For Sri Lanka, a 'ground zero'

Many mourn at a train station where hundreds perished.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Officials at Telwatte today either don't know, or won't say, how many passengers perished. The figure is estimated between 800 and 1,200 out of some 30,000 deaths in Sri Lanka. Civilian authorities say only 100 people survived.

One of the most widely told tale of survival in the country is the rescue of Sathsara, a 4-year old boy.

After the first wave struck, Sathsara's parents, who could not swim, worked to save their son. Just as the second wave arrived they pushed the boy through a hatch in the roof where his cries caught the attention of a "railroad engineer" who pulled him up. The "engineer," who no one has since been able to find, kept the boy with him as they were swept away in the water. His aunt says that the boy remembered where his uncle worked in Colombo, and Sathsara was eventually delivered to their care.

Today, Telwatte is still a random landscape of tragedy: A sari is plastered against a tree, a suitcase is spilled next to a train door, a muddy tennis racket made in China, scattered macaroni on the ground, a pile of pocketbooks presumably emptied by scavengers. Teams of Air force and Army soldiers are making braces to pull the cars out. Most wear kerchiefs because the smell is overpowering, and not all corpses have been removed. A small dog, obviously nursing, runs back and forth, whining, looking for pups.

At the site, many survivors have left pictures of those who perished. Here and across the country the question that hangs in the air is "why"?

Thuresh, the woodcarver, says that his family has decided that nature, after 2,000 years, has made a statement.

O.G. Guruge, a senior politician in Sri Lanka's west coast district, told reporters on the scene that the tsunami was sent by "Lord Buddha." Mr. Guruge said the wave was Buddha's retribution for not taking care of the earth properly, and it was also a judgment on a Buddhist nation where "corrupt priests drive around in big cars and don't pray enough."

In Sri Lankan churches, temples, and mosques, similar questions are raised. On Sunday, many of the newspapers here published commentary that tried to draw meaning and lessons from the Telwatte train tragedy and the tsunami.

A local philosopher, Ajith Samaranayake, asked in the Sri Lankan Sunday Observer whether or not the tsunami would jolt local people into a far more sober appraisal of their personal and national shortcomings than before. He noted that Sri Lanka was the first British colony to be granted universal suffrage, but that the country has not lived up to its promise.

On a kind of metaphysical jeremiad, Mr. Samaranayake added that the tsunami may be a lesson in humility: "For a stark moment, man in the new millennium, armoured supposedly against all calamities by his rational technological outlook and advanced political philosophies, has been rendered helpless by nature ... his cities ruined and laid low and all his grand inventions in disarray."

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