19th October 1997


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Mirror Magazine

Lucky Survivors


Survival of the luckiest

Last Wednesday's truck bomb attack by the LTTE has devastated not only the financial centre of the country, but also might affect the tourism industry adversely. Tharuka Dissanaike speaks to foreigners who survived the attack:

BakerStephen Baker had just ordered his breakfast at the Executive Lounge on the 18th floor of the Colombo Hilton when he first heard the gun shots. Looking out of the window, he could see armed youth firing RPGs into the 'brown building," (Presidential Secretariat- Finance Ministry ) opposite.

"I thought those small explosions were bombs," he recalls wryly from his bed at the Nawaloka Hospital. Little did he know that a few seconds away was the real bomb. The explosion threw Baker several metres backwards and shards of flying glass cut into his body.

Baker, Chairman of Lanka Bell, the newest telecom network in the country was here on a week's visit and scheduled to catch the flight out to Singapore that very day. Instead he ended up in a military ambulance speeding to the National Hospital. Here at the Accident Service his injuries were quickly attended to. "I've got forty stitches on my leg," he said.

Transferred to Nawaloka Hospital's Surgical Intensive Care Unit that evening, Baker was awaiting surgery for correction of an injured thumb, when we met him on Thursday.

With him was a colleague, Ian Clyne, the company's financial consultant who had watched the shooting from his 12th floor room window.

"I saw five people in the Galadari car park near some vans. They were randomly shooting into the air and the cars parked there. I think they were just trying to get attention," he said.

He also said that the terrorists were not shooting at people.

"There were cars and people on the road at the time, but they were shooting at the air trying to scare them away. Workers from the building opposite were crowding the fence to see what the shooting was all about, but they were not shot at," Clyne said.

He counted five armed youth, some of whom sported a kind of white turban on their heads.

Clyne had just left his room to check on Baker, when the explosion rocked him.

Then Clyne, an Australian national was busy helping the injured. When he got to the Executive Lounge Baker was already in a tourniquet.

"Rounding a corner, I suddenly came face to face with a soldier, who was startled by my appearance and aimed his gun right at me," Clyne remembers.

pl1a.jpgWhile Colombo and the suburbs were reeling from the blast and phone lines jammed with people attempting to find out what the latest target was, the CNN centre in Atlanta was informed of the bomb minutes after it exploded.

A US national, staying at the Hilton, was on the phone with his wife when the ceiling came down on him. His wife, back in their home in Atlanta had immediately called the CNN Centre and informed them of the bomb in Colombo.

These are survivors of the devastating bomb that shook Colombo Fort area last Wednesday, severely damaging two five star hotels, Galadari and Colombo Hilton, and devastating the newly opened World Trade Centre.

The temple nearby suffered a grenade attack by the terrorists.

The Chief Incumbent of the temple died in the attack. At the time of writing the death toll had reached 10.

The attackers were shooting for almost twenty minutes before triggering off the huge truck bomb which was heard even 25 km away.

Dr. Rajapakse is now in the Intensive Care Unit of the National Hospital Accident Service. He is practising abroad and had come down on holiday with his English wife, Margaret. Dr. Rajapakse had just got up to have some water when the bomb went off.

"His hand was badly damaged and was bleeding profusely," Margaret recalled. She had been on the bed and escaped unhurt

Margaret plans to take her husband back to England as soon as he is discharged from hospital, which could take 7-10 days. She said that it would be a long time before they ventured into Sri Lanka again.

"I wouldn't want anyone else to go through an experience like this either."

She confessed that she couldn't sleep that night. "I kept hearing the shooting and explosions in my head," Margaret added that until they are out of the country she will not step outside the hotel except to go to the hospital.

Steve Chan from Hong Kong who was also in the Galadari, now lodged at The Oberoi, breathed a deep sigh of relief that he was to fly out of the country Thursday night.

"It was a big fright."

pl1d.jpgAlthough without physical injuries, the shock to his system had been too great for this businessman to bear. "This is the second time I've been in Sri Lanka. I shall now look for a safer country to do business in. Who wants to take risks with their lives like this?" Chan asked.

The seven-member crew of the Royal Jordanian Airlines was also at Galadari when the blast ripped through the hotel. The captain of the crew sustained a minor leg injury.

Colonel Fareed, the Consul for Jordan said that the crew left Sri Lanka in a flight early Thursday morning.

"The Captain was able to command the flight even with his injury," Col. Fareed said.

pl1e.jpgThe British High Commission said that seven British nationals were injured in the bomb but declined to give any further information.

The effects of this bomb will be felt long after the shock waves have subsided and the debris cleared off.

The high number of foreigners affected by Wednesday's attack will have long term impacts on tourism and commerce. Of the 111 injured 35 were foreigners who were staying at either the Hilton or Galadari, here on business or leisure. No foreigners were among the dead. Most had sustained minor injuries, cuts and bruises.

But more than the physical damage, the trauma and shock of that Wednesday morning will stay with most for a long time.

When we spoke to them, many said that they would not want to return to Colombo. Nor would they advise anyone else to visit Sri Lanka right now.

Tourism was picking up finely in the country.

This year the number of arrivals far exceeded last year's.

Upto August 1997, there was a 21.7 percent increase over last year's figures. Hotel and tour groups were expecting a bouncing season, from November to March next year. But what will be in store for them now.?

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