The Sunday TimesNews/Comment

28th July 1996



Colombo unsafe - Western missions

By Tara Valentene

Western tourists planning a trip to Sri Lanka have been warned against staying in Colombo following Wednesday's bomb blast.

British, French and German embassies have advised the ever-decreasing number of travellers from their respective countries to try to avoid spending time in the capital.

The travel advisories continually update their information service and have no plans to suggest that visitors should cancel their trip to the country altogether.

Tourism was once a thriving industry in Sri Lanka but the ongoing conflict between the government and the LTTE has hit hard and the downward trend is set to continue.

Ceylon Tourist Board figures show that the number of tourists has dropped more than 30 per cent compared to last year and hoteliers in Colombo city are finding it difficult to encourage people to stay any longer than necessary.

The British High Commission confirmed that no tourists were injured in the Dehiwala train station bombing and said their travel advice remains unchanged. They are still encouraging visitors to get out of the city and visit the historic cities, hill country and beach resorts instead.

A spokesman said: "We are warning British tourists that further incidents may occur and advising that they should minimise the time they spend in Colombo and that is the same advice we have been offering since January's Central Bank bombing."

The French and German embassies are warning visitors to be cautious in Colombo and advise against spending much time in the heart of the city and the commercial district.

Train hero Trevor regrets commuter conduct

Trevor Burke's army training and presence of mind saved commuters from a third bomb blast in the ill-fated Aluthgama train last Wednesday. Burke's story of 764's lethal baggage:
By Shyamal Collure

"The Aluthgama-bound power-set train '764' was slowly pulling out of the Dehiwela Railway Station after the detection of the first bomb. Still on the platform, I heard talk of another bomb on the train. Throwing myself quickly, I attempted to cling to the moving train to board the sixth compartment where the said cry came from. Two people on the foot-board stood in the way. I tried to push them aside when two deafening bangs occurred one after another. I was thrown on the platform while pieces of flesh of the two on the foot-board fell on me.

"There wasn't time to waste, thinking. In a state of shock and confusion, the frightened commuters, the lucky lot, got off quickly. Amidst fire-balls, smoke and screams raised in pain and horror, I saw a large number of bodies splayed all over that compartment", so said Trevor Harris Dennemburke (25) narrating his horrible experience to 'The Sunday Times'.

Trevor, a soldier, attached to the Rehabilitation Division of the Sri Lanka Army Headquarters was seated on a long wooden bench at the Dehiwela Police Station having gone there to make a statement on the blast. On that fateful day he had been travelling along with friends in the seventh compartment of the ill-fated train when the bomb-scare spread at Dehiwela.

"I felt it was the time that my services as a soldier were most needed. Having alighted quickly, I headed for the unattended object found in the first compartment. There lay a brown brief-case placed on the hood-rack on the sea-side. While some people travelled hitherto in the front carriages were reaching the rear part of the train, I cautiously carried the bag down," he recollected.

It was very heavy - too heavy for a brief-case of that size, said Trevor who had served the Army for six years. His instincts told him it was nothing but a bomb, though no connecting wires were visible. He believes it weighed around 25 to 30 kgs.

At the material time, Trevor didn't know whether the bag carried a time or pressure bomb. So his military training directed him to handled it extra-carefully - "like how one touches a baby" - in his words, lest it should explode if it turned out to be the latter.

Holding it close to his chest he carried it carefully all the time shouting to all around to run for safety.

"I got off, walked a little way down the platform and placed the brief-case on a patch of grass near a lamp post. People around strongly protested scolding me for keeping the bomb there. Naturally, they feared for their lives, but they could easily run away from the scene. Finally, I had to pull my wallet out and reveal my identity," he said.

The relieved commuters insisted that the train proceed, little knowing that two more bombs were awaiting them. "The engine driver had no alternative but to pay heed to the passengers. Perhaps he wanted to take the train and the people inside it away from the danger that everybody thought was lying on the platform. The episode at the station lasted 15 to 20 minutes. In the meantime station authorities contacted the Army Bomb Disposal Squad to get it defused", Trevor continued.

Within seconds, mishap befell the terrorised commuters reducing some of them to pieces of bones and flesh and two compartments to rubble.

Human vultures strike again

By M. Ismeth

Vultures laid their dirty hands on the bodies of those who died in the Dehiwala bomb blast to take away their jewelry and valuables, Police said.

This sordid behaviour is seen every time an incident like this occurs. Even when the Central Bank was attacked in January this year many of the dead or injured were relieved of their valuables.

The injured at the hospital told us how they lost their jewellery while being put into ambulances. Relatives said their lost once had jewellery on them and now its missing.

They said it was a crying shame on the country and more so on the people. Whoever is caught stealing valuables of an injured or a dead person in an accident should be severely punished. If its in the gulf, their hands would be chopped off, but here there would be a hue and cry if the authorities did that. But look at the disgrace and vulgar attitude of these miserable fellow who commit such an inhuman act, they said.

A good many of those who died in the Dehiwela bomb blast and those were seriously injured lost their valuables. Now, why did the Police let all and sundry to lay their hands on those who died or were injured. Let each Police station form a volunteer force that could be called upon in an emergency to help and issue them a badge for identification, some suggested.

We speak of culture and dignity but, where has all this gone. It's a crying shame, to say that whenever anyone dies or gets injured in a bomb blast or accident, the victim loses his or her valuables. Can we put this in paper for the world to read. When are we going to learn to respect the dead and the injured, they asked.

What's more, the wife of the late brigadier, Ananda Hamangoda when she went home after her husband's funeral was over, found that someone had pilfered Rs. 8200 from her purse.

Are we Sri Lankans or are we still living in the jungles? they commented.

When terror reigned

Survivors recount Nightmare Wednesday
By Kshalini Nonis and Shelani de Silva

It's 5 pm Wednesday. The Aluthgama-bound train slowly leaves the Fort Railway Station, half full. By 5.30 pm. a hoard of passengers at the Kompannavidiya Railway Station wait for the train. Fifteen minutes later the train is jam-packed with passengers all heading home after a hard day's work.

Nearing the Dehiwela Station a few passengers get out of the train due to a bomb scare. Since this is not the first time a train has stopped for such checks most of them take it very lightly and return to the doomed compartment.

Passengers already delayed by the sudden stop wait patiently watching the railway guard wave the green flag. Suddenly a loud bang and hundreds of bodies are strewn across the platform.

The bomb blast that claimed more than 70 lives and left more than 500 injured was yet another nightmare many lived through after the January 31 Central Bank bomb blast.

Almost all victims were those returning home after office. When 'The Sunday Times' visited some of the injured at the Colombo National Hospital most of them were able to recall the horrifying experience they went through.

Hazel Perera and her husband, both employed at Fort, left for the station after office. But once they came to the station her husband decided to go and inspect their newly purchased land at Jaela. Since Hazel was in a hurry to go home she decided not to accompany her husband. Planning to get into the Samudra Devi train Hazel had hurried to the platform only to see the tail of the train. Left with no choice, she managed to get into the Aluthgama train.

Although the train was chock-full Hazel had noticed the train stopping at Dehiwela Station, and since it was delaying she had been looking at the railway guard wishing he would give the signal for the train to move. But even before the guard could raise the flag a loud bang had knocked Hazel to the ground.

"I was standing all along, once the train stopped I was waiting for it to move on. But within seconds came a loud bang. As it was so packed I was standing but I felt a kind of heat burning me. When I tried to open my eyes only blood was pouring down my face. I was conscious but just could not open my eyes. The only thing I remember was that I lay between pieces of flesh," she said.

Fortunately for Hazel a young boy who had also been on the train had come to her rescue. He had helped her out of the train, and stayed with her until she was brought to the hospital.

"I really don't know how he saw me, but for me he was more than a god. As I was conscious he helped me to walk. Even when I was brought to the Kalubowila hospital he used his handkerchief to stop my bleeding. He removed my jewellery and other valuables even my shoes were carried by him and later given to my family. He is supposed to be employed at DFCC. I don't know how I would be able to repay him for all that he did," she said not being able to control her tears.

Hazel's husband who is keeping vigil at her bedside lashed out at the railway officials, for the callous manner they handled the entire incident. "The fault is entirely theirs. Who would dream of proceeding after a bomb scare. No thorough check was carried out. Most of the passengers were not aware that the train was stopped because of a bomb threat. If they acted more responsibly, we would not have had to go through this trauma," he said.

Twenty-five-year-old Nishani Fernando and her boyfriend too were among the hundred of passengers who were waiting at the Kompannavidiya station to get into the doomed train. They had got into the third compartment and were going to Bentota.

"Both of us were standing near the door and the moment the bomb went off my boyfriend just grabbed me and fell down. Within moments a lot of bodies were on me. Luckily for me my boyfriend was slightly injured so he managed to drag me out and put me into a vehicle," she said.

In Malkanthi Perera's case it was very unfortunate because having travelled in the second bogey she had moved on to the sixth after the bomb scare, practically walking on to the compartment where the bomb was placed.

"I really panicked after the scare, once they asked us to get into the train I quickly got into the next one. It was equally crowded but I thought it was safe."

However fortunately for her, she had only received an eye injury and some cuts. "I was able to get out of the train. That too stepping on pieces of flesh. Only when I came out did I remember seeing my younger brother getting into the train from Fort. I was so upset. I began to walk to the tail-end of the train trying to find him. Like a godsend he came running towards me with barely a scratch. We embraced each other and started crying," she said.

After two days of duty at the Army Camp at Slave Island, Corporal M. A. Sepala with all his clothes and sweetmeats for his two young children was heading home. Getting in from the Kompannavidya Station he had managed to creep in with his big bag. Leaving it on the luggage carrier, Sepala had stood right underneath the bomb.

Having received several burn injuries he blamed the railway authorities for not taking prompt action. "The entire fault lies with them. They say that they carried out a thorough check but if so how come the people in our compartment did not even know such a thing. If I only knew that there had been such a thing, I would have made them to check the entire train. Having got this kind of training I know the consequences," said Sepala.

Sepala said that since the parcel containing the bomb was placed at a higher level the pressure was very much less. "By chance if it was on the ground the damage would have been immense," he pointed out.

Shaun Ramanayake from Angulana who is employed at Japan Airlines was planning to leave to the UK for a holiday on July 25. However his plans were shattered when he got into the ill-fated train from Kollupitiya.

"When we reached Dehiwela we were told that there was a bomb scare and everyone was asked to get off the train. After searching it for a little while we were told that there was no problem and to get into the train again. Almost immediately as the train pulled out of the Dehiwela Railway station we heard a terrific blast and realized that a bomb had exploded.

"I fell and my eyes closed. Thereafter I shouted for someone to pull me out of the train and I sat and waited in the railway station. Fortunately, one of my friends saw me and he took me through the beach until we found a van that took me to hospital. I was bathed in blood but I was conscious and very much aware of what was going on," he said.

Shaun added that after his wounds were dressed at the Kalubowila hospital he was taken to the Colombo National Hospital. "Fortunately, I gave my wallet to my friend and I also told a friend of mine from MTV who had come to the hospital to inform my family. They had panicked and even visited the mortuary."

Shaun had injuries in the neck and hand and also said that there was some dust in his eye that had to be taken out. "I really believe that it was God's protection that saved me especially since I was in one of the compartments that the explosion occurred and most of the people who were in this compartment lost their lives."

Siromi Perera (25) who is employed at D. B. Jayasinghe's in Wellawatte suffered severe injuries from the blast. Her mother said that when they heard about the bomb they had started looking for her at all the hospitals as they knew Siromi would take this particular train when returning home from work. Siromi had undergone surgery and was in immense pain when we visited her.

Inthikab Amit who works at the Taj Samudra Hotel had also undergone surgery when we visited him. According to his relatives Imthikab travels to work daily on this train. On Wednesday he had been going to his sister's house in Ratmalana when the blast occurred.

His relatives in panic had visited all the hospitals while one relative had even visited the mortuaries. Eventually, they had come to the Colombo National Hospital where Inthikab had been taken.

I. D. Alahakoon, an employee of the Sri Lanka Institute of Cooperative Management was returning home to Rawatawatte when the blast occurred.

Recalling what happened on Wednesday, Ms. Alahakoon said that she boarded the train at Maradana, and upon reaching Dehiwela it had stopped for a little while. However, they were not told what the reason was for this delay.

"As the train started pulling out of the Dehiwela Railway station we heard a loud explosion and we were surrounded by flames. Thereafter I had a black-out and for a while I was not aware of what was happening. Once I came to my senses I shouted and asked someone to help me. The flames were close to my head but fortunately the hair did not catch fire.'

Thereafter I started crying and ran for help. I fainted four times, and eventually someone put me into a van and brought me to hospital. I had my hand-bag with me which had the telephone numbers of my relatives and whenever I met someone I told them to contact my relatives. It was definitely luck that enabled me to escape with minor injuries on my neck and forehead, considering that I was only about seven feet away from one of the compartments in which the blast occurred," she said.

Anura Peiris got into the train at Bambalapitiya and had been thrown out of the compartment. "I was in one of the middle compartments and when the train reached Dehiwela everyone was asked to get off the train for about 15 minutes. Thereafter no sooner had we got into the train and gone about ten yards there was a massive explosion and everything was engulfed in flames."

"With difficulty I managed to stand up and thereafter walked upto the Galle Road bathed in blood, which was pouring down from my head. Finally, I got into a three-wheeler and reached the hosptial, and was actually one of the first patients to be admitted there," he said.

Anura too was in immense pain when we visited him and it was with difficulty that he managed to sit up and tell us what had happened the previous day.

Wijeratne Abeykoon, (from Moratuwa) employed at Shirohana was another victim who had sustained severe injuries and burns in his hands, chest and left eye due to the blast. "I got into the train and upon reaching Dehiwela we were all asked to get down for about 20 minutes. Almost immediately as the train pulled out of the Dehiwela Railway station there was a tremendous blast and thereafter I had a blackout and can only vaguely recall what happened," he said.

He added that he remembers falling over several dead bodies and thereafter being put into a vehicle and being brought to hospital.

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