A survivor who was holidaying at Yala recounts his ordeal on that fateful Sunday
Just fifteen minutes
By Hiranthi Fernando
It was indeed a traumatic experience for Lalith Liyanage when the destructive tsunami hit Yala last Sunday. However, he is thankful that he and his party of 15, including seven small children managed to survive and return home safely.

Being a keen wildlife enthusiast, Lalith together with his wife and two children and three sets of family friends, set off for Yala on Christmas Day. They travelled in a mini-bus and a Pajero. Having checked in at the Brown's Safari Beach Motel around 6 p.m., they immediately indulged in a relaxing sea bath in the stretch of sea fronting the hotel. He said they saw no change in the appearance of the sea.

The next morning too, they went to the beach at 7. While two of the party enjoyed a sea bath the rest walked along the beach, with the children collecting seashells. After breakfast the party decided to go on a safari in Yala Park. Having ordered their lunch, they packed themselves into their Pajero and a hired Land Rover, leaving the bus at the hotel. "At first I thought of leaving my wife and six-month-old baby at the hotel. However, she also decided to join us on the safari. It was exactly 9.05 in the morning when we left the hotel,” Lalith recalled. "We did not notice any difference in the sea or the weather. It was a perfectly ordinary morning.”

Entering the park, they had driven about five kilometres along the main road, when a jeep in front of them alerted them that there were elephants at Buttuwapitiya. Immediately they started driving towards Buttuwa to see the elephants. "A short while later, we met a bus and a van driving furiously from the direction of Buttuwa, with lights flashing. They told us to turn back,” Lalith said.

"We thought elephants were charging and we turned the vehicles round and went back towards the park entrance," he continued. "We then met more vehicles rushing back from the entrance. The drivers told us we could not go that way. The sea is coming in they told us. So once again we turned back and went inside the park. The driver took the vehicle off the road. We drove through bad stretches of jungle track and drove up to a area, which was fairly high. We had to cut through the jungle to reach this place. Fortunately a good tracker was with us. It was he who really saved us. We were still unaware of what had happened. We tried making telephone calls but the mobile phones did not work. It was when we put the radio on and heard the news broadcasts that we fully understood the gravity of the situation we were in.”

Lalith and his party together with about eight other vehicles remained in the jungle for two to three hours. "By then the children and the mothers were crying in fear. At that point, for the first time in my life, I felt the fear of death," Lalith said. "I realized that we were only 1 ½ kilometres from the sea. I thought we would all perish.” After some hours, they started making their way to safety, through higher ground. They drove through the jungle although some of the vehicles did not have four-wheel drive. "We had to, push, tow and even carry some of the vehicles over the worst patches," Lalith said. "We put stones and branches over deep holes and somehow managed to go through to Heenwewa and on to Katagamuwa. It was 2.30 in the afternoon when we reached Katagamuwa. By then the children were tired and hungry.” At Katagamuwa, one of the telephones worked. They were able to find out from a friend that it was now safe to get out of the jungle. They had some friends at Katagamuwa and had lunch there before going on.

Finally getting out of the park, they tried to return to the Brown's hotel, where they had left all their baggage, including the children's milk bottles. However, when they came to the culvert before Yala Safari Lodge they found the road impassable. The culvert was knee deep in water. They could only go towards the Yala Safari Lodge. There too the water was knee high. The scene that met their eyes was of total destruction. The road had a huge crater.

The Yala Safari Lodge was completely demolished by the force of the waves. Only the foundation could be seen apart from a section of a small building that peeped through the trees. "I then noticed that the sea was higher than it was when we set off on safari," Lalith said. "I saw about fifteen damaged cars and double cabs, washed away by the water, lying around the place. Some were wedged in the trees. There were some bodies lying on the road. By then rescuers were searching for survivors and bodies."

So Lalith Liyanage and his party returned home without their baggage or the mini-bus they had travelled in. Returning to Yala three days later in an attempt to recover the bus, they found it washed to where the Yala Safari Lodge had once stood. Reaching the site of Brown's Safari Beach Motel, Lalith found only the foundation left. The sea had come up to where the bedrooms had been.

"It is unbelievable that we were fortunate enough to escape the horrific fate met by many people in the area,” Lalith said looking back on his terrifying experience. "My head is still in a whirl. The tsunami is said to have struck Brown's Safari at around 9.20 a.m. If we had delayed our departure to the park by just fifteen minutes, we would have been engulfed in the swell of the waves.”

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