THREE seas merge at `Land's End', Kanyakumari. On any given day, it has hundreds of tourists milling about on its shores eager for a glimpse of the spectacular sunrise or sunset. A vibrant fishing community is spread out on either side of the 3,000-year-old temple dedicated to Kanyakumari - to believers, "the virgin goddess who stands in eternal vigil protecting the country".
It is perhaps the best place to watch a tsunami hitting the Indian coast.
That morning after a crowded Christmas, there were 1,300 tourists on the Vivekananda Rock Memorial across the sea, including a Supreme Court Judge. Nearly 125 more were in a ferry ready to leave the mainland pier. Another ferry with 125 tourists was making its return from the memorial.
Swarna Pandian, the manager of the Poompuhar Shipping Corporation, which runs the Kanyakumari ferry service, should have been a happy man. Business was good. From 8 a.m. that morning, 4,000 people had bought tickets to the rock. Yet he was uneasy. He ought to have accompanied the VIP, Justice C.P. Mathur, and his wife to the rock, but he did not.
The lapse perhaps saved a lot of people that day.
The first abnormal surge struck at 9-45 a.m. The boat at the jetty with its full complement of passengers pitched up and down. The water was suffused with a reddish tinge. Swarna Pandian hurriedly ordered the immediate unloading of passengers. But a second wave had already pushed the boat away from the jetty. The incoming ferry was swaying violently and was almost stranded as the water receded far below the rock memorial.
By then the employees were forcing the passengers out of the boat and the `queue shed' on the pier. The other boat was revving up its propellers to reach the jetty when a third wave hit the coast. Panic-stricken tourists had by then bolted the door of the queue shed to stave off the tidal surge. The manager, showing remarkable presence of mind, ordered the cement grills of the queue shed to be broken. According to Francis, an employee on the Kanyakumari ferry since 1964, by the time the fourth giant wave came, all the passengers in both the boats had reached safety. "I believe it was providence that made the manager stay on the mainland. Otherwise, there wouldn't have been anybody here to take charge or to facilitate the evacuation," he said.
But Swarna Pandian's worries were far from over. About 1,300 people were still stranded at the rock memorial. The destruction to the coast was immense. The giant wave sucked away one of the boats and dumped the other two on the mainland pier. Sections of the pier, the railings of the memorial, and rows of fishermen's huts were destroyed.
At the memorial, literally on the path of the giant wave, there was hysteria as the rising waters drenched the visitors. Women and children were crying out in alarm. Pilgrims from Sabarimala who had made a detour to Kanyakumari began to chant fervently, "Swamiye Saranamaiyappa!" Fortunately, the telephones were working.
Collector Ramesh Chand Meena told Frontline that the district administration was virtually helpless initially; the Coast Guard and the Navy could not spare rescue helicopters as they had been pressed into service at Cuddalore and Chennai. An Indian Air Force helicopter that eventually flew in from Thiruvananthapuram was unable to land on the rock.
In the end, local fishermen saved the visitors. From 3-30 p.m. to 8-30 p.m., they dared the quirky sea and ran continuous sorties up and down the rock with food packets and transported all the visitors to the mainland.
Stephen, a fisherman, who lives across the jetty, said the giant wave had topped the 38-feet-high pedestal of the imposing statue of saint Tiruvalluvar on the rock near the Vivekananda Memorial, and splashed water up to the shoulders of the 95 ft statue. But perhaps it was the rock that broke its force.
The ancient but well-fortified temple was unscathed. But Kanyakumari's tourist traffic has dwindled despite a subsequent calm sea. Where nearly 10,000 people used to visit the temple every day, today there are barely 1,000, according to temple authorities. In one of the many popular restaurants near the temple where 400 to 450 bills used to be issued every day, there were barely 30 groups coming in daily a week after the incident. Neelakandan and Sudarsan, shopkeepers on the temple road that is now a resting place for salvaged boats, complained that the media were jeopardising their livelihood by using a `Kanyakumari' dateline on every report of destruction and death in the southern district. The ferry service, which usually attracts over two lakh people in the peak season of January, has been suspended. Two boats were heavily damaged. Another boat, `Vivekananda', is missing and the Coast Guard is yet to find its remnants. According to initial estimates, the total loss for the corporation that runs the ferry alone is over Rs.1crore.
No one knows exactly how many visitors on the beach were actually swept into the waters that day. There are no official estimates as yet about the losses suffered by local fishermen. As for Stephen and his neighbours Puthiappan and Jerome, their homes and livelihoods have been washed away and their families are staying in relief camps. Many fishing nets have vanished and several boats were wrecked beyond repair.
With its mainstay, tourism and fisheries, buckling under the impact of the tsunami, life is bleak in Kanyakumari.