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Genesis of Disaster

In an Instant, the Land Merged With the Sea

By John Lancaster and Peter S. Goodman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 2, 2005; Page A01

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- Christe Perera's first thought was of cricket.

Perhaps that wasn't surprising. He loved the game, played it every chance he got on the narrow beach just outside the shack where he lived with his wife and two children, in a shantytown just south of the Sri Lankan capital. That morning, he had been watching a televised match between Sri Lanka and New Zealand when he first got word that something strange was happening to the sea.

Relatives carry the body of child killed by the tsunami in the Cuddalore district in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Indian officials have confirmed nearly 9,000 deaths but thousands of people remain missing. (Gurinder Osan -- AP)

Stepping outside to investigate, Perera, 33, stared in amazement and then delight as the water withdrew toward the horizon, revealing a plane of smooth white sand. Finally, he remembers thinking -- a decent place to play.

So began a natural calamity of almost unimaginable dimensions. All around the periphery of the Indian Ocean last Sunday morning, on the heavily populated border between land and sea, people were going about their lives in the most prosaic and familiar of ways: shopping for vegetables, watching cricket on television, hauling in fishing nets, lounging at poolside. Then that border shifted, the land merged with the sea -- and the world would never seem quite the same.

On the resort island of Phuket, Thailand, Wut Salika stood on a quiet beach. He was loading up his boat with five tourists in scuba gear when something happened that he had never seen before: From the shore on which he stood to a row of yachts moored a quarter-mile out, the sea simply vanished. It happened in less than 30 seconds. Salika and his clients were more confused and surprised than frightened, he recalled. Some picked up fish that were flopping in the newly exposed sand. They took pictures. They laughed.

To the southeast, in Aceh province on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, Sgt. Deni Subiato, 31, was in the office at his army base about a half-mile from the ocean when he felt the ground sway beneath his feet. Fifteen minutes later, there was another temblor. Then he heard the shouts: "Water! Water! Water!" Subiato had no time to react. The ocean surged into his office and collapsed the building around him. He grabbed a piece of wood and held on as the current carried him away.

In the village of Sonankuppam in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Abirami Kadirvel, a fisherman's wife, had walked to the market to pick up some cooking oil and sugar. Her husband was out in his boat. On the way back from her shopping trip, she heard people shouting "Sea water! Sea water!" and saw them running toward her, away from the beach and her home. Then she remembered: Before leaving the house that morning, she had locked the only door from the outside. Her 10-year-old son, Madhavan, was still asleep in his bed. Fear welling up inside, Kadirvel dropped her shopping bag and began running toward her home.

The powerful Indian Ocean surges that originated with a sub-sea earthquake near Sumatra wreaked havoc on the coastlines of 12 countries, from Malaysia to Somalia, almost 4,000 miles away in East Africa. The water wiped away villages, tossed multi-ton fishing vessels into parking lots and inundated the swimming pools and lobbies of $300-a-night tropical resorts. At least 123,000 people died, and millions were left homeless and threatened with disease. This is the story of how it began.

The Fault Line

Beneath the sea, mighty geologic plates ground against each other.

One of them was the India Plate, which underlies southern India, Sri Lanka and much of the northern half of the Indian Ocean. The other was the Burma Microplate, part of a complex of small plates lying to the east. While most of the India Plate moves northeast, relative to the Burma Microplate, at the rate of about 2.4 inches a year, the two normally are locked and immobile along the plate boundary -- a fault line that runs roughly north-south off the west coast of Sumatra.

But the stress along the fault had been building up. It was stored in the rock like a compressed spring. On Sunday morning at approximately 7:58 a.m. local time, that spring was released. The lurch unleashed about 200 years of accumulated compression in the course of minutes. The result was an earthquake -- and a massive shift in a rectangle of sea bottom measuring roughly 750 miles by 60 miles, according to estimates by the U.S. Geological Survey.

The plates shifted about 65 feet, of which about 16 feet were in a vertical direction. One part of the fault line reared up, and the other sank down. The displacement of water from that motion created the tsunami.

In contrast to ordinary waves, which are wind-driven surface phenomena, the wave action of Sunday's tsunami involved the entire water column, from the seabed up, experts said. That is a defining quality of tsunamis and one that results in "a lot of energy being transmitted over large distances," according to Ken Hudnut, a geophysicist at the USGS in Pasadena, Calif.

Although the tsunami would have been barely perceptible to passengers on a ship at sea, it rolled outward from the fault zone at about 420 mph, roughly the speed of a commercial jetliner. Even at that speed, however, the surge took about two hours to travel to the Indian mainland.

The tsunami hit coastal areas in different ways. In some places, the first event was the recession of water; in others, it was a flood. The difference was determined at the origin of the tsunami: Along the fault line, the sea floor rose in some places and fell in others. Some coastal areas felt the effect of the sinking first and saw the water recede before it returned, often with a vengeance; elsewhere, the opposite happened. Places farther from the origin of the tsunami, such as Sri Lanka, experienced more waves than did closer areas, such as Sumatra.

As the tsunami approached shallower water near land, its behavior began to change. Its velocity slowed and the distance between its crests, known as wavelength, shortened. The stored energy in the wave was partly transformed into an increase in wave height. What happened next varied widely according to local bottom contours. In some areas, the tsunami broke like a massive beach wave; in others, it caused a sudden, rapid increase in sea level, like water pouring over the edge of a tub.

"The ocean turns into a river," explained Steven N. Ward, a geophysicist and tsunami expert at the University of California at Santa Cruz. "It comes in for about 10 minutes, and it flows back out for 10 minutes. You can't duck under it, you can't stand up in it, and you can't outrun it."

Sri Lanka

When the water receded, Sujewa Mahawadgea had just stepped out to the beach for a breath of fresh air. He lived a few steps away from his brother-in-law, Christe Perera, the cricket fanatic. Mahawadgea earned his living building furniture in one of the tiny shops that fronted the main coastal road in the town of Moratuwa near Colombo. As the water pulled back, he saw a bounty of sea life.

He ran onto the wet sand and began filling his arms with baby tuna and crab.

Then he was joined by another member of the family, Bernard Perera, Christe's older brother. He had been waiting for a bus on the coastal road when he learned of the sea's odd behavior and came down to see it for himself. Along with dozens of other villagers, the three men loitered on the beach, ignoring the cries of Christe Perera's wife, Sheromi, who pleaded with her husband to retreat to safer ground, Christe Perera recalled.

After a few moments his wife gave up and went inside to collect the family's vital documents -- including birth certificates for their two children, who were visiting a grandmother several hundred yards inland.

"I never thought the sea would come back," Christe Perera said.

But it did. As recalled by the three men, the water seemed to leap forward, boiling and turbid, racing toward the shore as if unleashed by a broken dam. "It didn't come in waves," said Bernard Perera, 40, also a furniture builder. "Just the whole water came up. Within a few seconds all the houses flooded and broke."

The three men ran for their lives, but the water soon outpaced them. Bernard Perera, lagging behind, was caught in water up to his neck. In seconds, he said, he was swept over the coastal road in a tangle of floating debris, including a television set. He recognized it as the one his brother had been watching cricket on a few minutes earlier.

Along with all their relatives, the Perera brothers and Mahawadgea survived the wave, which deposited them, shaken but unscathed, among the flooded shops and houses on the other side of the coastal road.

Phuket, Thailand

Wut Salika had been loading up his scuba boat. A moment earlier, it had been floating. Now it was resting on the sand. Almost at once, it seemed, the tourists looked up. An enormous wave was almost upon them, surging past the yachts now lifted skyward, ripping them from their anchorage, bearing down on the beach.

"I just ran," Salika said. "I don't know what happened to any of those people. I know some of the tourists stayed and were watching. There were children playing in the water, but I just ran away."

A hundred yards up the beach, Pornthip Pensuk sat in the mini-mart she owned -- a concrete-block structure set up on the bridge alongside the seawall, where she sold shampoo, soft drinks and groceries to tourists and villagers. She, too, was transfixed by the rapid shift of tide.

She ran away just in time, reaching the road leading up to a slight rise behind the village as the wave rushed over the seawall -- a 30-foot-high face of concrete -- and just as it tore through the spires of the Buddhist temple next door.

On her way up, she called to her father in the house behind the shop. "Get out! Water!" He ran, but he was a 92-year-old man and he could not keep up.

She fell down once as the water rushed around her. Her husband was running just behind. He pulled her to her feet and they kept moving.

She finally had outrun the first wave and reached the top of the hill. From there she surveyed a scene of utter chaos. Water covered the village below to the tops of trees. The sounds of screaming children and collapsing houses filled the air. Upturned cars littered the grass. Her elderly father was nowhere to be seen. "He could not run," she said. "I wanted to help him. I thought about helping. But I could not."

Banda Aceh, Indonesia

In Indonesia's Aceh province, Deni Subiato, the army sergeant whose office was destroyed by the wave, was carried along by the current for more than eight miles, battered by swirling debris that opened a gash near his throat and may have broken some ribs, he said. He finally washed up on a hill on the outskirts of the provincial capital, Banda Aceh.

Nursiah, 75, her gray hair pulled back, dark bags below her eyes, dressed in a black and white floral blouse, plaid sarong and dirty flip-flops, lived in Punge Ajang, a village on the outskirts of Banda Aceh. She heard of the massive wave at about 8 a.m., just after the earthquake.

"When the big wave came, some people were yelling, 'The water is coming, the water is coming!' " she recalled. "When the water started getting higher, I climbed to the second floor of my house. After a few minutes, I climbed another floor to the roof."

The water then began receding. Nursiah started down from her perch. But five minutes later, a second large wave crashed into the village and she retreated to the roof. The water pulled back again 15 minutes later.

Nursiah recalled walking in water up to her chest, headed to the main road. Eventually she made it to a refugee camp erected on the sprawling grounds of the local TV station.

Tamil Nadu, India

After the tsunami had slammed the Indian coast, Abirami Kadirvel, the fisherman's wife, struggled to push her way through the stampeding crowd in her village in Tamil Nadu. She was desperate to reach the son she had left sleeping, behind a locked door. But the human tide was impenetrable. "People just started pushing me away," Kadirvel, 28, recalled. "They couldn't hear what I was saying. They just carried me along with them as they ran. I kept calling out to my son."

She never made it to him. She found his body the next day among other corpses that had been pulled from the sea. "How will I ever live knowing that I locked up my son," she said, pounding her chest and crying. "I locked him up for his safety. So he could sleep some more."

In Thevanampattinam village in the same state, Govind Varadarajan, a widower and a fisherman, was readying a boat with four other men, about 60 feet from the water's edge, when the sea suddenly rose. They dropped everything and ran, but the water caught up with Varadarajan, sweeping him past his destroyed house, where he saw his television and blender tumbling in the current.

He grabbed a loose boat and hung on, injuring his leg and arm as he banged into trees and buildings. The boat broke in half and he lost his grip. Then, he said, he felt someone -- he still doesn't know who -- grab his hand. "Maybe someone wanted to save me," he said. "Maybe someone wanted to be saved."

He finally washed into the branches of a shattered tree, and the current released its grip.

Batticaloa, Sri Lanka

On the east coast of Sri Lanka, the commander at the Kalladi army camp had just ordered three of his men down to the beach to collect sand for filling puddles around his headquarters, according to Col. Lucksiri Amaratunga, the brigade commander in Batticaloa district. The soldiers saw the wave approaching and ran back to the base to warn their comrades, Amaratunga said.

Thinking quickly, the battalion commander ordered all 200 men at the base to climb into the flimsy casuarinas pines that marked the landward side of the beach. "One tree had 25 people in it," Amaratunga related. Brown with sand, the wave swept up the beach and into the camp, engulfing the firing range and tossing heavy tank trucks for water into trees, the brigade commander said. Only one man died. The tree he picked was too small.

Ko Phi Phi, Thailand

Out in the sea, on a thin crescent of land covered by jungle and fringed by white sand, Ko Phi Phi was a highly popular island destination for backpackers -- the hordes of shoestring travelers who favor cheap bamboo bungalows with string hammocks set on the porch.

Lachlan Burnett, a tanned, goateed Australian with blond dreadlocks, had lived there for the better part of a year working as a diving instructor. He slept above the dive shop, a wooden building set right on the beach. When the wave came, it lifted the structure off the sand. "It was floating like a boat and then it crumbled and collapsed," Burnett said. "I grabbed on to a tree."

Brian Lonsdale, a roofer from England, was walking a dirt path near the beach when masses of people began running past him, fleeing in terror. He looked over his shoulder just as he heard it. "The roar, I'll never forget the roar," he said. "Four palm trees went down -- smack, smack, smack, smack."

He ran to a shop, climbed up to a roof girder and stayed there as the water rushed in. Two men came running toward him and he grabbed them, shoving them to the roof as the water charged past and reached his waist. Then it receded and the debris began flowing back. "That's what killed so many people -- the debris, even more people than drowning," he said. "All that crap -- speedboats, trucks, buildings -- just smashing into everything."

All around, people lay on the earth, in bars, in shops, screaming in agony. A young woman from Wales was lying on the ground screaming, her leg nearly severed. "She said to me, 'Am I all right?' And I had to say, 'Yeah, you're all right.' "

Goodman reported from Thailand. Correspondent Alan Sipress in Aceh, Indonesia, staff writer David Brown in Washington and special correspondent Rama Lakshmi in Tamil Nadu, India contributed to this report.

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