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In Southern Sri Lanka

Hundreds Of Corpses Found in Derailment

By Michael Dobbs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 29, 2004; Page A09

GALLE, Sri Lanka, Dec. 28 -- The tsunami on Sunday devastated a train that had come to a halt on the outskirts of the tiny Sri Lankan village of Hikkaduwa, as massive waves slammed into a dozen carriages, hurling them across the countryside into coconut groves, fields and flimsy huts, authorities said Tuesday.

With 802 bodies already retrieved from the train's cars and the muck beneath them, the wreck appears to have been the single most destructive incident discovered so far in Sri Lanka. Two days after the disaster, authorities were still pulling bodies from the twisted wreckage of the carriages, some of which ended up half a mile from the railroad tracks.

Government workers and volunteers near the city of Galle place the bodies of tsunami victims into a mass grave. Officials estimate about 4,000 have died in Sri Lanka's Southern province. (Elizabeth Dalziel -- AP)

One thousand tickets were sold in Colombo for the Queen of the Sea, which was bound for the port city of Galle, 70 miles away, Brig. Daya Ratnayake, a military spokesman, told the Associated Press.

"There were very few survivors," Gunasena Hewavitharana, the chief government representative in Galle, said after touring the accident site by helicopter, the only means of access. In addition to directing relief efforts in Galle, Hewavitharana is also looking for his sister and niece who were on board the 7:15 a.m. express when it derailed 12 miles west of here.

Officials estimate that 4,000 people have been killed in Sri Lanka's Southern province around Galle, out of an already confirmed nationwide death toll of nearly 22,000.

About 40,000 others are homeless. Officials say an additional 685 bodies were recovered Tuesday in Galle, including those of several dozen foreigners.

Hundreds of foreign tourists stranded in outlying areas are arriving in this historic Dutch fortress city, which has become the headquarters of an international evacuation effort. Many of them brought harrowing stories of being crushed beneath falling masonry or dashed against rocks by the massive sea surge.

"The bungalow where I was staying collapsed on top of me," said Mark Beaven, a physiotherapist from Sydney, Australia, limping from a knee injury caused by a falling concrete block. "I was convinced that the rest of my family were dead."

Beaven's wife, Amanda, and their two teenage children were thrown clear of the wreckage by the wave. Amanda's leg was badly gashed and became infected because she did not receive proper medical care soon enough -- she initially sought refuge after the wave in a temple on high ground near the beach. She is now in a hospital in Galle.

Many tourists lost their possessions and travel documents as they fled the tsunami, leaving everything behind. "I have nothing, just 75 euros. My passport is gone, my tickets are gone, but the most important thing is that I'm alive," said Holger Resch, a German tourist who was swept away by the water while jogging on the beach.

Dominic and Milly Welby of England were trapped inside a beach cabana with their 11-year-old son when the water burst through the floorboards and then through the front door. They took refuge in the shower as the water came up to their necks, and then smashed through the corrugated metal roof.

"We jumped and ran," said Milly Welby. She later came across her husband, who was wandering on the beach with severe leg injuries, searching for their passports. One of the few personal items the family was able to retrieve was an iPod they had given their son for Christmas. It had washed ashore in its packaging, virtually undamaged.

The southern coast of Sri Lanka is a magnet for foreign surfers, many of whom were caught on the water when the tsunami struck. Stories circulated here of an Australian surfer named Tim who had the longest ride of his surfing career, ending up hundreds of yards inland. He then used his surfboard to rescue travelers from an overturned bus in a waterlogged field.

Groups of soldiers and policemen scoured Galle for the dead on Tuesday, pulling corpses from collapsed buildings, rivers and even the sewage system. Authorities buried more than 100 unidentified bodies in a mass grave after photographing and fingerprinting them.

"The bodies were beginning to rot, and we had to make room in the morgue," said Kingsley Wickramaratne, the governor of Southern province. "We couldn't keep them any longer."

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