How I survived the tsunami

By Jayanka De Silva

It was my grandfather’s fourth year remembrance held at our family home in Galle. My father left the day before to attend to some errands. We left on the 26th . It was just like any other day. I got up at six. My mother kept yelling that we would be late. So my brother, mother and I left home only having had our morning tea.

There wasn’t much traffic as it was a poya day. With my brother’s speedy precision driving we were making up lost time fast. My brother was a good driver. I on the other hand had not driven in nearly two years.

We stopped for breakfast at 8.30 at our normal breakfast shop -authentic Southern Sri Lankan meals. Whenever we went to Galle we would always eat breakfast here. It was kind of a tradition. The menu has not changed as long as I could remember. Red rice, coconut sambol, and jaadi (dried fish) 
I like going to Galle but I wouldn’t want to live there. I am so used to the city that I can’t live anywhere else. Galle was where I took my first steps. It was a party and I was sitting on a beach table with an umbrella on top. I was on my own and had suddenly decided to stand up. I stood up all by myself holding on to the umbrella pole. My mother saw it and took a photo. I still have it today. Whenever I look at it, I find it ironic that today I am afraid of heights, when my first steps were three feet above the ground.
Father called and asked where we were. Less than 45 minutes away! My mother and brother started discussing whether my father should retire. He was getting old. All three of them worked in banks.
I was thinking about starting my second term at campus. The last one was not as eventful as I hoped it would be. I was expecting great things. I was always intellectually sound but I was hoping that campus would improve my social life. It hasn’t yet happened.

A song was playing on the radio -the only one I can remember from that day, although the radio was on the whole time. “What if God was one of us” - I thought the words of the song were quite interesting. I remember the line “If God had a name what it would be and would you call it to his face.” It seemed like a really good question.

As the song was playing we were driving over a bridge. I noticed that two small sailboats were lining up along the side of the bridge. The waves were almost forcing them on to the bridge. Mother said it was probably high seas. I had never seen anything like it. Must be a bad day to go fishing, I thought.  As soon as we crossed the bridge the private bus in front of us came to a screeching halt. My brother manoeuvred the car and overtook it, closely followed by another car, a Mitsubishi Lancer.

There was no obstruction on the road for the bus to stop and there was no regular bus halt in that area. My brother stopped the car and so did the Lancer. A number of other vehicles piled up behind the bus honking loudly. It appeared as the driver was letting people out of the bus to the middle of the road. Then a man came running from across the street yelling loudly. We were parked opposite a school. I wondered whether something bad had happened to the kids there but then I remembered it was a holiday so there was no school. I saw my brother and mother jumping out of the car and running. My mother forgot to close the door. I still didn’t know what was going on. I kept looking behind me at the school through the rear window to see what the commotion was all about.

And then I saw it. The gates of the school went flying in the air, the front walls came crashing down instantly and a huge wave of water came rushing towards me. It was time to leave. Water was coming in fast through the open front door. It was up to my knees. I picked up my wallet which was lying on the back of the seat with my right hand and put my phone in my pocket. It never occurred to me that I should put the wallet inside my pocket also.

The car was now being pushed along at a brisk pace. I couldn’t see very clearly what was going on outside but I knew that there was a lot of water everywhere and the car was nearly submerged. I tried to open my door but the water was pressing on all sides of the car and I couldn’t move it, the pressure was too great. I noticed that the passenger side door was still open. I scrambled on to the front and crouched on the seat. The car was picking up speed I put one foot on the door and pushed myself through the water and onto the windscreen with my free hand. The wallet was still in my right hand.

I sat down on the windscreen barely hanging on with the car moving and water coming in from all sides. Everything was underwater. All the vehicles that had parked behind us were gone. Except for the bus. It  had tipped over and was slowly being pushed inland. The water was trying to push me off as well. I wondered whether I should let go of my wallet and grab hold with both hands. I didn’t. My library cards ID’s were all in there and I didn’t want to go through the whole trouble of getting them back.

Time seemed to stand still. I noticed that it was very quiet, even with all the destruction. I couldn’t hear a thing except for the sound of water gushing everywhere. If I didn’t know any better I would have guessed I was near a waterfall.

Wave after wave of water came crashing down on me. It was like being hit by a baseball bat over and over. The bus was being slowly dragged away. The car was jerked around and it was only matter of time before it too would flip. It was clear that I had to let go of the car.  I decided I was not going to die being crushed by my own car. I would prefer a watery grave. I let go and allowed the water to whisk me away.
Some say that the most painful way to die is drowning. I would have to agree. It’s like someone is holding you down with a pillow on your face and the more you struggle, the harder it gets to breathe. I didn’t try to fight it, I knew I couldn’t swim, never have. Certainly not with this much of a current. I can’t even open my eyes underwater. I wanted to see whether my life would flash before me, like some say it does.

When you feel so much force bearing down on you all the while rocketing you on, God knows you know that there’s no point in struggling. I did not try to breathe. I was being slammed onto what seemed like trees and pylons. They were also along for the ride. I felt one tree, probably a small one, being uprooted by  me crashing into it. My only hope was that one of these collisions would knock me out.

It was getting really hard, the suffocation and bruises were taking their toll. The mud and debris were literally choking the life out of me. I tried to focus my attention elsewhere. I am good at diverting my mind regardless of the circumstances - something which my teachers constantly complained about.

I thought about my life, I considered myself a decent guy. I didn’t do much wrong, although I could have done better. I wondered whether I would be remembered outside of home. A thought crossed my mind of what my next life would be like.  I just wanted to be happy.

I had a feeling that I was starting to float and even surface. I wondered whether I was dead. I could still feel the waves pushing me forward. But it was getting easier to breathe. I opened my eyes. I saw a white pillar in the distance. I was heading straight for it. The waves pushed me to the right. I was going to miss it. I let out my left hand. It felt like my hand being ripped out of its socket. I stopped. The waves were trying to push me away, but my hand seemed to have a mind of its own. Holding on with fingertips, I managed to wrap myself around the pillar. The waves slowly receded.

The pillar was actually a line of pillars -the supporting beams of a three-storied rest house. It was the only building left standing in the area. A boy was holding onto his little sister on the pillar directly in front of me. The little girl looked at me like she had seen a ghost. It’s been nearly four years. And this is the first time that I have retold the whole story.

Some facts:

My mother and brother both survived. They got out of the car and managed to climb a tree before the big waves hit. The bus driver was the first to notice the danger. He directed everybody off the bus and warned the other vehicles to do the same. He is the real hero of this story.

There was a couple and a baby in the Lancer. They all survived. In the van parked in front of me, two people died. The van tipped over on its side blocking the door. By the time I got to the roof the van was already underwater.

A couple holding their six-month-old baby climbed a wall as the water came in. They were in the garden. The wall crashed and the mother lost hold of the baby.

The little girl who held onto the pillar lost her sister. Her body was recovered a few feet from where I eventually ended up. Her grandfather saw the girl being swept away and jumped from the balcony to save her. His body was never found.

I never let go of my wallet. It was in my right hand the whole time. I managed to lift myself up onto the roof of a moving car with one hand.  But I still can’t bench press more than 15 kilograms. When it came to deciding whether to let go of the wallet and grab hold with both hands I chose to hold onto the wallet and let go of the car.

When we eventually found the battered remains of the car, the only thing missing was the passenger side door. A body was found lying at the foot of the car. I only saw one pillar. I had apparently manoeuvred myself between two pillars in front, narrowly missing the little girl and her brother. I cannot remember any of it. The pillar was the final obstacle in the area. Three bodies were found in the swamp directly beyond it.

The rest house was the only building left standing in the whole area. Survivors from nearby villages took refuge there till help arrived. The survivors treated it like a shrine, lighting lamps and incense and thanking the Gods for its strength. At one time there were nearly fifty people standing on the rooftop. Some people had to wade through mud and debris from miles out to get there.

I only had to walk up the stairs.The school was completely destroyed. It isolated my car from the waves long enough to make my escape meanwhile obstructing my view of the carnage around me, which kept me calm.

I did not save any lives, not even my own. I grabbed a half drowned cat and helped a young girl up the stairs. That was the most that I accomplished.

How did I survive?

My mother forgot to close the car door.

-- This article appears only in the web edition. --

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