An incredible experience it was, but the Indian Ocean tsunami caused by a magnitude 9.3 earthquake off the coast of northern Sumatra on December 26, 2004, was also one of the most dreadful events journalists have been called upon to cover in recent years. The undersea earthquake, the world’s strongest in 40 years, occurred at 06:28 IST about 250 kilometres off Indonesia and generated ocean waves that travelled at a speed more than that of a jet plane to reach the Indian shores, 2,000 kilometres away, barely two hours later. They reached as far away as the eastern coast of Africa, 6,500 km from the epicentre, within the next two or three hours. The rare, awesome phenomenon resulted in the death of 230,000 people and the displacement of 1.5 million others in 14 countries, including India. On record, it killed 130,000 people in Indonesia, 31,000 in Sri Lanka, 10,750 in India, 5,400 in Thailand, 200 in Somalia, 81 in the Maldives, 74 in Malaysia, 61 in Myanmar and a handful in Kenya and the Seychelles. Many went missing, some 5,640 in India alone. Waves reached heights of three to 12 metres in India and up to 30 m at some places in Indonesia, which suffered the worst damage. In India, the death toll was the highest (more than 8,000) in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, located nearest to the epicentre. In the mainland, it caused the most damage at many geographically vulnerable and crowded coastal locations in the States of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Puducherry. Unlike in the Pacific Ocean region, traditionally prone to tsunamis, there was no early warning system until then anywhere in the affected countries. All countries in the Indian Ocean rim have now established multi-hazard early warning networks and systems and community resilience mechanisms.Any mention of the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 brings to the fore the names of prominent regions affected by it, such as Banda Aceh, Galle, Phuket, Nagapattinam or Cuddalore, where media attention has been the highest. In Indonesia, the desolation at Banda Aceh has been described as being similar to the one at Hiroshima after the nuclear bomb. But, to my mind, every single coastal neighbourhood knocked down by the tsunami went through the same horror, devastation, trauma and distress, as this account of the experience of Colachal, a fishing village in south Tamil Nadu illustrates.
THIRTY-YEAR-OLD Anthony Gomez had just finished “blessing a house” at the beach that Sunday and was trudging up the narrow lane that led to the Church of Our Lady Presentation. Religion is a round-the-clock vocation in the crowded fishing village of Colachal in south Tamil Nadu. Christmas cheer was still in the air: most of the 18,000 parishioners had attended church ceremonies the previous day, Christmas stars still glittered in the crowded alleys, and there was the smell of fish and the Sunday meal at every dingy corner. Fifteen children were being baptised at the church that morning. It was already 10 a.m.
Anthony had joined as assistant pastor at the church a mere six months earlier. He belonged to Manakkudi, a coastal village nearby on the Arabian Sea, and was no stranger to the everyday commotion in fishing communities. But that morning he could sense that something had changed all on a sudden. There were too many people overtaking him on the road. They were gasping for breath—women, several of them dressed informally and clutching children, bare-bodied men running faster, egging them on. “What is wrong?” Anthony tried to ask. “ Thanni (water)! Thanni !” they shouted back as they rushed past.
He turned around perplexed and was aghast. A woman cried out in warning, “It is the sea, Father, run!”
The sea had risen swiftly at Colachal. Without warning. Without sound. A few minutes earlier, inside her beachside hut to the left of the street, Rani, in her early thirties, was cooking for her aged parents when a surge of seawater splashed on the doorway. “The tide is unusually high,” she thought as she closed the door, without a second look towards the shore.
A few houses away, Kennedy, a deep-sea fisherman, was already quite alarmed as he watched his favourite morning view—the cross on a string of rocks jutting out from the sea—dip under water. He grabbed his wife and instinctively began to run. “I knew, we had no time to lose,” he said.
At the beach, the door burst open and Rani was lifted up so suddenly and so high by the gushing waters that she was “within a second clinging to the leaves of a tall coconut tree”. She saw her mother being flung into a canal, her father dragged inexorably towards another side.
Up his street, Anthony was caught unawares by the swirling burst. He was thrown down and about, before he hit a wall and clung desperately to it. He felt utterly powerless as he watched children, men and women “rolling by”. If he extended a hand, the sea would take him too, he was sure. At the church about 40 feet (12 metres) above the beach, the parish ran out, alarmed, with 15 half-baptised children.
Then, as quickly as it rose, the sea withdrew, with an awesome force. Anthony saw a stream of people being sucked in. Rani was unceremoniously and abruptly thrown down on the beach, naked and thoroughly bruised. She saw bodies strewn all over the beach, as in a battleground. Some men brought her clothes, and soon she found the lifeless figures of her father and mother. Then she was taken to hospital.
As he struggled to get up, a drenched Anthony realised that he had had a providential escape. Cries rang out from every part of the village. He had to help. He joined a group of men running down. Outstretched hands were frantically gesturing from a nearby pond. Air bubbled up from underneath the filth and the dirt. Someone extended a long pole. Ten children were taken out and rushed to hospital. Many lay dying inside the stagnant AVM Canal between the sea and the church. As the sea rose, the canal, once used for inland navigation, became a death trap for hundreds of people in Colachal and its neighbouring villages. The 33-member local police station was by then in turmoil, as was the seven-member all-women police station in the same compound. Except a few, all personnel on duty rushed out to help.
Across the street, from her vantage point near the main door of the Government Hospital, Chief Medical Officer Dr A. Thanammal saw people running down the road in large numbers. “Oh! Not again!” the doctor thought. There were frequent clashes among fishermen and instances when they threw country-bombs at each other.
Then they began to bring in the bodies. “So many of them.” In her 13 years of experience at the hospital, Dr Thanammal had not seen anything like it before. The biggest medical effort in the hospital had been made after a bus accident involving about a hundred schoolchildren a few years ago. Thanammal was the government trainer for the fisherfolk, and was quite used to dealing with all kinds of medical emergencies occurring at sea. Her experience stood her in good stead. The hospital had only 40 beds and four doctors. Initially, she was the only doctor on duty.
Resources and emotions were tightly stretched. As more and more bodies were dumped at the tiny outpatient department and on the hospital verandah, she was soon sidestepping corpses and devastated, distraught relatives. Four bodies lay on her table. She had to call for help.
Anthony Gomez soon realised the magnitude of the disaster that had struck the parish. In a few months, he had come to know every family in the locality, and now they were running to him for advice and solace. There was no government rescue effort in sight. People wanted confirmation that their relatives had indeed survived. A woman holding a child tugged at his sleeve: “Tell me father, is he not alive?” Froth was still coming out of his mouth but doctors had said there was no hope.
On a routine trip to Sucheendram accompanying a State Minister to the temple festival, Kanyakumari District Collector Ramesh Chand Meena was unaware of the tragedy that had struck Colachal until after 11 a.m. In the morning there were reports about the sea rising in Chennai. Then about a large number of people, including a Supreme Court Judge, being stranded at the Vivekananda Rock Memorial in Kanyakumari. The news about Colachal came much later.
At the general hospital in Kuzhithurai, about half an hour’s drive from Colachal, a member of the Indian Medical Association, Dr J.A. Jayalal, received the SOS by 11 a.m. By noon, he was at Colachal, along with several others from neighbouring government and private hospitals. It was an “unbelievable sight” that greeted them. Of the 502 bodies brought in (in the first week), 270 were children. They could revive a mere 26; they sent them to the local Medical College at Nagercoil. The rest, rows and rows of them on the hospital floor, had to be examined, identified and certified dead. A lot more had to be treated for injuries. By 2 p.m., volunteers were pouring into Colachal, even from neighbouring Kerala, as the impact of the tragedy became known. The Jama-at, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, the Democratic Youth Federation of India, the Youth Congress, and a large number of non-governmental organisations and charitable organisations—colours merged at the village after the disaster.
R. Madhusudhanan, an office-bearer of the Asraya Women’s and Children’s Charitable Trust, Balaramapuram, was one among the several voluntary aid workers to reach Colachal from Kerala. He joined the army of voluntary workers who were helping shift the bodies from the hospital.
It was a shocking sight. It seemed to him that the majority of those whom he helped carry had died of injuries and not asphyxiation. Many had wounds all over and were oozing blood. The playground of the St. Mary’s Higher Secondary School was soon full of bodies and relatives of the dead wailing inconsolably. The smell of death filled the air. By 4 a.m., when he could no longer bear it, Madhusudhanan left for home. He had counted 340 bodies by then.
At the damp courtyard in front of the church, an excavator was already digging ferociously, about 10 feet deep and 25 feet wide, diagonally opposite Colachal’s long-forgotten landmark, the stone pillar erected in A.D. 1741 to commemorate the Battle of Colachal, the bloody victory of the Travancore army against the Dutch at the local beach. The space, adjacent to a row of houses, had once been used as a godown, and later as a burial ground for children. It had been lying vacant since then. The mass funeral for 178 of the victims was to take place early morning on Monday.
James Lanadimai, who lived there, could not bear the sight. A thin brick wall separated his home from the burial site. The bodies were covered in white and piled one above the other. They were brought in 28 vehicles and the volunteers had no other go but to step on them as they arranged them five in a row. Some wanted to bury their dead separately, with dignity. But they would have had to wait until the mass funeral was over. Then, realising that they could ill afford to pay for a coffin for their dear ones, they agreed to the mass burial. The local bishop, Leon Dharmaraj, cried aloud with a thousand others as he performed the rites.
Simultaneously, another funeral for over 70 victims was being held at the Jama-at grounds. The sense of helplessness was unbearable, the grief gut-wrenching.
A dozen exhaust pipes now mark the grave behind James’ backyard. Soon it will be cemented. Most people in the village are afraid to return to their homes on the beach.
Rani is now an inmate at the relief camp at the St. Mary’s School along with 3,500 others. The sea has taken her family, her home and the sewing machine that had been her source of income. Kennedy and his wife are in the same camp. They had been among the first to pass the high-water mark. Every day, he spends a few hours in front of his damaged home. How can he go out to the sea again? It did not spare even a change of clothes for them.
James wakes up every morning to hear the rustle of sea sand over the mass grave. Every day there is news of more bodies being discovered. The count a week later was 504 dead in the village alone. The nauseating smell of disinfectants pervades the village.
Colachal would be an easy prey for cholera and typhoid. At the Government Hospital, the 28 doctors on duty are keeping their fingers crossed. Dr Jayalal has no words to describe what he has just been through. But to Dr Thanammal, "it was the movie, Titanic, enacted on land with lots and lots of tears".
The police station is finding it difficult to cope with the daily stream of VIPs to Colachal. Some come in and leave in a jiffy after placing a wreath at the mass grave, blocking traffic in the traumatised town. Assessment about the damage is being delayed. On January 3, police estimates of damage and loss to fishing equipment in Colachal and the three neighbouring villages of Manavalakkurichi, Mandaikkadu and Vellichandai were as follows: mechanised boats 7,000; catamarans 3,000; vallam s (small wooden boats) 300; motors 200; fishing nets 7,000.
Anthony Gomez runs the relief camp as its coordinator. The neighbouring villages have all been affected, including his native village, Manakkudi, where over a hundred people died, including his close relatives. “I have decided to stay here and help in the relief efforts. I have to keep myself engaged. I will go mad if I go to Manakkudi,” he says.