Thursday, January 06, 2005

Tsunami in Unawatuna, Sri Lanka

The evening before 26th December me and Timothy had spent with the Lamberts family – Mother Lucilla, and two daughters – Gaya and Nayma. They came to Negombo on one of these “all-inclusive”deals but decided to go down south to Unawatuna and that’s where we met them. Saturday was a beautiful day, all wrapped in an awesome sunshine and smoothen with a nice breeze. We had sat with old Samson drinking arrack and smoking spliffs. Prasad was around serving drinks, Sunil was tying his hammock. Everything had its order and place.

It all appears to me to had happened in one simple glance of an eye. Everything exists. Then you blink and everything is gone. It wipes off memories of the past leaving scenes of horrifying apocalypse under your eyelids. There is no past left then.

I was sleeping at that time. Timothy shouted at me to wake me up. I got up from bed and looked through the window. There was an indescribable mass of water coming. I have never seen anything like this. The water had already reached the beach. I jumped back, and in the same time I had looked at the clock in my mobile. It was 9.32 am. Second later water hit our Beach House and our room on the ground floor.

The water had thrown us against the wall. I think both of us tried to scream from pain, but there was only water around, so we swallowed it instead. We had struggled to survive, as the water kept rising. The next wave flushed a man with his daughter into our room. I got thrown against the wall, but somehow I hit a mattress that also went there. That girl kept asking “what shall we do”, and Tim said the only thing we can do is to prey. So we prayed.

Tim really kept his guts together and behaved intelligently, I wanted to escape the room but he told us to stay. That might had probably saved our lives as the water was so strong, that it took everything with it – cars, trishaws, debris from destroyed buildings and took it inland. On one point we had almost lost the space in our room as it got filled with water, although our room was around 1,5 as tall as the normal rooms and, most importantly, it didn’t collapse as most of the others. We were fighting to save ourselves.

When the water went down a bit we managed to get out. I took that small daughter and helped her reach a safe place on the top of the roof. Tim went somewhere to help. I lost eyesight with him. Then I got back to this father that had been flushed into our room and we started looking for his other daughter. We’ve been shouting her name, but I don’t recall it now. We had been walking without any shoes, with water to our thighs. The place was one of a debris. The buildings opposing the beach were mostly gone. Then I saw owner of the Happy Banana. She was dead. I used to stay in Happy Banana every time I had gone to Unawatuna (more than 10 times) and I talked with her a lot. That was a sad image. She must had been working in an open space so she just drowned.. Then I saw the leftovers of the Happy Banana. There was a boat thrown inside restaurant and some people walking mindlessly around, screaming. Dead bodies were scattered around. At that point I still didn’t realize how big the damage was. I also don’t know how come I didn’t cut myself there, walking through all that chaos and debris. I also didn’t feel the pain from the injuries, I thought I’m ok.

I went back to see Timothy. I glanced at the Unawatuna Bay and there was no water in it. Somehow the whole water, up to the rocks in the distance, had been dragged out. The sea looked like pure evil and I realized that this water will come back. I was in a shock.

There was only screaming around. I met Tim and we packed our backpacks with what had been left and started escaping inland. Our room was the only one not destroyed by the wave. I remember that the other day owner of Benny’s asked us whether we would like to move to a different room (our lock got jammed). The one he had offered was nicer and opposing the sea with its front but somehow I decided against it and waited till the lock was fixed. There was not much left from these other rooms after the tidal. If we would move there we would probably be dead by now.

We went back to the road. On one point we had been helping one old lady by supporting her from both sides. I went to see my friends - Giulyanna and Peter, they were ok. As I saw the empty bay I tried to convince them to escape inland, but they would not listen. I tried and tried but without success. That was frustrating. Then we reached one untouched rest house inland where we stayed for a while. People were freaked out there looking at us. We had a cup of coffee. Tim got his leg bandaged there but I didn’t last for long.

Tim said he wants to see whether Lamberts family is ok. I decided to go with him. It was not as hard decision to be made as it appears to me now. I guess that shock switched me into some kind of a survival mode – I didn’t feel any pain, encumbrance or weakness. After some ten minutes we went back. All the people were running from the village screaming and we were the only ones that were going back. There was a foreign woman with wet curly hair being carried by one Sinhalese, and her boyfriend following them and crying. His face was one of a complete grief. We had reached the Rock House and met Lamberts. There were a lot of people that also found their refuge there. The shock started going away, I felt tired and pain on my right leg and side of my chest.

After some minutes we had been alarmed that there is a new wave spotted. We run up to the temple that was a few meters above us. While I was climbing, a man behind me on a lower rock was carrying a young Sinhalese boy of around 10 years. I took this boy from him and went up. There I stood on the rock looking at Unawatuna. There was no more place to escape further so we had to wait and hope we will not be taken with water. I was tapping the kid. It cried into my shoulder and its heart was pounding like crazy so I tried to calm it down. It closed its eyes and just cried. I wanted to cry with that baby but couldn’t at that point.

The water didn’t reach the Rock House, however the second wave was stronger. It had smashed the buildings even more but most of the people already managed to escape. I guess the second wave reached the coast after around perhaps 45 minutes or one hour. That was enough time to escape for those who survived.

Lamberts family – Lucilla, Gaya and Namya were doing a great work helping us out, getting us food to eat, accompanying the injured ones – a lady from Boston that had lost her husband and an English guy named Stewart to name few. I think their help really made it possible for people not to collapse in trauma, as they spent time with them helping in every way they could. We had shared room with them and everything they had – any social barriers became reluctant, people got very closely together. We had had no information whatsoever of what had really happened. We had been told that Maldives and Thailand is gone. The picture of apocalypse got into my head. It was difficult to fight with it but working helped a lot in overcoming the trauma.

There was a body of a small child delivered to the Rock House to his mother. A man cried and was screaming “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry”. The mother took the child and felt it warm body. She started screaming that the boy might still be alive and I rushed to find a doctor. I found one but the baby was dead. At that point I couldn’t stand it anymore. I went to the temple up rocks with a piece of paper and a pen. I sat, looked at the blank piece and started crying. I couldn’t then and still cannot understand why all of these people died. They had no time whatsoever to say their last words or prepare for death. They drown after a struggle they couldn’t bare. They died so dramatically, and when we saw the bodies, the faces expressed so much fear, the hands that probably tried to grab something were opened with the fingers stretched. That was a cruel death. And I couldn’t understand how come we had been left alive.. I always thought that you can fight with death if you really try to. But it was wrong, I was wrong, because what had saved us was Tim’s decision not to leave the room combined with a lot of luck.

We had been close with Lambert’s family for the time we were in the Rock House Hotel. Timothy was getting weaker, we couldn’t eat much because of the things we did there. The pain in the side of my body started getting stronger and I found it difficult to carry any weight. My leg was also in pain. I really wanted not to do the things I did but every time I thought about it I knew that there are just too many people in trauma and If we wouldn’t help, who could help then? There was not enough water, food, the bodies started getting rotten and we had many injured people that had to face their pain. I wish I could say I’m a tough guy, but I was scared many times there. Every time I had to face myself, my own fear, not the situation itself. The reason of the struggle was that I wanted to survive and doing the things we did was just as on the other side of surviving as it can be possible. I guess I was quite unfortunate to go to Unawatuna with the bravest person I met in my life. I feel that fighting with me was the most difficult part of being there. I also know that Lamberts sensed that and wanted to talk with me about it, but I was not prepared for this kind of a talk yet because it would make me soft and I had to stay tough.

Tim had been said to stop moving but he found it difficult. It was not an option not to help. There were more than enough people in a deep trauma and somebody had to help them. Lucilla, Nayma and Gaya were so sweet, that they helped us with our injuries, made sure we’re taking the medicines we had. They even gave me trousers, t-shirts and flip-flops. I didn’t have time to say thanks to them but I know we’ll meet up later so I’ll do that.

There were few Brits (Jake, Kevin and few others) that started getting things organized so we worked together. Few doctors (on vacations) were doing great job of providing support and medical treatment to the injured. I’m not sure whether this people slept at all. Remarkable ones, they always had proper words and warmth to be given to people and there were perhaps more than 200 people gathered. They must have saved some lives. Stewart was dealing with his wounds and I think he got gangrene. I saw his picture in the newspaper few days ago and I’m really happy he made it through.

We run out of supplies and decided to try to get some from inland. We went together with Tim. That was the second run. When I saw how confused and angry the sea was, with all the debris around and dead bodies, I was on the edge of breaking, but Tim insisted on going. He moved towards the village. I looked at the sea and tried to put my thoughts together. I managed to calm myself and I joined Tim. We picked up some supplies and run back. We had been warned about the next wave so we hoped to reach the place before it hits. The way back was tough as there was no road but we made it through.

The hours were passing. Carrying the stuff last time made my side feel like the definition of pain. I tried to sleep but I couldn’t. I didn’t want to complain too much so I left that to myself. I saw that Tim was on the edge of breaking down physically but he just kept pushing on and on. Many people told him to stop but he would not listen to them. He joked a lot and made people smile. I was rather quiet and judged a lot in my life. That was a way for me to find more strength I needed. I told myself that I’m not going with the waves and I decided to stick to this idea pretty much. We also organized ourselves so if the wave hits we would be able to escape in a proper way.

Then we made the next run for supplies. We managed to convince some guys to go with us, I think we had around 8 people in total. When we went out from the Rock House, Sri Lankans started shouting at us that there is a tidal coming and it had just hit Hikkaduwa, which lies approximately 30 kilometers from Unawatuna. Most of the guys turned and went back, but there was one guy from UK – Neil that stayed with us. We ran again and picked up some supplies. We had then started moving towards the sea again, and all the people were running opposite direction shouting at us that there is a wave coming. I tried to stop Tim from going by saying that we should wait till the wave hits and then go. Tim didn’t listen and I didn’t like the fact that he had moved. This was a completely unnecessary risk and I was quite angry with it. But I knew that if we start arguing the precious time will run and Tim had already shown he’s not the one to be convinced if he thinks otherwise. This time we were risking too much if we could just stop and wait a bit. But Timothy insisted on going and so we did that walk, because I would have never forgiven myself to let him go and not be there if the wave would come to hit again. I guess these runs made me tougher. So we went together. I was carrying too much and felt that my side will fall apart from my body but I managed to deliver what we had. We also picked some crates of soft drinks from a destroyed shop. On one point, close to the hotel, Tim was lagging behind some meters. I checked if he’s ok and run to drop the supplies. Then I returned and picked his crate and we went back together.
As we came back again Lamberts family treated us. Some time later we carried the most injured people to the helicopter that came in a rescue mission. That was a long walk through the mud but we had managed not to fall with the patients. I remember Stewart waving to us when the helicopter started going. I was happy to see he’s being rescued because he really needed help. We made our move back and did some other job. The creams put on my side started helping and I felt bit better. But up till now, which is 10 days after the accident, my muscles on the side of my chest keep hurting. I guess it will last for some more time.

The situation got calmer. First car (Mitsubishi Pajero) delivered some medical stuff Tuesday morning. The bodies were gathered in the Rock House, they already started stinking and so we decided to bury them. We dug a big hole, and the bodies were taken to the grave. That was a very sad view. I didn’t have a contact with dead bodies before. Guys made photographs and the bodies were put into the grave. Later on that day we went to check if the bulldozer that came closed the grave. Unfortunately it didn’t so Neil and I closed it. That was hard, I really expected the people just to stand up and get out from that hole. But they didn’t so we covered them with a layer of black ground. The smell was already a nasty one. I wanted to cry but couldn’t. We went back with Neil and put our thoughts together again. This thing hit us hard.

On Tuesday afternoon Rock House got coaches’ transport to the British Consulate in Colombo. Tim was very weak that time, he was already vomiting. I’d stayed to make sure everybody is on the buses and came back with the last batch of people. When they left I went back to the Benny’s place, to look at our grave. I saw a beautiful sight – the drops of water were glimmering in the sun. Then I got to Colombo, and went home. Tried to sleep but couldn’t. The next 2 days I’ve spent writing ask for help as I was too weak to do anything else. I saw my photo printed on sheets of paper my colleagues used to find if I’m ok. This looked like necrology and was really freaky. After that I was taken to the hospital because I got pretty much dehydrated and exhausted. I was thinking about leaving Sri Lanka and going back to Poland, but after some thought process I decided to stay and help. I quit my job in Colombo and got involved into help programs. And I know I made the right decision.

I’m not a tough guy. I’m just another normal being on this planet. I found that I’m weak and rather soft in a case of a tragedy like this. But I guess that in order to be better a constant struggle with oneself is needed, if one wants to be better. And that was what I had decided there in the Rock House. Because we should share the luck we had been given with those unlucky ones. All of us are human beings that should be able to count on others. And everybody can help, even in the slightest way.

If I wouldn’t be struck with this tidal, I might had behaved differently. So I tried to pay off for what I’ve been given. A new life. And another start.

If you can, please help us help the people. We’re organizing some transports and trauma treatments but we’re afraid that in two weeks the world will forget of what have happened here, in Indonesia and other affected countries. If you’re willing to help, in any way, please send me an e-mail at And if you think this story can make people make effort, please pass it as well.

Thank you for reading, Michal Przedlacki, Poland-Sri Lanka.


Blogger Cowboy Book Dosh said...

Hello Michael,
My name is Wendy, and I am in Unawatuna for a few months writing articles and volunteering, I was researching what happened here in the tsunami and came across your blog. I am deeply moved and amazed by what happened to these people who I see daily. It is amazing sitting here in number 8, realising that you're talking about this place, Rock House and how it was a refuge for so many.
Thank you for your words. You never know who you are until the worst happens.

May 18, 2012 at 8:16 AM  

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