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In Sri Lanka

Outracing The Sea, Orphans in His Care

By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 30, 2004; Page A01

NAVALADY, Sri Lanka, Dec. 29 -- Two hundred yards from the beach, in the orphanage he had built, Dayalan Sanders lounged in his bed early Sunday morning. He was thinking, he said, about the sermon he was due to deliver in the chapel in half an hour. A few yards away, most of the 28 children under his care were still in their rooms, grooming themselves for services.

Then he heard the pounding of feet in the corridor outside his room, and his wife burst through the door, a frantic look on her face.

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"The sea is coming!" she said. "Come! Come! Look at the sea!"

But the children did not die. Thanks to quick thinking, blind luck and an outboard motor that somehow started on the first pull, the orphans and their caretakers joined the ranks of countless survivors of the epic earthquake and coastal disaster that so far has claimed the lives of more than 77,000 people in Sri Lanka and 11 other countries. This is their story.

It is also the story of their chief rescuer, Sanders, a Sri Lankan-born missionary and U.S. citizen whose mother and siblings live in Gaithersburg, where he once owned a townhouse. A member of the country's Tamil ethnic minority, Sanders, 50, studied to be an accountant before founding a missionary group and moving to Switzerland in the 1980s. He worked with Tamil refugees displaced by fighting between Tamil rebels and Sri Lankan government forces, both of which have been observing a cease-fire since 2002.

In 1994, Sanders founded the Samaritan Children's Home in Navalady, a small fishing village that occupies a narrow peninsula on Sri Lanka's economically depressed eastern coast, about 150 miles east of Colombo, the capital. He built the orphanage with donations and money from the sale of his Maryland townhouse, he said.

With ocean on one side and a lagoon on the other, the four-acre orphanage was a strikingly beautiful place, set in a grove of stately palms. The children -- some of whom had lost their parents in the civil war -- lived four to a room in whitewashed cottages with red tile roofs and attended school in the village nearby. Bougainvillea spilled from concrete planters.

"People used to come and take photographs of the flowers," said Sanders, a handsome, youthful-looking man who speaks precise idiomatic English and peppers his conversation with Scripture. "They used to say it looked like Eden."

It was a busy, happy time at the orphanage. On Friday, the children sang, danced and performed the Nativity scene at their annual Christmas pageant, followed the next day by Christmas services and dinner for 250 guests, many of them Hindus from the nearby village. Sanders was so exhausted by his duties as host, he said, that he went to bed early on Saturday night. He also forgot to check, as he usually does, on whether the outboard motor had been removed from the orphanage launch, as it was supposed to be each night as a precaution against theft.

It proved to be the luckiest mistake he ever made.

'A Thunderous Roar'

On Sunday morning, Sanders said, he rose at his customary hour of 4 a.m. to wander the grounds and pray, then went back to bed. He woke up again about 7:30. He recalled the stillness. Not a breath of air stirred the surface of the sea. Small waves rolled listlessly onto the beach, then retreated with a gentle hiss.

"It was so calm and so still," he recalled. "The surface of the ocean was like a sheet of glass. Not a leaf moved." Two young men on his staff wandered down to the ocean for a swim.

It isn't clear who saw the wave first. Sanders's wife, Kohila, said she was alerted by one of the orphans, a girl who burst into the kitchen as Kohila was mixing powdered milk for her 3-year-old daughter. Kohila ran into the brilliant sunshine and saw the building sea. Even the color of the water was wrong: It looked, she said, "like ash."

Kohila ran to inform her husband, who told her not to panic, he recalled. "I said, 'Be calm. God is with us. Nothing will ever harm us without His permission.' "

Wrapped in a sarong, he ran outside and looked toward the ocean. There on the horizon, he said, was a "30-foot wall of water," racing toward the wispy casuarina pines that marked the landward side of the beach.

With barely any time to think, let alone act, he ran toward the lagoon side of the compound, where the launch with its outboard motor chafed at a pier. By then, many of the children had heard the commotion and run outside, some of them half-dressed. Sanders shouted at the top of his lungs, urging them all toward the boat.

Desperate, he asked if anyone had seen his daughter, and a moment later one of the older girls thrust the child into his arms. Sanders heaved her into the boat, along with the other small children, as the older ones, joined by his wife and the orphanage staff, clambered aboard on their own. One of his employees yanked on the starter cord and the engine sputtered instantly to life -- something that Sanders swears had never happened before.

"Usually you have to pull it four or five times," he said.

Crammed with more than 30 people, the dangerously overloaded launch roared into the lagoon at almost precisely the same moment, Sanders said, that the wall of water overwhelmed the orphanage, swamping its single-story buildings to the rafters.

"It was a thunderous roar, and black sea," he said.

As the compound receded behind the boat, Sanders said, he watched in amazement as the surging current smashed a garage and ejected a brand-new Toyota pickup. "The roof came flying off -- it just splintered in every direction," he recalled. "I saw the Toyota just pop out of the garage."

The vehicle bobbed briefly on the surface, collided with a palm tree -- the mark of its impact was clearly visible Wednesday -- then slid over the edge of the compound in the torrent before slipping beneath the rapidly rising surface of the lagoon. Another vehicle, a maroon van, was smashed against a palm tree. A three-wheeled motorized rickshaw parked on the property whirled around as if it were circling a drain, Kohila Sanders recalled.

A Narrow Escape

The orphans' ordeal did not end when their boat pulled away from the shore.

Not only was water cascading over the lagoon side of the peninsula but it was pouring in directly from the mouth of the estuary about two miles away. Sanders feared the converging currents would swamp the small craft. At that point, Sanders said, he recalled a line from the Book of Isaiah: "When the enemy comes in like a flood, the spirit of the Lord shall raise up a standard against it."

He raised his hand in the direction of the flood and shouted, "I command you in the name of Jesus -- stop!" The water then seemed to "stall, momentarily," he said. "I thought at the time I was imagining things."

As the launch then headed away from the mouth of the lagoon, he began to worry that waves would overtake them from behind, swamping the small boat. Reasoning that it was better to hit the waves head on, he said, he ordered the helmsman to reverse direction and head back toward the open ocean.

But that maneuver carried its own risks. As it made for the mouth of the lagoon, the boat was broadsided and nearly capsized by the torrent pouring over the peninsula. "The children were very frightened," recalled Kohila Sanders, 30. "We were praying, 'God help us, God help us.' "

As the waters began to roll back out to sea, the turbulence subsided. It was then, Sanders and his wife said, that they became aware of the people crying for help as they bobbed in the water nearby. They were villagers who had been swept off the peninsula. The passengers rescued one young man, who was "howling for his missing wife and daughters," Kohila Sanders said. But they had to leave the rest behind. There wasn't any room.

"People were crying, 'Help us, help us,' " Kohila said. "Children were crying."

Eventually the boat made it to the opposite shore, about a mile and a half distant in the city of Batticaloa. Sanders and his wife, their daughter and perhaps a dozen of the orphaned and now-displaced children have found temporary refuge in a tiny church; the rest have been sent elsewhere.

The city is short of food and water, and on Wednesday afternoon, corpses were being burned where they had been found at the edge of the lagoon. With more than 2,000 people dead in Batticaloa district, local officials say that they lack the means to dispose of the bodies properly and that residents are burning them as a precaution against disease.

The scene at the orphanage was one of utter devastation. The grounds were covered by up to three feet of sand. Several buildings, including the staff quarters, were entirely wiped away, and the others were damaged beyond repair. A body burned near the ruined chapel.

Surveying the wreckage, Sanders broke down and cried. "Twenty years of my life put in here, and I saw it all disappear in 20 seconds," he said between sobs. The orphanage had no insurance.

But at other moments, Sanders was philosophical about his loss. "If there was anyone who should have got swept away by this tidal wave, it should have been us," he said. "We were eyeball to eyeball with the wave."


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