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Day After Disaster, Force of Tsunami Devastingly Clear

Row After Row of Corpses Await Retrieval

By Michael Dobbs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 27, 2004; 12:55 PM

GALLE, Sri Lanka, Dec. 27 -- The tsunami that surged across the Indian Ocean on Sunday split into two mighty rivers when it reached the formidable 17th century Dutch fortress that is the defining landmark of this southern Sri Lankan port. The rivers enveloped the 40-foot high walls of the fortress and then met again on the other side -- at Galle's bus station.

Police said that at least 200 people were killed at the bus station, the city's busiest crossroads, as busses were tossed around on the converging cascades of water. Some drowned in their seats; some were stabbed by shards of flying glass; some were crushed beneath sheets of metal. By the end of the day, row after row of corpses lay in the baking sun awaiting retrieval.

Victims of the tsunami lie dead next to the desk where Sri Lankan civilians line up to inquire about missing relatives in the main hospital in the town of Galle in southern Sri Lanka, Monday. (Elizabeth Dalziel - AP)

The devastating scene at the bus station was repeated along much of the palm-fringed coastline that has become a magnet for Western tourists in the three years since the end of Sri Lanka's brutal 20-year civil war between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils. A day after the disaster, the low-lying coastal road is littered with the debris of wrecked buildings, beached boats, fallen trees and overturned busses and cars.

As I drove along the coast this afternoon, and saw for the first time the scale of the devastation caused by the tsunami, I better understood my own enormous good fortune in escaping Asia's worst natural disaster in living memory. When the tsunami struck, I was swimming in the ocean with my brother. As the water rushed inland, we washed up on one of the colorful catamarans that local people use as a fishing boat.

The force of the water was so great that many of these boats ended up hundreds of yards inland, crushing the flimsy houses that lay in their path and killing everyone inside. Our particular catamaran was wedged alongside a fishing market and some palm trees, which saved us from being swept across the road along with dozens of other boats.

Returning to the scene this morning, I came across the house of a fisherman named Ranjith who lost seven members of his family when his boat slammed into his house. As he saw the tsunami approach, Ranjith struggled desperately to secure his catamaran, but was unable to do so in time.

A little further along the road, in the village of Weligama, I came across the corpse of a distinguished-looking woman in a beautiful white sari, her handsome face framed by cascading black hair. Nobody had come to claim the corpse, which was covered in a sheet of plastic.

Villagers said they had recovered dozens of bodies from the houses along the shore, mainly of women and small children who were unable to swim or lacked the strength to climb to safety. At least 200 people were killed in Weligama, and many more are still missing.

Since there is no water and electricity in Weligama, and very little food, I brought my family this afternoon to Galle, normally a half hour drive along the coast but two hours away by the circuitous inland route we were forced to take because of downed bridges and blocked roads. We are staying at the Dutch House, a little hotel owned by my businessman brother, on a hill high above the water-devastated city.

There is a jolting contrast between the scenes of utter devastation in the area along the beach where entire streets have been reduced to piles of rubble, and the atmosphere of near-normality in my brother's hotel, where guests were swapping disaster stories by the swimming pool while waiting for evacuation to Colombo.

Of four properties belonging to my brother along the coast, three survived the tsunami more or less intact, while the fourth was pretty much destroyed. The staff at the Beach House in Tangalle alerted the sleeping British guests seconds before the tidal wave struck and they ran for safety to higher ground, leaving everything behind. They have been evacuated to a friend's house.

In the nearby town of Hambantota, hundreds of people in town for the weekly fish market were swept out to sea by the tsunami and are reported missing.

Here in Galle, authorities estimate that as many 2,000 people were killed in the disaster, in the bus station and the commercial area of town. Armed police and troops are patrolling the streets and have imposed a nighttime curfew to prevent looting. In contrast to Weligama, where there is little organized relief effort, bulldozers have begun to remove rubble from the streets and push upturned vehicles out of the road.

Survivors of the tsunami in Galle include a touring cricket team from one of England's most elite private schools, Harrow, who were playing a local Sri Lankan team in a stadium next to the bus station when the tsunami struck. The English schoolboys clambered to safety on top of the cricket pavilion.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company