How terror detonated with precision across Sri Lanka

A series of coordinated bombings — and fear of more to come — has convulsed Sri Lanka since Easter Sunday morning. The bombings stretched the width of the island nation of 22 million but were largely executed in a narrow timeframe, decimating three Christian churches and three luxury hotels.

By Thursday morning, at least 250 people were dead, including several Americans, and 500 more were injured in one of the worst terrorist attacks since Sept. 11, 2001. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks, and Sri Lankan officials warned that additional bombings were possible as they searched for other suspects. Despite the massacre’s magnitude, surprisingly few witness testimonies were available, after authorities shut down social media to try and quell the spread of fake news.

Easter morning

The bomb went off at 8:45 a.m., just as congregants stood to pray at St. Anthony’s Shrine, an 18th-century church with roots that reach back to the Dutch colonial period. One of the country’s most renowned churches, it was crowded with nearly 1,000 congregants for the Easter service. The bomb blast was a fireball that tore off much of the roof.

(Chamila Karunarathne/AP)

“How could such a thing happen in a place of worship?” the Rev. Joy Mariyaratnam said he asked himself. “God, please save us,” Delicia Fernando recalled thinking. “Where is my dad?” thought her son. But it was too late. His father, Ravi Fernando, 62, who had been standing in the back of the church, was dead.

Twenty-five miles north of Colombo, in the Catholic-majority town of Negombo, is St. Sebastian’s Church. The church was built in the 1940s, the Associated Press reported, in the style of Reims Cathedral in France. Toward the end of Mass, at about 9 a.m., a “young and innocent-looking man” came into the church, wearing a backpack, Dilip Fernando told Agence France-Presse. “He touched my granddaughter’s head on the way past. It was the bomber.”

Then, an explosion, and at least 104 were killed.

(Chamila Karunarathne/AP)

The church posted photographs afterward showing the destruction: blood, bodies, chaos. “A bomb [attack] to our church [please] come and help if your family members are there,” it said on Facebook.

Along the sea, hotels were full of holiday tourists. The Cinnamon Grand hotel in Colombo was serving breakfast Sunday morning when a man in a backpack arrived, according to a manager who spoke with AFP on the condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to speak for the company. The man in the backpack waited in the buffet line, carrying a plate, then set off his devastating package.

(Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

“It was 8:30 a.m. and it was busy. It was families,” the manager told AFP. “He came up to the top of the queue and set off the blast,” he added. One person killed was Suan Yahiya, a 38-year-old accountant who had received a one-night stay at the luxury hotel as a birthday present from his employer. Another was American Dieter Kowalski, a Wisconsin native.

All of the nine suicide bombers were Sri Lankan, officials said Wednesday. The eight men and one woman were well-educated and from middle-class families.

Less than a mile away, at the Shangri-La Hotel, a guest named Sarita Marlou was sleeping when the building shook. “Felt the blast all the way up to the 17th floor where we were sleeping,” she wrote on Facebook of the explosion on the third-floor restaurant. “Few minutes later, we were asked to evacuate the hotel. While running down the stairs, saw a lot of blood on the floor but we were still clueless as to what really happened.”

A survivor, who was identified only as Sam, told an Australian radio station that he was having breakfast with his travel partner when he saw two men wearing backpacks. “There were people screaming and dead bodies all around,” he said. “Kids crying, kids on the ground; I don’t know if they were dead or not. Just crazy.”

(S. Kodikara/AFP/Getty Images)

The Kingsbury Hotel, one of Colombo’s most expensive, was also targeted, though few statements have emerged in the hours after the attacks describing what occurred. The hotel shared a message on Facebook: “We share in the shock, grief and mourning of our entire nation in the aftermath of the recent attack. … Medical evaluation and treatment of the injured guests and employees were handled immediately.”

(Tharaka Basnayaka/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

A blast ripped through Zion Church, an evangelical church built in the 1970s, along the eastern coast. Simon Whitmarsh described what he saw in an interview with the BBC. There was “smoke billowing into the sky about a half a mile away,” he said. “Then we saw the ambulances, people crying, and we were told to leave the area,” he added.

(Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP/Getty Images)

Sunday afternoon

Tropical Inn is a budget hotel south of Colombo in Dehiwala near the National Zoo. An explosion occurred at the hotel hours after the others. One person, Asela Waidyalankara, posted a video on Twitter at 1:50 p.m. of smoke rising into the sky, writing, “Blast heard from Dehiwala (Near Zoo) and smoke seems to be coming up on nearby building. Several helicopters making flybys. … I’m stressing on this, not sure what this is.” A witness told local TV reporters, according to Reuters and ABC Australia, that he saw severed limbs at the hotel.

Police, acting on a tip that a residential complex on the outskirts of Colombo was a safe house for possible terrorists, went inside. An eighth blast occurred, and three police officers were killed during the operation. Authorities have arrested 60 suspects, including the wealthy businessman who owned the home. They said two of his sons were bombers, and his daughter-in-law detonated the blast at the safe house.

Late Sunday night

Sri Lanka authorities announced Monday that an improvised pipe bomb had been found at Colombo’s main airport. The bomb, which was found late Sunday on a road near the main terminal, was believed to have been manufactured locally, a Sri Lankan air force spokesman told Agence France-Presse.

Soldiers stand guard at the Bandaranaike International Airport in Colombo on April 22, 2019. (Wang Shen/Xinhua/Getty Images)

Easter Monday

The Sri Lankan government announced that 87 bomb detonators had been found at the main bus station in Colombo, about 3 a.m. Eastern time, or 12:30 p.m. local time, according to Reuters. Few details were released.

Early Monday morning Eastern time, what was believed to be a controlled explosion occurred as police tried to defuse a bomb found inside a van near St. Anthony’s Shrine in Kochchikade. Few details were released, and it was not clear whether anyone was injured.

Leslie Shapiro

Leslie Shapiro has been a Graphics Reporter for The Washington Post since 2016, focusing on data visualization and new media storytelling.

Terrence McCoy

Terrence McCoy covers social issues in urban and rural America. He joined The Washington Post in 2014.

Joe Fox

Joe Fox joined The Washington Post as a graphics reporter in 2018. He previously worked at the Los Angeles Times as a graphics and data journalist.

Joanna Slater

Joanna Slater is the India bureau chief for The Washington Post. Prior to joining The Post, she was a foreign correspondent for the Globe & Mail in the United States and Europe and a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. Her previous postings include assignments in Mumbai, Hong Kong and Berlin.

Katie Mettler, Laris Karklis and Lauren Tierney contributed to this report. Editing by Ann Gerhart and Monica Ulmanu. Photo editing by Olivier Laurent. Video editing by Joyce Lee.


Update: A previous version of this story said that at least 350 had died in the blasts. On April 25, Sri Lankan authorities revised that number to around 250, noting in a written statement the difficulty of an accurate count when so many of the bodies were not intact. Originally published April 23, 2019.