The guardian angel who saved orphans of the tsunami
My brother Paul doesn’t like waking up early. So I was the first to notice that the room was a centimetre deep in rippling water. It was murky, unlike the crystal-clear sea just a few yards from our hotel bungalow in southern Sri Lanka. Oh well, an unusually high tide, I thought, moving my bag to a chair.
Then I tried to wake my 15-year-old brother – who’s two years younger than me – and, as usual, he rolled over and went back to sleep. The time was 8 a.m. Mum and Dad, who were with our younger brother and sister in a bungalow even closer to the sea, hadn’t yet emerged. Ahead of us was a day of swimming and surfing and possibly a trip into the local town, Weligama.
After pulling on my swimming costume, I noticed the water in the room was receding under the door, as though someone had pulled out the plug of a giant bathtub.
There was a sudden eerie silence. No birdsong. No rhythmic ebb and flow of waves. Then the sound of screaming.
It came from an elderly Italian couple staying in a two-storey building behind ours. They were out on their balcony, pointing towards the sea.
At that instant, I heard a low rumble. Something was coming; something vast and powerful. As the ground began to vibrate, I screamed at Paul: ‘Move, move, move!’
A split second later, there was a thunderous roar. A wall of water slammed into our bungalow, crashing through the window and sending glass shards slicing through my arm.
Struggling to stay upright, we watched helplessly as the torrent tore the sink from the wall, ripped the door from its hinges and turned the furniture around us into matchsticks.
The water was now waist-deep and rising. Using all our strength, Paul and I somehow managed to get out of the door and scramble onto the roof.
Within seconds, the water had risen so high that it was ripping off roof tiles just below our bare feet. All around us, buildings were melting into the water and uprooted trees turning into lethal battering rams.
As quickly as it had started, the surge stopped. But the water remained, along with a floating carpet of smashed sun-loungers and other debris.
Something suddenly caught my eye in one of the trees fringing the beach. It was a small boy clinging to branches a few feet above the waterline.My 12-year-old brother Mattie! I began swimming towards him – a distance of about 50 yards – but as I did so the water began slithering out to sea again. I only just made it. Mattie had a deep gash on his forehead. ‘Where’s Mum and Dad?’ he cried, as I clung to the branches. For the first time, I noticed blood dripping from my arm.
It was Boxing Day 2004. The previous day, we’d celebrated Christmas in the Neptune Resort hotel’s restaurant. Afterwards, we’d played games of chess and Risk. When it was time for our little sister and brother to go to bed, Mum and Dad turned to smile at Paul and me. ‘Happy Christmas, boys,’ they said in unison. It had been a perfect day.
And now, in the space of ten minutes, our world had ended. The road behind the hotel had been swept away, most of the buildings had crumbled and the ground was covered in twisted wreckage and mud.
I didn’t know then that we’d just survived a tsunami; it seemed more like an atomic explosion. Whatever it was, I knew then that we were facing the fight of our lives to survive.
First, we needed to find our parents and nine-year-old sister Rosie…
In one sense, our family was quite ordinary. Dad, Kevin, ran a car dealership, and my mum, Sandra, had been one of his assistants. Then the children started coming, and they bought a house in Purley, South London.
First there was Marie, born in 1983, followed by Joanne in 1985; then me two years later, Paul in 1989, Mattie in 1992.
One day, when I was 13, they decided on an adventure: they put the house on the market and whisked the children – minus the two eldest, who had boyfriends and jobs – to India.
There, we settled in a rented house on the beach in Goa. For the next four years, the sea was the first thing I heard in the morning and the last thing I heard at night.
‘It is powerful, kids: respect it,’ Mum warned us. ‘Mother Nature is the one thing that can change in an instant and flip your world around.’
At the start of 2004, we flew back to the UK. This time, we planned to stay put.
But before settling down again, we needed to make one final trip back to India to wind up our lives there. And while we were in that part of the world, Dad thought it would be fun to visit Sri Lanka.
‘Where did Mum and Dad go?’ I asked Mattie, as I helped him climb down from the tree.
‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘They got Rosie and me out of the room and lifted me into the tree.’ I stifled my fears. Leaving Mattie with an elderly couple, my brother Paul and I went off to look for our parents.
Their bungalow was a wreck. The only trace of them was one traveller’s cheque and Dad’s waterlogged phone.
Collecting Mattie, we headed inland along a buckled and twisted railway track in search of help. It wasn’t long before we encountered the first body, partially submerged in water. Then more and more of them.
I’ve wondered since how we managed to stay cool-headed when most of the adults we met had gone to pieces. I think it was because of our travels in India, where we’d regularly been exposed to extreme human suffering.
We followed the crowds into a mosque, which stank of fear and sweat. People were lying slumped and bleeding on the floor, but there was no sign of our parents.
Back we walked, past all the dead bodies, past the boats wedged in trees, past the up-ended cars, to the wrecked hotel. The water had started to dry up, revealing yet more horrors. On the beach, a young couple ran over to ask if we had a sister. My heart started racing.
A little girl was in the surf hostel over there, they said. I ran inside and found Rosie coming down some stairs. She threw herself into my arms and wept.
I’ve never felt so emotionally overwhelmed. Down the length of Rosie’s arm was a deep gash that had left the muscle exposed. She said it didn’t hurt, but she was clearly in shock.
I put her on my back and the four of us headed back to the mosque. Still no trace of our parents.
In one room, we came across an elderly German lady we knew from the hotel. She did one of the most selfish things I’ve ever seen: she calmly ate a Toblerone in front of four hungry children who’d had nothing to eat all day.
It was around 5 p.m., nine hours after the wave had hit. I headed for the town’s hospital. Outside it, there was an area the size of several football pitches, full of bundles of material piled in haphazard rows. As I came closer, I realised they were all bodies.
After another fruitless search, I returned to find Paul outside the mosque. A white man in a dirty T-shirt and shorts approached.
‘Lads, I’m so sorry, but it looks like they’ve found your dad,’ he said. ‘He was in the ice factory next to the hotel.’ We broke down sobbing. I knew in my heart it was true, but I didn’t want to see the body. It would have removed all hope – and the younger ones, particularly, needed hope to keep going. Then, as Paul and I turned to go back into the mosque to collect the others, we saw our mother at the window of a bus. Simultaneously, we screamed ‘Mum!’ Adrenaline and relief surged through me as I ran after the bus, yelling at the driver to stop.
‘Our mum’s on here,’ we told him breathlessly.
He opened the door and we ran down the aisle, but Mum was nowhere to be seen. We couldn’t understand it. We’d seen her clearly, yet no one on the bus looked remotely like her. Then we sat at the roadside and wept.
That night, we slept on an exposed platform in a partially built house. All we had to eat was dry crackers. I lay awake all night, listening for the rumble of the next giant wave.
The owner of the hotel offered us a lift the following day in the back of a rickety van heading for the capital, Colombo. I longed to continue my search, but I knew Mum would want me to get the younger ones to safety.
The journey took two days. By the time we arrived, Rosie’s arm was infected, so our first stop was at a doctor’s house – where she yelled as he cleaned out grit and dirt from the wound.
From there, we were driven to a hotel that was acting as a muster point for foreign nationals. After that, everything happened quite fast: an official took us to the ambassador’s residence, where we were given a meal and some clothes.
There was still hope that our parents might be found alive, so a man from the embassy left for the coast to look for them. He hadn’t yet returned when we were flown back to the UK, where we had an emotional reunion with our sisters, Marie and Jo.
Marie – then 22 – had put her wedding and her job as a pharmaceuticals buyer on hold.
As time dragged on, I had an increasing sense that someone was helping us. Who was paying for our new bunk-beds, clothes and food – not to mention the new extension on Marie’s tiny house? When I asked, she’d only say that ‘friends’ were contributing.
One day, three months after our return, she called us together.
Mum and Dad had been found dead, she said. The body in the ice factory had been Dad’s, and Mum had been found nearby. No one could explain why their deaths had taken so long to be confirmed. Everyone cried. The young ones were inconsolable. My own grief was mixed with guilt; I was haunted by the idea that Mum might have been trapped and injured. I felt I’d abandoned her.
Somehow, I managed to deliver the eulogy at my parents’ funeral without breaking down, but afterwards I got drunk. By then I was nearly 18, so I decided to go my own way while Marie made arrangements to adopt the others.
Eventually, I had the idea of setting up a company with Paul to make flip-flop sandals – which we’d practically lived in on our travels.
We made many mistakes, but after we found an investor, the business mushroomed: our Gandys flip-flops were on sale in shops from Topman to Liberty and House of Fraser. By 2013, we were able to set up a charity – Orphans For Orphans – with the aim of building an orphanage in Sri Lanka.
Then something strange happened: Paul and I were summoned to meet the chief executive of a London architectural firm. Why did he want to meet us, we wondered.
A week later, we found ourselves in a glass and steel building in the City. The CEO was about 50 and was called Mike. ‘You’re probably wondering why you’re here,’ he began.
Nearly nine years earlier, he said, he’d seen the news about the tsunami on TV and wanted to do something. By chance, days later, he received a fax saying: ‘Four English kids, just arrived back, need your help.’ It was from a friend of my sister, who’d once worked for him.
So Mike – who prefers not to be identified – started secretly giving Marie money for clothes, for her new extension, for the lawyer required for the adoption process.
‘I didn’t want to meet you when you were growing up,’ he explained, ‘because I didn’t want to intrude. And I’ve not asked to meet you now because I want thanks or glory.’
But he’d often wondered what happened to us. ‘I called you the Tsunami Kids. I’d say to my wife: ‘I wonder what the Tsunami Kids are doing?’
So we told Mike that, in spite of everything, the Tsunami Kids were fine. And we are: Mattie’s now a talented designer and Rosie recently completed her A-levels.
As for Paul and me, we were invited to Buckingham Palace a few months ago for the launch of a new Commonwealth initiative. There, we met Prince William.
He took one look at our footwear – flip-flops, naturally – and burst out laughing. The conversation grew more serious as we talked about our lives.
That’s when the Prince reminded us he’d lost his own mum when he was 15. ‘But you have to try and find the silver lining,’ he told us.
© Daily Mail, London