and there more people had turned up. The boys kept saying “good job”, but the smiles of the Lambert family made it all worth while, they were they best! They helped me to the room and after I had drunk a little water, I rested for half an hour.

By this time they had begun to bring in the dead. I hauled a lot of bodies out and we all grieved for them, but my eyes remained dry. I am normally a person who cries a lot, but this time my eyes would not release my tears. I wanted so much to cry but I could not.

<!> The bodies were not recognizable, so the grief we felt was disconnected and generalized. At some point a man from the beach walked in with a dead baby and he gave it to its mother… that killed me. I tried not to cry, not to let them see me cry. But in my heart I did. I asked myself how can a God that says he loves us this much, hurt us this much? I didn’t want to fall apart; I wanted to keep it together so that I could do whatever needed to be done. There were things I was willing to do that others were not, like move dead bodies… someone had to do it and I was able to, so I did it.

I thought I was holding back the tears for others but now I think I was doing it for me. I didn’t want to cry. I didn’t want to feel…

I felt guilty too. Because I knew that once I got back to Colombo that I would be ok. All these foreign tourists would also go home and be ok, but the local Sri Lankans were another matter all together. They had lost everything – their families, their belongings and their livelihood… the fishermen for instance. I can’t imagine what it must be like for them. So I spent more time with them than I did with the foreigners…

<!> So many bodies, rotting. The stench will never leave me. I can still smell it here now. All the perfumes we put on wouldn’t make the stench go away. I told the boys that we needed to take photos of the dead but also look for tattoos or birth marks that would help families identify them. The bodies were so badly decomposed, and the smell made me want to vomit and vomit all over again, but I could not.

<!> We found this foreign woman whose body was in a pretty bad state. When I tried to lift her, her hands came off, and there were maggots all over. The worst part was the smell. I don’t have the words to describe it. We wrapped her up in a big sheet and left her there. We must have covered around 10 other bodies on both sides of the road. There were many more but I could not do more. So we went back to the hotel and took care of the bodies there.. The stench was becoming unbearable and if we did not bury the corpses soon no one would be able to remain there. There were about 7 bodies in the hotel – one man, 5 ladies including a pregnant mother and a little baby of about 5-6 months old. Two other bodies were claimed by a local man, who said they were his wife and child (6 months)

<!> So that left us with 5 bodies from the hotel. It was so hard to wrap up the pregnant woman as her stomach was starting to open up and any quick movement would mean she would just come apart, especially since by this time her weight had doubled. I was so surprised to see many women coming in to help us deal with the bodies as well.

After that was done we set out to dig graves. By this time more people had started to come into the hotel but only very few of them were trying to help. I was a bit upset about that. We began trying to gather the tools we would need to dig graves. We did not find much but what ever we could use, we used. It was hard work, digging those graves, especially because the sand was still muddy and hard. There were 10 of us there and we were doing our very best. 6 foreigners and 3 locals were helping, and soon we were all feeling incredibly tired. But more foreigners turned up to help and they started to make a path to the graves. After we got to about 6 feet, we stopped as we just could not dig any more. We were going to bury them all in one big grave, to help us cut down on the amount of digging we had to do.

Now all we had to do is bring the bodies to the grave, so we went back to the hotel and loaded them up. The grave was about 500 meters away from the hotel so we had a good walk. The roads were still full of rubble and that managed to further aggravate our injuries.

We would take one body at a time and lower it into the grave. By then, a bulldozer had made an appearance and was clearing all the debris off the road..

I had worn clothes that belonged to the Lambert women throughout the period. I had this pair of wrap around pants on, I still have no idea what they are called but they kept slipping off. Once as we were carrying a body to the grave my pants fell off! God! I did not know what to do, I told other 3 men to stop and I put the stretcher on my shoulder and pulled up my pants. That was probably the most embarrassing moment for me. But it made a lot of people around me smile, so it was worth it!

By the time we came to the last body, the bulldozer had cleared most of the road and the going was much easier. The only problem was that as the bulldozer moved the rubble more bodies were found underneath.

By this time I was so tired that I decided to return to the hotel and rest. As soon as I got close to the hotel, Naima one of the Lambert Family girls, came out and helped me back to the room. She also got a something to drink and I fell asleep on the chair out side. The Lamberts being the angels they are, tried to get me to eat and drink but I was not up to any of that. By this time my body had started to fall apart. I had a high fever, vomiting, and pains all over my body. I still tried to help by playing with the kids around me, but I knew I could not do much now. We went to sleep that night with the all the little candles we could find lit up around us.

The next morning a lot of people had managed to find ways to get out from here, but more from the surrounding beaches had started to turn up.

There were a few people (mostly British) who were acting like the leaders of the camp, and were getting things organized. Tim the Doctor was one of them, as was Jake and Shan. There were about 4 others, whose names I can’t quite recall now. They were the heroes to me, as they did all they could voluntarily. I am so thankful for all they did for all of us.

Jake came over to me and told me that we needed more water. And despite Shan telling me I should not go, I decided to try anyway. This time I got the Lambert family to come along as I felt they needed to deal with their fears. I wanted to see the room that I had been in as well ! We all went to the beach and looked around; it was hard for the Lamberts. I could see that Michael was ok and moving around in a much more energetic way. We got to the beach and then to the hotel room that I had been in and looked around. I felt like I was looking at my grave but that I had just barely escaped it. Michael kept telling me that I am a hard person to kill, and I see that what he says is true. All my friends and family tell me that too, and I believe that, I feel like even God knows I won’t die that easy! I have been close to death so many times in my life; the closest I got was being in a coma for some months. And now this.

We wandered through the rubble and I got to this room that had 3 crates of water and that was like finding gold. I called out to the others and we got them back to the hotel. By this time I was beginning to feel close to burning up and so very weak. I could not do much but when they tried to send me off I said I would not leave without the Lambert family and Michael. The truth is that I wanted to stay and help, and so hoped that I would get well soon.

We were all in a bus by 5.30 pm and it took us 8 hours to get back to Colombo. They told me that Michael and the Lambert family had a place to stay at the BMICH (a congress hall and exhibition centre), but when they got there nothing was waiting for them. There were so many people sleeping all over the ground. I called my aunt from there and asked her if they could stay at her place and that’s what we did. The next morning the Lambert family went to Negombo, looking for their stuff which was untouched, thankfully. They came back and said their goodbyes, setting off to the airport immediately after. They are now safely back in the UK!

They call me their spiritual son. It’s crazy what something like this can do to the human spirit, it’s one of the strongest bonds I have seen. All these separations we have created are cast aside at times like this! The truth is we are just one big family, of one kind – “The human kind”. We all feel the same pain and the same sadness, we all have the same needs and we all need a little bit of LOVE.

I’ve told you all this so that you will also give to someone in need a little bit of that human love that there is in you.

As for me I am safe in a room in Colombo. Still have Gastritis and some body pains, but I hate to stay in bed as I know of so many people out there who don’t have anything. I plan on going back there as soon as I get better.. Till then I beg of you:

DO WHATEVER YOU CAN! Whatever it is, just do it! Thank you!

Timothy Senaviratne (Sri Lanka), 2005