Colombo: 'Thousands have been swept away'

One reporter recounts the scene as tsunamis decimated a Sri Lankan town in Sunday's huge sea surges…

When I flipped on the TV in the morning on Sunday they were still talking about the tremors. No news of the tsunamis had reached the media here in Sri Lanka yet.
In a half an hour reports came from the East, and later from the South, about several cities going underwater.

It was still not clear what had happened. When they finally figured out what it was my immediate thought was for a friend of mine who lives by the sea in Colombo. When I got to his house the swell had not yet come around the South coast. This was in an area called Wellawatta - a prime residential area in Colombo.

We stood on the railway tracks that run between his house and the beach. The tracks are elevated about eight feet from the water line normally. But at that point the water had receded to a level three or four feet below normal.

There were fish caught in rock pools left behind by the receding water. About 500 people were standing on the tracks, watching on. They were not residents of the area. The residents were busy evacuating. They were trying to get whatever they could out of the houses before the water came. By this time every radio was running stories about how the tsunamis had hit the east coast so there was panic.


Some children jumped down and ran to the rock pools with bags. They were trying to catch fish. The people on the tracks continued to watch them. I turned around to check on my friend's house.

Then someone on the tracks screamed. Before I could turn around everyone on the tracks was screaming and running. The water had started coming back.

The children managed to run back up onto the tracks. No-one was lost there. But the water continued to climb. In about two minutes it had reached the level of the railway tracks before rising over it. We had run about 100 meters by this time.

I saw an old man standing at his gate, knee deep in water, refusing to move, convinced that the end of the world had come.

Later he said he'd lived his whole life there by the beach and that he would rather die than run.

A boy broke away from his mother to run back into the house to get his dog. The water rose to about two feet above the level of the railway tracks. Then it began to subside. Some of the smaller houses along the beach were under three to four feet of water at worst. There was no serious damage and no loss of life where I was.

The slum built on the railway reservation between the sea and the railway tracks was completely swept away. Since this was a high-risk location the police had warned the residents and no-one was there when the water rose. But they had not had time to evacuate any belongings.

For hours afterwards the sea was strewn with bits of wood for miles around from the houses in the slum. When the water subsided it was as if the slum had never existed.

One of the most popular seafood restaurants in Colombo, the Beach Wadiya was also severely damaged.

Further North in Colombo, in an area named Mutwal, mostly populated by slum dwellers two people were swept into the sea. Unlike those in Wellawatta, the slum residents in Mutwal had no prior warning.

South of Colombo, a large slum area in Moratuwa home to about 5,000 people was completely swept away. There are as yet no reports of any deaths from this area.

Looking at images coming in from other parts of the island it is clear that the waters rising in Colombo were a minor issue compared to the 20ft tall waves that had hit other areas.