Chennai's black Sunday

Print edition : January 14, 2005

The Marina beach ravaged by the waves. - S.R. RAGHUNATHAN

The Marina beach, which attracts thousands of visitors every day, lies ruined by the tsunami.

IT was a Sunday, the day after Christmas. Holiday-makers, picnickers, children, morning walkers, vendors, fisherfolk, some daring swimmers... they were all there on the golden sands of the Marina Beach in Chennai enjoying the cool yet sunny morning. The 3-km-long beach, which is the longest in Asia and has the memorials of two former Chief Ministers of Tamil Nadu, a swimming pool and various other structures, could accommodate all of them and more. Scores of boys had taken positions on their regular playing ground for a game of cricket. There were tourists on the shore, to feel the tickle of water and sand under their feet. Fishermen, who had returned at daybreak after a night at sea, were mending their nets. Fish vendors were bidding for the catch that had been sorted out. It was like any other Sunday on the Marina.

Around 9 a.m, out of the calm blue sea, tiny waves inched towards the shores. Then, unbelievably, they rose in unison to form a giant wall of water, only to come crashing down on all those who thought the Marina was their home ground.

In its furious fall, the water swept across the expanse of the beach and its walkways, and even crossed the Kamarajar Salai to enter buildings on the other side. The sea went back after making one more trip, at 10 a.m., but after swallowing 160 people and dragging much of the beach sands back.

At noon, all that remained of the Marina was knee-deep cesspools into which volunteers poked sticks in search of bodies, torn fishing nets and mounds of debris. Catamarans, fibreglass boats with outboard motors, cracked country boats, pushcarts and motorbikes, lay mangled. Cars parked on the service lane of the beach were lifted by the surging waters and thrown around; one car lay perched on a stone bench on what were once lawns.

A child victim at the Marina beach.-BABU/REUTERS

The waves destroyed the nearby fishing hamlets at Foreshore Estate, Besant Nagar, Tiruvanmiyur, Palavakakam, Kottivakkam and Neelangarai and other beaches in the suburbs up to Mamallappuram and Kalpakkam in Kancheepuram district. At Palavakkam, Neelangarai and Vettuvankeni, they brought down compound walls of beachfront bungalows. Some houses had collapsed.

Less than 100 metres from where the Marina ends is Nochikuppam, where hundreds of fishermen's tenements are situated on the shore. R. Anandan, in his 40s, had returned to the shore a little before 9 a.m. with the catch in his fibreglass boat fitted with an outboard motor. He was mending his net on the beach when the tsunami struck. Catamaran logs, tied together with ropes, were ripped apart. "The waves rose from the shore and advanced menacingly. I knew there was no escape in the circumstances. Then I saw a catamaran log floating. I grabbed it and survived. This is my rebirth," Anandan said. He clasped his hands together, and said, "I worship the sea for this."

About 85 cracked fibreglass boats and 20 smashed catamarans lay on the road facing Nochikuppam. Engines, torn from the boats, lay here and there.

K. Arasu, a 52-year-old fisherman of Triplicane area, was out in the sea when the earthquake jolted the coast around 6-35 a.m. "There was no sign of the quake in the sea. We were about 3 km inside. The sea was peaceful," he said. He returned to the coast before 9 a.m. He and other fishermen had tied the catamaran on the shore to a small post. When he looked back after crossing the beach, he saw the tsunami rush in in a flash and recede as quickly. Five women were bidding for fish. Three of them went cartwheeling in the waves and died, said Arasu. Two were fighting for their lives in a local hospital. Arasu's own catamaran was lifted up and thrown more than 150 metres away. He lost his catch.

The body of a girl washed ashore in Besant Nagar, Chennai.-SHAJU JOHN

At Chennai harbour, the tsunami deposited tonnes of silt and rocked three cargo vessels. The vessels broke free and collided against one another. Two ships, one ferrying about 750 cars and another loaded with granite, were damaged. A hopper collapsed.

The mooring of ABG Keshava, which was undergoing repairs, snapped. It sailed a couple of hundred metres into the inner harbour and smashed into the Ambedkar Dock. Then it had a "run-in" with two other "delinquent" vessels. K. Suresh, Chairman, Chennai Port Trust, estimated the loss at the Chennai port, including the damage to its facilities and vessels at Rs.10 crores.

SEVERAL parts of Chennai had experienced tremors at 6-35 a.m. and people were already out on the streets. And then there was a surge of crowd at the waterways - the Adyar river and the Cooum which winds through the city. The rivers were flowing backwards. That was the first sign of the tsunami people living some distance from the beach noticed. They had no name for the phenomenon then, it was just, "Cooum is rising at an alarming rate, and it is flowing inland". When the source of the phenomenon, "the sea is entering the city", passed by word of mouth, the number of people who moved towards the Marina was innumerable. The police had a tough time keeping the crowd back from the roads leading to the beach. Marina once again swelled with people; hundreds of them went up to the shore to watch the Coast Guard helicopter pick up the bodies and, mainly, to see if the waves would return, until the police waved their lathis.

P. Mathi was drinking tea around 9-15 a.m. at a mobile stall on Kamarajar Salai near Ayodhyakuppam, a fishermen's locality. He had felt the tremors in his home around 6-35 a.m. and now he saw the waves advancing. He ran to his tenement, collected his aged mother and bolted to safety. "Everywhere there was noise and confusion. People just picked up whatever belongings they had and fled," he said. Kathavarayan managed to reach Kodambakkam, some 10 km away, where his relatives lived.

K. Kasi (60), a roadside barber, was giving a shave to an old man, when he felt a chill on his feet. Seeing the water nearby, he gathered his kit and fled.

Standing near the MGR Memorial, a sullen young man kept looking back in anguish towards a white Ambassador car that had got stuck in the stagnant water. He kept telling the crowd that gathered around him, the bodies had not been found. The driver of the tourist car came close to death. But his passengers, five Nepali tourists - three men, a woman and a child - did not survive. When the waves came, the driver grabbed the child and ran, with the others following. When he was near the road, he handed the child to the mother and climbed up. When he turned back, all the five had disappeared under water.

Marina was full of such tales of sorrow. Loved ones who were not traced, children who were lost, the aged who took their last morning walk, young couples who came to be together in the beach.

There are assuaging words, like "It is a one-time disaster, Marina will be safe soon." But they may not find takers, at least not for some time to come.

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