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In Sri Lanka

'All the Sea Was Like a Desert'

By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 28, 2004; Page A01

DIYALAGODA, Sri Lanka, Dec. 27 -- When the first waves rolled in, A.D. Chandaratna was mending a fishing net on the beach in front of the single-story house he shares with his wife and four children. Fearing for their safety, he did the sensible thing and evacuated them to higher ground. Then he committed what could have been a fatal mistake: He went back to take a second look.

With puzzlement but no real sense of alarm, Chandaratna said, he stood on the beach with a number of other men as the sea slid away from the shore, exposing rocks and sand for a distance of perhaps 600 feet. By the time he saw the second set of waves -- higher, foamier and angrier than the first -- it was almost too late.

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Lifted off his feet by a surging tide that also knocked down the front wall of his house, made from masonry, Chandaratna was carried inland for nearly half a mile, washing over a coastal road and a set of railroad tracks before he finally regained his footing at a point where the land began to rise.

"I'm a fisherman and I know about the sea," said Chandaratna, 50, explaining the relative aplomb with which he weathered the ordeal. "I went with the water."

Others weren't so lucky. In a village just a few miles to the south, at least 11 men drowned when -- like Chandaratna and his neighbors -- they returned to the beach out of curiosity to marvel at the spectacle of the receding sea, in some cases after escorting women and children to safer ground when the first waves struck, according to S.D. Premathilaka, 58, who was among the onlookers.

"The people who died, they didn't think the water would come back again," said the wiry government worker, who escaped the second onslaught by racing with about 200 other villagers to a small hillock on the inland side of the coastal road.

One reason residents here were so curious -- and so vulnerable -- was that none had ever seen a tsunami.

In countries that border the Pacific Ocean, where tsunamis are fairly common, warning systems are in place and coastal residents are instructed to heed the danger sign of a suddenly receding sea. But people on this island nation in the Indian Ocean had never experienced anything like the earthquake-driven waves that slammed its coasts the morning after Christmas, killing nearly 11,000 people. At least some of those, it now appears, unwittingly put themselves in harm's way to get a better view.

"All the sea was like a desert," said Chandaratna, still marveling at the sight of the suddenly unveiled seabed in front of his village of Beruwala. "We had never seen this happen. This was the first time."

During a drive along the Galle Road, about 35 miles south of Colombo, the capital, there were startling signs everywhere of the havoc the waves had wreaked on Diyalagoda, Beruwala and several neighboring villages.

A van was wedged against a tree. Another van was upside down and half buried in mud. An old-fashioned brick railroad station was missing its roof and sides. Smashed homes recalled a row of broken teeth. Downed power lines were everywhere. A painted sign was all that was left of the Sun & Fun Guest House.

But on the sunny Sunday morning when the tsunami struck, no one had an inkling of what was in store.

Chandaratna, the fisherman, had just sold off his morning's catch, and he was feeling good about the price -- 700 rupees, about $7. Fiddling with his nets in the shade of the tall, slender palm trees that covered his front lawn, he said, he watched in amazement as a row of six-foot-high waves rolled in from the horizon. He dropped his net, ran back to his house and raced with his wife and children to the inland side of the coastal road as the water swirled through his kitchen and living room.

Satisfied that they were safe, he then returned to his house because, he said, he wanted to assess the damage. It was then that he noticed the receding sea, exposing rocks he had never seen before, and joined his neighbors on the beach. "I thought it would never come back again," he said.

That opinion was shared by a number of villagers, including a woman and her daughter who lived next door. They escaped the first wave by climbing to their second floor, then ventured downstairs when the water rushed out of their house . They died in their kitchen, Chandaratna said, when their home was inundated by the same set of waves that swept him inland.

A retired government worker in a neighboring village, who gave his name as Senarathna, said he lived farther inland but had ventured closer to the water, curious about the commotion that greeted the first waves.

"Everybody was shouting," he said. "Some people climbed on to a rock" to get a better view. Then came the second, far more powerful set of waves. From the safety of higher ground, Senarathna watched in stunned disbelief as some of the men who had remained on the beach were swept out to sea, frantically waving for help.

He said it was no coincidence that all of those who died were men. "The ladies, they didn't come," he recalled. "They were very worried."


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