Sri Lankan principal tells story of tsunami to Potomac School students
David Kanpathipillai shares photos of his home in Komari, Sri Lanka, with
Potomac School children Friday afternoon at the school.
Kanapathipillai lost his wife and father-in-law in the tsunami that
ravaged his country last December.
Photo by MICHAEL GALLACHER / Missoulian
POTOMAC - He speaks English, but his accent is so thick you can only make out a handful of the words.
He begins by telling the students at Potomac School on Friday about his country, Sri Lanka. Then about his town, Komari, then about the town's school, where he is principal. He tells about his wife and four children.
The students listen politely, even though dozens of words may fly by before they hear one they understand.
But suddenly, the man changes in front of them. His tone, his body language. Sometimes he is animated, and other times his shoulders slump. He is telling them about Dec. 26, the day the tsunami swept away his town. And, clearly, part of his life.
The words are no easier to understand, but even the youngest children who had been trying not to fidget, are sitting up and listening intently, searching for words they will understand, wanting desperately to know all he is telling them.
The man struggles through the story, his voice growing as he tells of the approach of the giant wave, and going soft as he talks of its aftermath.
He pauses occasionally to wipe tears from his eyes. Finally, he gets to the part of the story that is still so hard for him to talk about, four months later.
He's making swimming motions with his arms. His voice breaks, but he gets out his last sentence, then can't go on.
There are 100 or so kids in the Potomac Community Center, and for a minute, maybe two, there is absolute silence.
This is the story David Kanapathipillai told them.
On Dec. 26, his wife and children were at their grandparents' house in Komari while David was at a meeting in Batticaloa, 58 miles north.
The first wave to hit Komari was bad enough, 3 or 4 feet high and making a mess of the village. As people scrambled to get to higher ground, David's wife herded their children to the YMCA, about 500 meters from her parents' home.
She got them on the building's roof, then returned for her mother.
Once her mother was on the roof she went back for her father. Her father had difficulty walking, but they were almost to the YMCA when the second wave - the big one - hit.
It was 15 minutes after the first wave and 15 feet high, and had traveled the Indian Ocean at the speed of a jet. The wall of water slammed through the town.
On the YMCA roof, David Kanapathipillai's children watched their mother and grandfather be swept away.
But their mother reappeared, swimming to the top. A man who had taken refuge in a coconut tree was able to grab her hand.
But the wave was too powerful. She slipped from his grasp. For the second time, her horrified children watched the tidal wave carry their mother away, this time for good.
Her body has never been found.
Darrin Coldiron has brought Kanapathipillai to the Potomac School, because students here took it upon themselves to help the people of Komari.
They drew pictures for him to take to Sri Lankan children, and raised money to send with him.
Coldiron used their donation to buy art supplies, and now the Potomac students have pictures of the tsunami drawn by the children of Komari.
There is writing on some, and Kanapathipillai is asked to translate.
"I am undergoing so many problems," he reads. "I have no clothes. I have no books. If you can help me to learn, I will be grateful."
The pictures, Coldiron notes, were drawn just weeks after the tsunami.
"We gave out the cards you gave us," Coldiron tells the students. "And it was wild - they were chasing me around. When I brought out the drawing books you bought for them, it was pandemonium. I want you to know what you did had an effect. You instantly made all the children happy."
When Coldiron, a former Missoulian and now a Spokane firefighter and emergency medical technician, announced in January he was going to Sri Lanka to help in the relief effort, he figured he'd wind up working for the Red Cross in some capacity, likely putting his medical training to use.
Instead, he's taken on rebuilding a town with the help of a tiny army, many with Missoula ties.
Coldiron chose Komari because it was small and remote, and not a priority for the large non-governmental organizations coordinating disaster relief.
"Most of the money has gone to the southwest coast, which is the high-dollar area," Coldiron says. "It's almost a crisis situation, because there's a great desire to use the displacement of all these people to build resorts, and a lot of the aid money has gone to those areas."
While he says there are lots of good people working hard to help tsunami victims, Coldiron does not hide his dislike of the way large NGOs operate.
"There's a lot of money going to helping keep people in tents," says Coldiron, who has previously noted all the brand new $50,000 sport utility vehicles he sees being driven around by people who work for large NGOs. "We want to get them back into their lives."
To receive aid, tsunami victims must live in the refugee camps.
"Just giving them food and money destroys their economy," Coldiron says.
In Komari, he uses funds donated to his effort to hire townspeople to clear rubble from the school, rebuild roads and clean wells.
The school, one of the few buildings left standing, was cleaned up and reopened fairly quickly, getting the children out of the camps during the daytime.
One project at a time - often, one well at a time - Komari is slowly recovering.
"As a firefighter we're trained to see the big picture, and avoid tunnel vision," Coldiron says. "But in disaster relief, to get things done, you need tunnel vision."
Coldiron, who played rugby in Missoula, got involved when he checked on a former teammate, Nuwan Waidyanatha, after the tsunami.
Waidyanatha, whose visa had expired and was deported to his native Sri Lanka in the aftermath of Sept. 11, was OK. Coldiron passed the news on to other former teammates, and one of them offered to buy the plane ticket if Coldiron wanted to go help out. Bjorn Nabozney of Big Sky Brewing in Missoula picked up the tab.
Coldiron had to return to his job in Spokane recently, but the efforts to rebuild Komari continue with others, including Satya Byock of Missoula. And Coldiron hopes to return in December.
The tsunami washed out roads along the Sri Lankan coast, and it took David Kanapathipillai a full day to get back to Komari after the wave hit.
For hours, his children assumed they had lost their father, too. After he made it back to Komari, he and his two sons searched for days for his wife and their mother.
"David decided to leave Komari and never come back," Coldiron told the students. "When we were rebuilding the school we asked David to come back for a PTA meeting. David didn't want to, but he did. By the end of the meeting he said he'd come back for a month, although he said he wasn't ready yet.
"After he got back, he said he'd stay a year. The town's leaders are sitting in the camp. They won't leave because they'll stop receiving money and food. The way we distribute food turns people into beggars. But David said God talked to him, and told him he had responsibilities."
His children can't bear to return to the scene of their mother's death, and live with relatives in Batticaloa.
But Kanapathipillai is back in Komari, leading a school with 750 students in grades 1-13.
"He," Coldiron says, "is one of the heroes."
Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 523-5260 or at email@example.com