My Sister is home

Today we had a second Christmas celebration. Michelle and I and my sister and her boyfriend went to my parent’s house for a meal. Michelle and I had spent Christmas with Michelle’s family and my sister was away over Christmas so we’d planned to have our family Christmas today. This was all fine until Boxing Day when we saw the news about Asia. My sister and her boyfriend were spending Christmas in Sri Lanka…

The past few days have been pretty intense for my family. When I powered up my laptop on Boxing Day Dad contacted me on messenger an told me to turn the TV on and call him. We watched the tragedy unfolding on TV and searched for information on the net, speaking over messenger as that was the easiest way to keep our emotions under control; speaking about it was harder than typing… We eventually worked out where they were likely to be staying, The Paradise Beach Club in Mirissa, from the maps that we were looking at this wasn’t good… We watched TV, we googled for maps of Sri Lanka, we searched for information on the web to try and work out what was going on and how bad things were and where. For all the information that we had we were missing the piece we wanted, communication with them or knowledge of how they were… After several hours we got a brief text message from an unknown Sri Lankan mobile phone to say that they were OK. We texted back and forth a little and I tried to call the mobile but couldnt get a call through. We got another call the next day, from a land-line, they were unhurt and heading to Colombo. They finally arrived home from Sri Lanka, via Dubai, today.

The story that they told us over dinner was like the plot of a disaster movie… Their story was far more moving than this entry could ever be and I don’t remember all the names, but I feel I need to write it down.

My sister, Maria, swims a lot, but she’s not what you’d call a strong swimmer, or someone who’s that happy in the water… During the first couple of weeks of the holiday Milky (her boyfriend) spent some time teaching her to be more comfortable in the sea; getting her to deal with waves and teaching her to tread water, etc. Useful stuff…

On the morning that the wave hit they were staying in The Paradise Beach Club in Mirissa and due to travel back to Colombo for their flight home. They were originally planning to take a train, but they’d done that journey earlier in the holiday and it was hard work - packed trains and a 4 hour long trip. Instead they decided to take a van that was to leave at 9.30am. They’d be told that the sea was lovely first thing in the morning and they took a last swim at 7ish that morning, had breakfast and were ready for the van early (most unusual for Milky who has been known to be late for things ocassionally… ;) ) They were the only ones on the van and the van was run by the Beach Club so they left early, around 8.50.

They were driving along the coast road from Mirissa to Colombo at Ahangama when, after around 10 or 15 minutes, the water to their left started to lap against the rocks by the road and then spread across the road in front of them. At this point, they were near a house and the house was between them and the sea. The driver stopped and they looked behind to see if they could back up, but there was other traffic behind them, a similar van packed full of locals and other stuff. The van stalled and water started spreading across the road behind them as well as in front. At this point a bus came careering along the road, very fast, obviously trying to avoid the water and get the hell out of there; it clipped the rear of their van and spun them. The van now faced inland. The wave hit, the house was washed away, the water pushed the van inland and they were lucky that there was a bit of a road there as it meant they didnt roll down the embankment at the side of the road. The van was taking on water but floating in mostly a straight line. The water pushed them inland until they struck some trees. The van that had been behind them was side on to the water and someone had opened the side door slightly, when the wave hit it spun the other van over and it sank. Only 4 got out, there had been many more than that in there. Maria’s van was taking on water. They needed to get out. The driver got out of the driver’s door window and clung to a tree, he couldn’t swim. The water was about 16 feet deep at this point, they climbed/swam out of the side window of the van, that doesn’t do justice to the effort; Milky had to go first due to how they were arranged in the van, he effectively ‘plugged’ the window with his body as he got out and as he struggled free the water poured in around him. Maria doesn’t remember how she got out, she just did, and quickly.

Two houses with sloping roofs and a concrete out-building with a flat roof. They went for the flat roof, struggling against the pull of the water. A man already sat on the roof of this building, he helped Milky get Maria onto the roof and they both helped Milky up. The roof was small, about the size of my desk. They stayed on it for several hours, they dont know how long, time was a blur. Debris floated past in the water and they were covered in woodchips and silt and whatever. They couldn’t see much, there were trees around the building and the foliage was too thick at this height. At some point the houses, or one of them at least, collapsed. The driver was safe in a tree. Eventually the water started to go down. In typical “don’t worry the parents” style, Maria decided that they wouldn’t tell Mum and Dad until they got home; at this point they had no idea of the scale of the tragedy. The concrete building was an outside toilet; something that made a family of plumbers smile…

The driver was concerned about their luggage; they weren’t and they told him to leave it rather than have him risk himself trying to find the van. They headed to higher ground. A temple; they met local people who insisted on finding them seats and making them comfortable even though their own world was upside down. They gave them dry clothes. People started to recover the dead and families began to wail and mourn; someone took them into their house as it was safer.

The driver had relatives inland at Weligama, and he wanted to take Maria and Milky to them. He was still concerned about their luggage and the van, it was new… They got a lift to where the driver’s relatives lived and his aunt took them in. She fed them with a lovely meal and apologised; “I’m sorry for the poor spread, I didn’t expect visitors…” At this point they started to realise the scale of the tragedy. They were over a kilometre inland and the place was trashed. Milky decided they needed to get a call home to tell people they were OK. Eventually they located someone who had a mobile phone with international dial capability. Maria guessed at my mobile number (who needs to remember a phone number when your phone does it for you, except of course when your phone has been dunked in sea-water and no longer works) They sent a text message to us.

They spent some time with the driver’s relatives who apologised that the bottles of coke were warm, the fridge didn’t work anymore; there was no power in the village at all. Milky decided that they needed to try to get to Colombo. There was no fuel. Most of the fuel tanks were underground and the fuel was now mixed with the sea-water. Luckily there was already a black market in fuel and although it was very expensive (by local standards) they got enough for the local policeman to take them to a villa that he had taken a French tourist and his son to the day before.

This is where it all gets a bit surreal. The villa was luxurious, filled with ex-pats and western tourists. It was clean and dry and safe. They could wash and there were lots of small children running around, they had food and wine (only the “good stuff” as looters had taken the “newer looking” bottles from someone’s villa and left the old crap ;) …). The others at the villa thought Maria and Milky’s story was terrible, yet other people’s tales seemed just as bad. The Frenchman and his son were surfing when the wave hit and rode the water inland on their boards. An investment banker who had recently moved into newly built multi-million sea-front villa had had an equally lucky escape; his family and friends had all been standing behind the house, inland. They had just been saying goodbye to the elephants that had been blessing the new house and the building protected them from the worst of the wave. The two families and 8 children were all unharmed and eventually met up again.

The banker made some calls, vehicles arrived, including a coach, they all got on and drove to Colombo; a three hour drive that took ten, along the remains of the coast road. It was hard to keep their eyes from the sea.

Colombo; all the hotels were full. The banker took them all to the best hotel in town and they found rooms for everyone… Sri Lankan Airways arranged a new flight for them, as they’d missed their scheduled flight… They went to the shops in Colombo that they’d visited earlier in the holiday and bought some of the same clothes again, so that they could change out of the dress and sarong that the villagers had given them to replace their sodden clothes. They flew home; the business class upgrade was appreciated.

We got through several bottles of champagne yesterday as we sat listening to the story. My family was very lucky, thousands of others were less fortunate. Maria pointed out to us that their story wasn’t that bad compared with those who had lost family and friends and those who didn’t survive.

Maria and Milky are now looking for information on the people they met at Mirissa and planning a trip back to Sri Lanka next year to see the driver and his family.