My Story of the Tsunami

Trip Start Nov 28, 2004
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Trip End Nov 23, 2005


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Flag of Sri Lanka  ,
Sunday, January 2, 2005

This is simply my story, the way in which I experienced it...

After staying on in Kandy a few more days after my last entry, the five of us by now (Lee and Darren, plus their two mates from the UK Berry and Dave) traveled down from the hill country all in high spirits to a beautiful little place on the south coast of Sri Lanka on Christmas Eve called Unawatuna. We were all excited about spending Christmas and New Years on the beach after having been away from the coast for a couple of weeks, and you couldn't wipe the smiles off our faces.

We had booked a bungalow in Unawatuna about 200 meters behind the beach, after trying several hotels right on the beach but could not get anywhere as we had left it too late to book. So we settled for a sleepy little bungalow with three rooms, set in a peaceful garden close to the beach, bars and restaurants. Little did we know then that leaving the booking until too late might have saved our lives. It was the thirteenth place we tried.

We had a fantastic Christmas Day on the beach with dozens of other tourists and some locals also celebrating. Plenty of great food, lobster, king prawns, beer, cocktails, warm sun, big smiles and happy faces.

Christmas Day rolled on in peaceful bliss. As the sun set, we carried the party well on into the night with more celebrating in a bar right on the beach attached to Vigita beach cottages. At some time in the early hours of Boxing Day, after having a bit too much to drink, I went to find a spot to lay down on the beach to watch the stars. I fell asleep and Berry and Dave must have joined me at some stage later. When I woke up on the beach it was about 4am, so I shook the other two awake. We were the last three people on the beach. We walked back to our bungalow together bug eyed and then fell into a blissful asleep.

At 9am on Boxing Day I woke up as thirsty as hell, and staggered outside with a hangover to ask the Sri Lankan family that we were staying with for a bottle of water and a cup of tea. The other four were still asleep. The grandmother greeted me with a warm smile and the mother told me she would bring the tea to our room (I was sharing a room with Berry and Lee while Dave and Darren had their own rooms).

Just as I was standing still in a daze in our outside lounge area of our bungalow watching a gecko twitching on the ceiling, screams rang out all around me from outside. I poked my head out the door to see dozens of locals running down our lane screaming hysterically. At first I thought that a fight had broken out between some locals and others were running towards it to break it up. Then I watched as the mother of our bungalow and her two daughters ran from their house past me and out into the small laneway as well, also screaming in Singhalese. I remember at this point how eerily quiet the surrounding jungle had become, only the sounds of those peoples screams cut through the stillness. Then I heard that unforgettable sound of the first wave, a mix of whitewash and cracking timber. I looked up (by this time I was standing outside in the garden) and watched for a few brief seconds as a solid wall of black water, mud and debre about 12 feet tall rushed towards me from just beyond the back of the garden I was standing in. Something, I have no idea what, but an instinct took over and I bolted back into our room screaming as hard as I could to the others to get the fuck out of the room and quick, and grab whatever you can. Darren heard me from his room, and Dave was also stirring at this stage from his bed. What happened in the next few minutes is still a blur in the mix of memories, but our room filled to the ceiling with mud and water within seconds. I was knocked off my feet and lost any sense of direction. A few seconds later I came too to see Berry and Lee squeezing out our door as debre flooded in and started forcing the door shut. With a camera in one hand, I held our bedroom door open for those last few seconds with the other two until they had swum out of our room. I took one last breath, and dived under the water and followed the others out into the lounge area. I think I came up for breath and hit my head on the ceiling, then found a small pocket of air, took another breath and went under again with eyes closed, feeling the wall to my right as a guide. I had no idea which way the main door was to get out of the building, but followed the wall with my hand as a blind guide. Then we all surfaced just outside the main door to our bungalow. By this time Dave had scrambled onto our bungalow roof, and Berry and Lee were climbing up onto it as well. Then we heard Darren's voice and the panic in it. He had been trapped in his room as his bed had floated up and jammed against the door stopping him from being able to open it. I reached back inside the building and yelled at Darren to grab my hand as I tried to pull the door back open, but it was jammed. In the meantime, Dave started pulling tiles off the roof directly above Darren's room, then kicked in the ceiling to drag him out. Darren looked up with fear, crouching on the last floating bit of furniture - his bed. It all happened so fast, but we got him out before the bed collapsed under the weight of water and debre.

With all five of us on our bungalow roof, we looked around and saw an ocean of chaos. Buildings were gone, cars caught in trees, and a level mass of black water carried on as far as we could see, the only distinguishable trace of land was a change in the water from black to ocean green where the beach once was. Then Dave saw at the back of the roof in the water below us the hand of the grandmother of the family we were with. We scrambled down off the roof and into the water to try and reach her but by the time we got to her she had drowned under a wall of brick. Her son pulled her body out the following day.

When things calmed down and the water started to fully recede, we got down off the roof and swam out into the street as others joined us in disbelief. We walked through the mess to Thambapanni Retreat, a hotel further up onto higher ground on the hills surrounding Unawatuna, and were met by the hotel manager and so many other tourists who had also retreated to this hotel.

Tourists flooded in over the next 2 days, some had lost nothing, some had lost everything but the clothes on them. Others had sustained serious injuries, others not a scratch. The hotel turned into a hospital downstairs, and the hotel staff fed us and provided what rations they could for us without any question. We stayed on for a further 3 days at the hotel, and kept busy helping carry dead bodies to graves, giving a hand wherever we could and just being in company with one another. Everyday more and more bodies were found, and accompanied by wales of crying by the people who had lost these loved ones. Up until now, all I had in my head was to survive, help as much as I can and keep busy at anything that would distract my mind from reflection. I had so much energy to carry on and to just get things done. I think I can speak the same for the other 4 as well (besides Darren who slept through the whole second day!). But at the end of the second day, as I was walking back alone to the hotel, a white mother walked past me holding her dead baby girl, no more than 6 months old. Seeing her, I lost control of myself. I broke down, cried and couldn't stop. That night in my hammock I could not sleep at all. I believe, especially after this, that the human body is so amazing, it shuts itself down and directs all it's energy to the areas of the body that is needed the most in extreme stress. Then once it knows it is physically ok, it starts to deal with the emotional stress and this side of the healing process. Survival first, then the mental healing comes later. That's what happened to us anyway. By the third day, reality was sinking in and tourists in the hotel, including us, started coming to terms with the death and trauma of the situation. The crying started.

In our Western world, we look at death as a terrifying and unworldly thing, and are so far removed and cushioned from it in our everyday lives that we are not used to dealing with it when it shows itself in front of us. In the third world, including Sri Lanka, these people are used to seeing death. It is a part of their everyday lives and they respect it but do not fear it like we do. They move on and start rebuilding their lives without asking questions. I think in a sense they accept it a lot more than we do. Death to these people is another start, a new beginning, not an end like we very often associate it with. As the son who lost his mother said to me the day after the tsunami 'my life starts again from today, it is a new beginning'. The last thing I want to do is preach, but I'll say this one last point as so many friends have emailed me and from what I can tell have a completely different view on this tragedy than what is real. And if I were in the same situation, far removed from here, I would have exactly the same sense of reality. The media are so manipulative of the truth. You have seen the images, watched the latest live updates and listened to the survivor's stories all on TV. Whether it be CNN, Fox or BBC. I've watched CNN and BBC over the past few weeks on and off as well, and what they show is far from the truth. Dramatised and over the top. Yes, many lives have been lost, but to the people who have survived it, and I'm not talking about myself, I mean the people who have lost their businesses and homes, their livelihoods, not just the contents of their backpack. To them it is not the 'tragedy' that we are made to believe, to them it is real, they are still scared, but they are getting on with living again, life goes on and is now going on, while CNN still pumps through hours and hours of extreme footage to us. In all honesty, it's not as bad as what's been on the TV, in many ways at least if that makes any sense.

There is so much hope here in Sri Lanka, people are smiling and helping each other before themselves. There is such a sense of community here, like one huge close family. These people will rebuild and get back their lives, they are strong, and I so admire them for their tenacity and strength.

Anyway, we left Unawatuna after a few days. The British Embassy were arranging to evacuate all tourists in the area but I didn't want to really be carried by an embassy not my own. The five of us spent another week in Sri Lanka, back in Negombo where I started weeks ago. It was good to get back to a place which had not been affected as much, and see some familiar friendly faces. We bought clothes again, and a few other small luxuries to make the road ahead that bit more comfortable.

Everyday I thank whoever or whatever is up there and took care of us on that Boxing Day of 2004. I feel so very lucky to be alive, and to have come out of it relatively unharmed. I feel very sad for the people who have lost loved ones. I think it will be something that will stay with the people who went through it for the rest of our lives. I will be forever humbled by Sri Lanka, its people and the December 26, 2004 Tsunami.

On the 2nd of January I flew out of Sri Lanka and landed in Male in the Maldives. I'll update you shortly on my adventures there (!!). I know that this entry has been completely devoid of my usual humour, but in light of the situation, I chose to write the facts as they were, and out of respect for the people involved, left out the humour for another entry...

Take care
Paul

By the way, I'm now in India!!
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Comments

missswain
missswain on

Three years on....
Paul...Just read your heart wrenching account of the 2004 tsunami...i was also in Unawatuna on that fateful poya day and so, so, lucky to survive. Getting through this Christmas was tough as it always brings back such awful memories of the death and devastation I saw. But you were right about the beautiful Sri Lankans - they approach life (and death) very differently from the west and I was humbled at the way they handled such a tragedy. Not a day goes by when I don't think of the people I lost and found on that dreadful day. My blessing was surviving and then finding out I was pregnant...I gave birth to my beautiful baby girl in Colombo on 28th December 2005 - almost a year to the day that the tsunami took so many lives. I still believe God saved me so that I could give new life for all those that were lost. God Bless you for helping me come to terms with what happened - I still struggle at times - your post made Boxing Day 2007 easier to bear xxxx

frenchyrjm
frenchyrjm on

4 years later
Paul,

Thank you for your blog. I'm in Unawatuna, the first place I've felt so much the presence of the Tsunami even 4 years later. So I started talking with people and then googling it. Blogs have a life of their own, I was grateful to read yours.

Richard
www.innerjourneytoindia.blogspot.com

baw77
baw77 on

Good story mate
You're correct, you write much beter than you explain :)

an excellent story mate and i'd put a huge lump in my throat reading it.

So happy you made it or we wold have never have become such good pals over the past 4 years.

top bloke paul

Ben wilson

Top Bloke

Eggsy on

Mullos, i read this at the time you posted it, but much too quickly. Today I read it very slowly and more analytically and so found myself in your shoes. No doubt it's had a major impact on who you are today..I think that happens when tragedy touches you, especially on a scale like this, but I can only imagine the fear, horror and sadness of that day. Your post is a reminder for how fragile we all are and that life is a gift. I've learned some important things here from your post. I think you're a hero.
Your mate Eggsy.

Pakhi on

Mullos -

I am supposed to be in Unawatuna in March 2010 and I came across your blog. It is very well written and symbolic of someone who's perspective in life changed because of what you saw. I don't know what you went through, but I felt like I was there and could see it happen.

Hope your life is good right now.

mullos
mullos on

Thanks Pakhi and everyone else who has posted comments regarding my experience in Sri Lanka in December 2004.

I am amazed how much the events on that day have changed my life. I guess it's hard to explain in words what those changes have been, however I hope you have all been able to take something from my experiences there as well. I'm about to start full time uni in a week, will be sudying a Bachelor of Nursing. The Tsunami and the relief effort we were involved in there have certainly influenced my reasons and decisions to study nursing. I hope that one day after I graduate, I can travel back to that area of the world and do some medical work to help lesser privilaged families. Some of the poorest people in the world are the happiest, and I learnt a lot from the tenacity and positive attitude of the Sri Lankans during my time there and the days following Dec 26. Thanks again for all of your warm praise and support.

Mullos

Arthur on

Admire your comments & glad to read that someone with such great qualities had visited Sri Lanka. Highly regard your noble gesture to serve the poor & under privileged.

Jim on

Mullos,

I just got back from a trip to Unawatuna and decided to do some searching about the Tsunami. Found your post and thought you might like to hear an update on the area. It's rebuilt, almost no sign of the Tsunami at all. The area and people were all beautiful. I don't think I've ever met a nicer community full of smiles and waves. Your explanation of the Sri Lankan people is exactly what I would expect from them after spending some time there.
The trip was amazing, one of the best I've ever had. It was probably about 90% locals and 10% tourists. There was always more locals playing on the beach (swimming, soccer, cricket) than tourists. We were able to hear some first hand accounts from people that survived the Tsunami and lost loved ones. They have come out on the other side and I was proud to have met them.

Jim

anonymous on

it was so touchy, and proud to be a Sri Lankan, Thanks Paul, God bless you

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