Black Sunday on beach

Four youth die as killer waves strike twice on Mt. Lavinia beach
By Dhananjani Silva

Stories about popular beaches around the island turning into death traps abound. In June last year, the Sunday Times highlighted a tragedy that claimed the lives of three students at the famous bathing spot at Preethipura in Hendala.
Sajeewani: She saw it happen

Last Sunday, on the Mount Lavinia beach, four lives were lost in two separate incidents as fun-filled weekend outings ended in tragedy. In the first incident, around 11 a.m., a 20-year-old Ramar Balakrishnan from Kelabokka died while three of his friends escaped death when a high wave lashed the beach.

Eight hours later, a bigger tragedy took place on the same beach. A group of ten youths were swept away by a killer wave. Eight of them managed to return to the shore. Two bodies were later recovered while one of the injured died on admission to hospital. The dead were identified as Prem Mahel from Pannipitiya, Chamal Deshapriya from Maharagama and Tharindu Dushmantha from Nugegoda – all aged 24.

Recalling the horror, 20-year-old Sara Rizvan, who joined the group with her husband, said they had got there around 4 p.m. and stayed till about 7 p.m.

“We went to the beach across a children’s play area. I went into the water to paddle a bit, while some of the others were playing in the water. We were nowhere near the red flags and the water was only up to my knee. Then all of a sudden, a strong wave overwhelmed us and I could feel as if I was going down into a crack in the sea. That’s all I remember,” said Sara, who wasrecovering at the Kalubowila Hospital.

Another survivor, 19-year-old Dulani Harsha, said she was at the beach with her brother, some of his friends, an aunt and her child. “A lot of people, including children, were bathing in the sea. While we were in the water, the water swept us away and I lost consciousness,” she said.

Eyewitness W.P. Sajeewani, who runs a small kiosk by the beach selling sweets and other goodies, said she saw the people struggling to get out of the water and clinging to each other. “I realised what was happening and rushed to call for help. By the time I came back with a few others, some of them had been dragged further into the sea by the waves,” she said.

Sajeewani and others who live along the beach said that usually they warned visitors against bathing when the sea was rough, but some youth would not listen to their advice. “Some even bathe in areas marked with red flags. Some even try to remove the red flags. Sometimes they drink and get into the water. Then there are others who ask us if it is safe to bathe or not before getting into the water,” one beach resident said.

According to police, there have been many deaths on this beach. They attribute the tragedies to public negligence.

“The red flags alert the public about the danger, but some do not heed the warning,” a police officer said. A police patrol is deployed on holidays and weekends from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. on the beach, but it seems the onus is on the public to be extra careful.
Do’s and don’ts when sea-bathing

Public vigilance and co-operation is mandatory to prevent incidents of drowning which have been on the rise of late, stress Sri Lanka Life Saving Association officials. Their advice to those who go

  • Do not get in to the water if you have consumed alcohol.
  • Look out for the flags.
  • If there are only red flags, do not bathe as they indicate danger.
  • Red and yellow flags are put in areas where lifesavers are deployed. Sea-bathing within the red and yellow flags is relatively safe. But check with the lifesavers on duty before getting into the sea as they are aware of the prevailing conditions.
  • Sea-bathing during off season, the monsoon period, is dangerous.
  • Those who can’t swim should not go sea-bathing.
  • Pay heed to warning signs put up by police and others.


Lifesavers: Meagre resources, mighty task

Sri Lanka Lifesaving Association Secretary H.H. Chulasiri, who is also an Assistant Superintendent of Police says they deploy life savers in popular beaches such as Wattala Preethipura, Wellawatte, Mount Lavinia, Galle, Matara, Negombo and Puttalam.

Many deaths occur because the victims are under the influence of alcohol, he said. “Some people get into the water without understanding the nature of the sea. The seabed undergoes changes due to climate conditions and such changes can cause trouble for people,” ASP Chulasiri said.

Begun in 1947, Sri Lanka Lifesaving Association is a voluntary body with several small lifesaving clubs affiliated to it. Its Assistant Secretary Gamini Weerasundara said the group was registered with the Sports Ministry and with the Social Services Ministry.

The volunteers or members receive bronze medals after doing the qualifying theory and practical exam, after which they are required to serve the association for one year.

Most members seek jobs abroad upon obtaining the bronze medals and this is one of the many difficulties that the association is faced with.

Their lifesaving teams are deployed in popular bathing spots on Sundays from 8 a.m. to about 5 p.m. as this is a day when most people frequent the beaches.

The lifesavers identify areas with holes in the sea bed (this is constantly changing) and where currents are strong and mark the safe areas with red and yellow flags.Their duty does not end there. They keep watch to assist people in danger.

“We provide our services with limited resources unlike in some foreign countries where lifesavers are equipped with rescue boats, water skiing jets, and even helicopters for rescue operations. Since the members are volunteers, they can be deployed only on holidays,” Mr. Weerasundera added.

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