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world's worst rail accident - Sri Lanka's Ground Zero

The Samudra Devi 's fate qualifies as the world's worst rail accident, outstripping the death toll of around 800 who died when a cyclone blew a train off a bridge into the Bagmati river in Bihar, India, in 1981. Eight rust-colored cars lay in deep pools of water amid a ravaged grove of palm trees. The force of the waves had torn the wheels off some cars, and the train tracks twisted like a loop on a roller coaster. The exact number of passengers who were on the train is unclear. Police believed there were 1,700. This was based, they said, on Colombo Fort station's record of 1,500 ticket sales for Galle, plus an estimated 200 who, as usual, get on the train at various stops without tickets.

 

TELWATTA, Sri Lanka The train known as the Queen of the Sea chugged slowly up the sandy, palm-fringed coast of eastern Sri Lanka on Sunday, its passengers and crew unaware it was about to collide with a deadly 30-foot-high wall of water.

Carrying hundreds of residents from the capital to visit relatives or enjoy a day at the resorts near the town of Galle, the train had nearly reached its destination when the tsunami struck, enveloped the train and lifted its cars off the track into a thick marsh, killing more than 800 people.

In the utter wasteland around this once picturesque area, the train stands out both as a testament to the force of nature that tossed it off the tracks and as the largest single loss of life on an island that suffered nearly 22,000 dead.

The train, which started from Colombo, had stopped at Telwatta, a village about 15 miles from Galle, just before the wave came racing ashore. Many of the dead were local villagers who tried to escape rising waters by climbing on top of the train with the help of the passengers.

Yesterday, eight rust-colored cars lay in deep pools of water amid a ravaged grove of palm trees. The force of the waves had torn the wheels off some cars, and the train tracks twisted like a loop on a roller coaster.

Baggage from the train was strewn along the tracks, and some of the clothing and other items looked new, possibly New Year's gifts for family or friends.


 
Associated Press

Buddhist monks and villagers searched yesterday for the missing amid the twisted train tracks and debris in Telwatta, Sri Lanka.
 

One thousand tickets were sold in Colombo for the train, and rescuers recovered 802 bodies from the train's cars, said military spokesman Brig. Daya Ratnayake.

No relatives came to claim 204 of those bodies, so they were buried in a mass grave yesterday, with Buddhist monks performing traditional funeral rites.

Venerable Baddegama Samitha, a Buddhist monk and former parliamentarian who presided over the ritual, said he realized some of the dead were of other faiths the region has a large Muslim community and a moment's silence was held to honor them.

"This was the only thing we could do," he said. "It was a desperate solution. The bodies were rotting. We gave them a decent burial."

Authorities took fingerprints of the dead so that they could be identified later if possible, he said, but there seemed little possibility anyone would find the time to try.

At a nearby police station, officers laid out about 100 identification and credit cards, as well as driver licenses and bank books found at the site. They included an electricity board secretary, an assistant lecturer at a state research institute of social development and a student from the University of Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka.

"Police told us to come and have a look at this collection of ID cards," said Premasiri Jayasinghe, one of a group of people searching through the documents for those of lost loved ones. He found no sign of three missing relatives.

At the train site, a young man wept in the arms of friends as the body of his girlfriend was buried. The distraught man spoke out to his lost sweetheart.

"We met in university. Is this the fate that we hoped for?" he sobbed. "My darling, you were the only hope for me."

The train left Colombo at 7:30 a.m. for Galle, about 70 miles to the southeast, a resort with large hotels and beaches sought by weekenders. The water struck at 9:30 a.m.

It was unclear how many people survived the train disaster. Police Superintendent B.P.B. Ayupala said the train's engineer lived. Police and local residents said one survivor was a woman who lost three children when the carriages were flooded. She sought refuge in a Buddhist temple before leaving the area.

Though 1,000 people had tickets, it was not known how many people were on the train. Ayupala said more bodies could be buried in the watery earth beneath the compartments.

"The people in the village ran toward the train and climbed on top of it," he said, describing their attempt to escape the initial wave. "Then the water level went down" a telltale sign of the approaching tsunami, which sucks up coastal waters before it strikes. "Ten minutes later, it came back," he said.

For the people of Telwatta, burying the train's dead was part of an attempt to bring back order. The tsunami crushed every building, down to the brick foundations of the houses. Palm trees were snapped into splinters and the site of what was once a school was marked only by a twisted metal play set.

The one-lane road through the area was a massive traffic jam yesterday as trucks tried to bring in aid. They were slowed by funeral processions on the side of the road and residents carrying away rubble from what had once been their homes.

 

Survivors tells of tsunami train horror

 

 
Buddhist monks trudge away from the wrecked train
Monks chanted and poured water over the bodies of the dead

 

Two survivors of what is believed to be the world's worst rail accident have been telling the BBC News website of their experiences.

The Queen of the Sea was nearing its destination when the waves knocked it sideways.

Up to 1,500 people were crammed inside the train as it travelled 75 miles (110km) along the Sri Lankan coastline from Colombo to the southern city of Galle.

At least 802 died and hundreds remain unaccounted for.

The force of the wave threw the train's eight cars into a bog and left the coastal railroad a twisted mess of metal.

Cart wheeling

Like Daya Wijaya Gunawardana, many passengers were with their families, heading off to visit friends and relatives during a holiday week.
 
The site of the train wreck at Telwatta
We prayed and because of that I got to a window and escaped
 
Daya Wijaya Gunawardana

As the tsunami engulfed the train, the Colombo restaurateur found himself stranded in a flooded carriage, cast adrift from his son and daughter.

"The train had stopped at signals," Mr Gunawardana, 62, told the BBC News website.

"Then suddenly the sea flooded through the train, very high, very quick.

"The water came in about 60ft [20 metres] from the sea, and the whole train was filled with water. Then it fell over."

Reeling from the waves the train spun over and over, cart wheeling four times before coming to rest on a hillock.

"I thought that we were killed, that we were dead," said Mr Gunawardana. "But we prayed to our God and because of that I got up to a window and escaped."

Mr Gunawardana spent 45 minutes trapped inside the train before he clambered to safety. "People were trying to escape, the whole thing was flooded so everybody tried to get out."

Outside, amid the devastation, he found his son Duminda, 32, and daughter Kishani, 31. Neither was seriously injured.

"I heard that out of 1,500 people, 1,000 died. When I got out of the train there were a few wounded people, but not many.

"Most did not come out of the train. But my family all escaped. I have some pains on my body. It's a narrow escape."

Reunited, Mr Gunawardana and his children took sanctuary in a nearby temple but were forced to head to higher ground when fears grew of a second deadly wave.

The family trekked uphill for almost 3km (2 miles) before they reached a school.

By nightfall on Monday they made it back to Colombo by bus, travelling along inland roads not shattered by the waves.

'Lots of children'

Tourist Danny Shahaf, an Israeli living in London, was also on the train travelling with a friend.
 
Wrecked train tracks
I thought, 'This is how you die'
 
Danny Shahaf

"That's when I panicked," he said, recalling the moment when the waves scattered the train's carriages, turning his carriage on its side.

"It was so quick, it washed us so far away - the carriage kept filling up with water.

"I was telling my friend to run to the front of the carriage, the windows there were still above the water. I pushed my friend through the window to get her up out of the carriage.

"There was a woman next to me holding her baby trying to hold the window open with the other hand. As I tried to help her the carriage filled completely, the water pushing the window shut.

"Only my friend managed to get out...

"Back at the other end of the carriage it was dark, I held my breath, I thought, 'This is how you die'.

"As I thought that, the train flipped again and the water slid away and I waded towards the light."

Danny made his escape, but the woman with the baby was not so lucky.

"There were lots of children on the train," he recalls.

Search called off

On Wednesday Buddhist monks led services for the dead, burying scores of bodies from the train in a mass grave.
 
WORLD'S WORST TRAIN DISASTERS
December 2004: Telwatta, Sri Lanka - at least 802 die when tsunami derails train
February 2004: Neyshabur, Iran - at least 300 killed when a runaway train explodes
June 2002: Dodoma region, Tanzania - at least 200 killed when passenger train collides with goods train
Feb 2002: Egypt - 300 killed in fire on train travelling to Cairo
Aug 1995: Uttar Pradesh, India - 300 killed in train collision
June 1989: Ufa, Russia - More than 400 killed in gas explosion under two trains
June 1981: Bihar, India - 800 killed when cyclone blows train into river

They included villagers who had scrambled aboard during a 10-minute pause between the giant waves.

Three days after the disaster, rescuers called off the search for survivors.

A moment's silence was held to commemorate the dead of all faiths.

"This was the only thing we could do. It was a desperate solution," Venerable Baddegama Samitha, a monk who carried out the ritual, told the Associated Press.

"The bodies were rotting. We gave them a decent burial."

 

For Sri Lanka, a 'ground zero'
Many mourn at a train station where hundreds perished.

 

By Robert Marquand | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

TELWATTE, SRI LANKA - A small train station along Sri Lanka's southern belly - a sun-drenched, palm-flanked stop called Telwatte - is becoming this country's psychological "ground zero." This is where the Dec. 26 tsunami wiped out a packed nine-car train and took most of its passengers, too.
 

(Photograph)
FALLEN QUEEN: The derailed "Queen of the Sea" lies about 100 miles south of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Some 1,200 people on the train died.
VINCENT THIAN/AP

 


Amid the scattered debris, and Army soldiers dragging the maroon wreckage away, many Sri Lankans - including relatives of the estimated 1,000 travelers who perished - are arriving to stare and ponder. They stand in silence. The only sound is the song of tropical birds and bulldozers. To some, the devastation brings to mind Pompeii, Italy, where residents were suddenly overwhelmed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. This whistle-stop is emerging as Sri Lanka's locus of discussion, where deeper questions about the national disaster are being asked.

For some 200 yards, a classic symbol of civilization is strewn out across the landscape, cars askew in twisted right angles. The 80-ton engine, a silvery mastiff, was ripped from the tracks and flung dozens of yards away. Bodies were still being found and buried five days later.

On Dec. 26, the coastal train called "Queen of the Sea" left two minutes late from Colombo, arriving at the tiny Telwatte station at 9:20 a.m. - 2-1/2 hours after the earthquake occurred off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia.

The cars and platform were packed with holiday goers, since Dec. 26 was a "full moon day" - a local Buddhist holiday when Sri Lankan fisherman don't work and families travel. Telwatte is usually a momentary stop. But not this time. The conductor was waiting for the signal ahead to turn green. (Officials now say the green light never came because there were reports of waves down the coast.) When the first wall of water flooded in, "like a huge river," one eyewitness recalls, the Queen of the Sea was fully exposed. [Editor's note: The original version gave the wrong date for Buddha's birth.]

Thuresh Dharamadasa, a local woodcarver, was eating rice for breakfast in his house, 40 yards away, when he heard screaming. He thought someone had been hit by the train, and ran outside. He saw the first wave of water already lapping at the wheels of the train engine.

He rushed back and ushered the eight members of his family onto a "slab" - a poured concrete roof over a concrete latrine - where they watched events unfold.

Karl Max Hantke, a German whose house sits next to the tracks (and is one of only three structures still intact), also saw the tragedy unfold from his roof.

As the first wave arrived, they say, instead of climbing off the train, the water drew more people to the cars. The water was waist high, and the train seemed solid. People clambered aboard, some handing their children up from the platform, and some climbing on the roof.

No one expected the second wave. Witnesses said it came between 10 and 20 minutes later, and seemed more a massive new swell than a distinct wave. Still, it hit Telwatte with such force that the entire train was ripped off the tracks instantly - with such force that heavy concrete forms underneath the tracks were uprooted and turned entirely upside down. The cars twisted and turned, and filled with water. As Mr. Hantke describes it, the scene was one of screaming followed by complete silence.

Officials at Telwatte today either don't know, or won't say, how many passengers perished. The figure is estimated between 800 and 1,200 out of some 30,000 deaths in Sri Lanka. Civilian authorities say only 100 people survived.

One of the most widely told tale of survival in the country is the rescue of Sathsara, a 4-year old boy.

After the first wave struck, Sathsara's parents, who could not swim, worked to save their son. Just as the second wave arrived they pushed the boy through a hatch in the roof where his cries caught the attention of a "railroad engineer" who pulled him up. The "engineer," who no one has since been able to find, kept the boy with him as they were swept away in the water. His aunt says that the boy remembered where his uncle worked in Colombo, and Sathsara was eventually delivered to their care.
 

(Photograph)
Soldiers inspect the site of the derailed train in Sri Lanka.
PETER ENDIG/EPA
 

Today, Telwatte is still a random landscape of tragedy: A sari is plastered against a tree, a suitcase is spilled next to a train door, a muddy tennis racket made in China, scattered macaroni on the ground, a pile of pocketbooks presumably emptied by scavengers. Teams of Air force and Army soldiers are making braces to pull the cars out. Most wear kerchiefs because the smell is overpowering, and not all corpses have been removed. A small dog, obviously nursing, runs back and forth, whining, looking for pups.

At the site, many survivors have left pictures of those who perished. Here and across the country the question that hangs in the air is "why"?

Thuresh, the woodcarver, says that his family has decided that nature, after 2,000 years, has made a statement.

O.G. Guruge, a senior politician in Sri Lanka's west coast district, told reporters on the scene that the tsunami was sent by "Lord Buddha." Mr. Guruge said the wave was Buddha's retribution for not taking care of the earth properly, and it was also a judgment on a Buddhist nation where "corrupt priests drive around in big cars and don't pray enough."

In Sri Lankan churches, temples, and mosques, similar questions are raised. On Sunday, many of the newspapers here published commentary that tried to draw meaning and lessons from the Telwatte train tragedy and the tsunami.

A local philosopher, Ajith Samaranayake, asked in the Sri Lankan Sunday Observer whether or not the tsunami would jolt local people into a far more sober appraisal of their personal and national shortcomings than before. He noted that Sri Lanka was the first British colony to be granted universal suffrage, but that the country has not lived up to its promise.

On a kind of metaphysical jeremiad, Mr. Samaranayake added that the tsunami may be a lesson in humility: "For a stark moment, man in the new millennium, armoured supposedly against all calamities by his rational technological outlook and advanced political philosophies, has been rendered helpless by nature ... his cities ruined and laid low and all his grand inventions in disarray."

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