‘After the tsunami hit there was no pain, but I could feel the bones grating in my chest and I was hacking up blood’
SCOTT Convoy and Ruth Hynes won’t be in London this week for the commemoration service at St Paul’s Cathedral for those lost in the Asian tsunami, but the aftermath of the worst natural disaster in living memory remains with them every day.
“It’s still there and jumps out and bites you from time to time,” says Convoy, speaking from Hynes’s parents’ farmhouse, 20 miles West of Galway, where the couple have been occupying themselves with a small piece of land, herding cows, digging endless drills and planting potatoes. “All that happens is that you talk about it less.”
Apart, Convoy adds, from those moments when the disaster just appears, such as the news report covering the recent identification of the last Irish victim. Then there are the physical scars. “I’m still not 100% fit, as I’m discovering every day I try and work digging the fields. Physically, I’m still hurt.”
Almost five months on from the Boxing Day tsunami that destroyed coastal communities ringing the Indian Ocean and claimed an estimated 300,000 victims of all nationalities, survivors such as Convoy and Hynes are still in the early stages of coming to terms with what happened.
When I first spoke to them in early February, they were staying with Convoy’s brother and his family in Balquidder, having arrived back from the devastated southern tip of Sri Lanka a few weeks earlier. Convoy, originally from Luss on Loch Lomondside, appeared in the bar of the Munro Inn, Strathyre, wearing his brother’s clothes. He had lost every stitch he possessed in the tsunami: passport, money, luggage, driving licence, everything. He had been washed up, naked, in a mangrove swamp, badly injured but alive.
He had a punctured lung, several broken ribs, lacerations and severe bruising, along with whatever psychological damage may have been wrought that day and in the subsequent days and five hospitals he passed through in Sri Lanka and Scotland.
Back then, the couple expressed a desire – a need, even – to help the Sri Lankan people who did so much for them: feeding, watering, clothing and sheltering them individually after they were swept apart, and then once they were reunited; comforting them, keeping them alive, giving them a future.
This story begins in Tangalle, a small town in the south of Sri Lanka, where Convoy, 37, and Hynes, 31, were relaxing after a quiet Christmas . It was their first real holiday after two years of working their way around the world, following several years’ hard graft in high-paid communications jobs in London.
The first sign of abnormality arrived after breakfast, as successive freak waves overwhelmed the beach and rolled toward the low-lying bungalow where they were staying. The fourth wave changed their world.
“This one, I suppose about chest height, knocked me off my feet, throwing me in the door of the bungalow,” Convoy recalls. “I think I went under our bed, but was back on my feet in a second. I reached the door of the bungalow and looked outside for Ruth. She had been washed off the verandah and I could see her clinging to a mangrove tree right beside our bungalow.
“Then in front of our verandah I saw the water like a vertical wall three to four metres high – which made it about 10 metres above normal sea level . The bottom couple of metres boiled brown to black as it churned up the sand, but the top part was still that beautiful Indian Ocean turquoise green. I saw the sun, still low in the sky, shining through the water. Then it hit.”
The bungalow exploded, or so it seemed. Convoy was smashed through the door and the wall, through the next bungalow and probably the one after that. He was pinned by his chest “like a butterfly” under water, all the while being slammed by debris.
Consumed with the struggle to survive, Convoy somehow managed to grab on to something that allowed him to pull his head above water and gulp a breath. “There was no calculation involved; it was just save yourself . You do what you have to do, if you’re lucky. If not, you’re dead.”
Convoy managed to grasp a cable and skipped about on the water’s surface “like a waterskier”. He remembers briefly struggling to hold on to his shorts which were being ripped off by the force of the water before they too were washed away .
“ The noise was like standing next to a jet engine. I knew I was badly injured. There was no pain, but I could feel the bones grating in my chest and I was already hacking up blood. The right side of my chest had swollen like a balloon.”
Convoy hauled himself on to the roof of a building as it swept past, and clung on for his life as the structure smashed through the mangrove swamp, breaking trees like matchsticks . As the rushing water slowed, he seized his chance and slid off the roof into the top of a clump of trees.
“I sat in my tree shivering, trying to breathe. Floating past I saw a partially clothed body, face-down, followed by a monitor lizard floating belly-up.”
And what of Hynes? “I chose not to think about Ruth. I couldn’t. Very quickly I decided that whatever had happened to her – and I considered every possibility – I could do nothing if I was dead. I had to stay alive to have any hope of seeing her again.”
It was five minutes at most since Convoy had last seen his partner clinging to a tree outside their now-pulverised beach house. In that time, she had been swept about two kilometres down into the lagoon, dragged under before coming up to the surface.
“I thought, ‘This is the end. I’m not going to survive,’ ” she recalls. She too ended up at the top of a grove of trees about 30 feet high, amid the screams of Sri Lankans looking for their families. After half an hour or so, two teenagers came to her aid.
“From then on, the Sri Lankans completely looked after me.” For three days, Hynes travelled around the south coast looking for Convoy, begging lifts to hospitals that were doubling up as morgues . The kindness of locals kept her going. She was given tea, food and clothing in the hospitals she was checked into, while in one, a woman – a complete stranger – sat her up in bed and combed her hair, stroked her arm and urged her to stop crying.
Days passed in a horrified daze . On the third day, she managed to hitch a lift back to Tangalle, where she met the owners of the bungalow and restaurant complex where they had stayed. They told her bodies had been sent to Ratnapur, about 60km inland. They had no word of Convoy.
“I was going to go to the beach the next day [to look for some sign of Scott] but it was full of bodies. The swamp was full of bodies. ” Hynes was beginning to give up hope when she managed to phone her brother in Ireland and was told that Convoy was alive and in hospital in Ratnapur.
He too had been given a telephone by a local policeman and told to call home. Their two families had been touch and were able to relay the news that each was alive.
“She got to me the day after – an amazing moment,” recalls Convoy. “We were lying there on the bed hugging and weeping . We were surrounded by people, not a soul spoke English, but they knew what was going on. A policeman who was there said, ‘Now you must have lots of children.’ He said there must have been a reason we survived.”
Ruth is still affected by her experiences, although she is getting better. Back in February, she sometimes got her words mixed up and found it hard to cope with simple day-to-day tasks. “But we were lucky,” she said at the time. “We can stay in bed and concentrate on getting better. The Sri Lankans don’t have that luxury. ”
Yet recovery is slow. There have been “bad patches”, Convoy admits, but the bond that binds them is stronger than before. “Only the two of us know what we went through.”
These past few weeks, they have occupied their time designing a house they plan to build in one of Hynes’s father’s fields.
The loss of Sri Lankan friends seems to have affected them most. One Sri Lankan man they knew lost his two children, aged just three and one. In a restaurant they frequented before the disaster, only three of the men survived while all the women died. A Scandinavian man and a German woman Convoy met had both lost children, swept out of their arms to their death.
“How did we survive?” he asks, aware there is no answer. “ There’s no divine intervention; just cold, brutal natural destruction; the universe functioning as it does. If anything, we understand that a little bit clearer.
“The experience has multiplied what we had already thought about the common man, about decency, humanity. It has also made us much more determined to do what we want to do .”
08 May 2005