For Sri Lanka, a 'ground zero'
Many mourn at a train station where hundreds perished.
TELWATTE, SRI LANKA
A small train station along Sri Lanka's southern belly - a sun-drenched, palm-flanked stop called Telwatte - is becoming this country's psychological "ground zero." This is where the Dec. 26 tsunami wiped out a packed nine-car train and took most of its passengers, too.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Amid the scattered debris, and Army soldiers dragging the maroon wreckage away, many Sri Lankans - including relatives of the estimated 1,000 travelers who perished - are arriving to stare and ponder. They stand in silence. The only sound is the song of tropical birds and bulldozers. To some, the devastation brings to mind Pompeii, Italy, where residents were suddenly overwhelmed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. This whistle-stop is emerging as Sri Lanka's locus of discussion, where deeper questions about the national disaster are being asked.
For some 200 yards, a classic symbol of civilization is strewn out across the landscape, cars askew in twisted right angles. The 80-ton engine, a silvery mastiff, was ripped from the tracks and flung dozens of yards away. Bodies were still being found and buried five days later.
On Dec. 26, the coastal train called "Queen of the Sea" left two minutes late from Colombo, arriving at the tiny Telwatte station at 9:20 a.m. - 2-1/2 hours after the earthquake occurred off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia.
The cars and platform were packed with holiday goers, since Dec. 26 was a "full moon day" - a local Buddhist holiday when Sri Lankan fisherman don't work and families travel. Telwatte is usually a momentary stop. But not this time. The conductor was waiting for the signal ahead to turn green. (Officials now say the green light never came because there were reports of waves down the coast.) When the first wall of water flooded in, "like a huge river," one eyewitness recalls, the Queen of the Sea was fully exposed. [Editor's note: The original version gave the wrong date for Buddha's birth.]
Thuresh Dharamadasa, a local woodcarver, was eating rice for breakfast in his house, 40 yards away, when he heard screaming. He thought someone had been hit by the train, and ran outside. He saw the first wave of water already lapping at the wheels of the train engine.
He rushed back and ushered the eight members of his family onto a "slab" - a poured concrete roof over a concrete latrine - where they watched events unfold.
Karl Max Hantke, a German whose house sits next to the tracks (and is one of only three structures still intact), also saw the tragedy unfold from his roof.
As the first wave arrived, they say, instead of climbing off the train, the water drew more people to the cars. The water was waist high, and the train seemed solid. People clambered aboard, some handing their children up from the platform, and some climbing on the roof.
No one expected the second wave. Witnesses said it came between 10 and 20 minutes later, and seemed more a massive new swell than a distinct wave. Still, it hit Telwatte with such force that the entire train was ripped off the tracks instantly - with such force that heavy concrete forms underneath the tracks were uprooted and turned entirely upside down. The cars twisted and turned, and filled with water. As Mr. Hantke describes it, the scene was one of screaming followed by complete silence.