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In India, Death Roars In From The Ocean

By Rama Lakshmi and John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 27, 2004; Page A01

MADRAS, India, Dec. 26 -- On a balmy Sunday morning at Marina Beach, Brajita Poulose, 45, her husband, two sons and four other relatives strolled along the shore in the sunshine, enjoying the ocean breeze. Young men were playing cricket, joggers trotted past food vendors, fishermen hauled in their nets. Then, without warning, the placid ocean turned violent.

"I was holding my cousin's hand, my two sons were walking behind me, and suddenly . . . we saw a huge wave coming at us," said Poulose, who lay exhausted in a hospital bed, as her eldest son, Jiyo, sat weeping at her side. "We did not have enough warning."

The water quickly rose to Poulose's shoulders, she recalled, and a torrent caused by a tsunami in the Indian Ocean swept her inland, across the main road along Marina Beach, a broad ribbon of golden sand at the edge of this bustling commercial city in the state of Tamil Nadu.

Jiyo, 29, tried to keep his mother in sight, but the surging current pushed them apart. "In no time I was alone, and I couldn't see anyone," he said. "It was one continuous wave."

He caught up with her hours later at a government hospital. The bodies of his father and younger brother Sebastian were in a nearby morgue. The rest of the family was missing.

Indian authorities said Sunday night that more than 3,000 people had died in the tsunami, generated by a massive underwater earthquake early Sunday off the coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

The tsunami swept across the Indian Ocean along a 1,100-mile stretch of India's southeastern and southern coast, with a heavy toll in Tamil Nadu, on the Bay of Bengal. Among the dead were fishermen and other residents of coastal villages, as well as city-dwellers and visitors out for morning walks on the oceanfront of Madras, the capital of Tamil Nadu. Hundreds of fishermen and others were missing Sunday night.

Authorities in Tamil Nadu put the death toll in the state at 1,705. India's private NDTV television channel reported that 1,000 people had died in the remote Andaman and Nicobar Islands, an Indian territory between Sumatra and Burma.

In the state of Andhra Pradesh, more than 200 were killed, according to Indian Interior Minister Shivraj Patil, and local officials said 280 had died in Pondicherry, a former French colonial outpost on the southeastern coast. In the state of Kerala, a popular winter destination for foreign tourists on India's southern tip, more than 120 people were reported to have died. Seawater flooded villages more than a mile inland in the state, the Press Trust of India news agency reported.

Waves also caused devastation in Sri Lanka, surging across roads and railroad tracks and pouring through coastal villages, markets and beach resorts. Authorities said late Sunday that at least 6,090 people had died. Elsewhere, the dead included more than 4,000 people in Indonesia and more than 300 in Thailand, where more than 5,000 people were reported injured.

Indian television channels carried video footage of helicopters hoisting people to safety in Madras. They also showed turbid waters swirling around stranded buses, beaches strewn with wreckage and women wailing over the bodies of children laid out in makeshift morgues.

Dev Anand, 22, said he had been playing cricket with four friends at Marina Beach when the waves swept them inland. Three of his friends survived. But one, whom Anand called "Sheik," could not be found. "He was too thin," Anand recalled after making the rounds of hospitals and morgues with the three other friends to look for the missing man. "We kept yelling out to him to hold on to the lamppost, but he could not."

Ravichandran, a fisherman from Elliot's Beach in Madras, said he noticed something was amiss as he pulled his morning catch from his net. "I saw the waves climbing alarmingly," Ravichandran, 32, told the Reuters news agency. "I rushed back and pulled my wife and two children out of our home. Water had rushed into our hut by then."

'Wailing and Crying'

Rajani Unni, also from Elliot's Beach, said the tremors felt like being on a train. "I turned around, and I saw that a small glass table with a flower vase was shaking," she said. "We saw people rushing away from fishermen's colonies lining the beach. Women were wailing and crying."

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