The Tsunami Story (Unawatuna)

If you are mentioned in this story and I have got anything wrong or you would prefer not to be mentioned, please let me know.

After 4 days in the wonderful beach town of Unawatuna, 5km (3mi) south-west of Galle in southern Sri Lanka, it was time to move on, so I was waking up and preparing to pack my bags on the morning of Boxing Day (26th December).

I was staying on the first-floor of Surfcity Hotel, which is set about 10 metres (35ft) back from the beach, so it was normal for me to hear the relaxing sound of waves crashing onto the beach. As I was reading my Lonely Planet: Sri Lanka in bed, to plan the next part of my trip, the sound changed to that of water crashing against rock, followed by some people’s excited wails. I rushed to the window and saw a small wave pass over the hotel’s terrace restaurant. After a short pause another “wave” came in, picked up a tuk-tuk parked on the track between the hotel and the terrrace, and flung it into a wall. This “wave” also burst open the window of the adjacent gem shop, spilling its contents into the water.

In the time it takes me to get to the door and run onto the balcony, the water level had risen a further 3 metres (10ft) and was surrounding the hotel. Priam, one of the guys who worked at the hotel, appeared from below and managed to climb onto the balcony, escaping the water. For the first time he wasn’t smiling. He hurried off to the stairs, and with the rapidly rising water levels, that seemed like a good idea.

Everyone seemed to be on the second floor balcony, with faces full of fear and confusion. I walk to the far side of the balcony to look over to the side of and behind the hotel. A new view opened up: where once there used to be other buildings, I could now see rushing water extending 100 metres (110 yards) inland to the Galle road and the high ground behind it. On the roof of the building opposite me were two separate tourists: a man screaming out for “Ella” and a woman frantically pleading for people to “save the children”.

After perhaps 5 minutes of standing on the balcony feeling helpless, the waters suddenly retreat, pulling out a lot of debris with it. Damaris, the girl staying in the room next to mine, appears with us on the balcony soaking wet. A sensible-looking English guy staying on the second floor says that we should be prepared to leave in a hurry, but before there is a chance there are calls of “Get Out! Get Out!”

Fearing the stability of the building (it was one of the few that appeared to still be standing) we all rush downstairs without stopping to pick up anything. Ravi, the hotel manager, who’s also wet, tells us to go to the main road. The ground is still under about half a metre of water (1.5ft), as the beachside buildings (or debris) are preventing the water from running away.

Starting off in convoy, but disintegrating as people start to travel at their own speed, we wade to the main road as the water continues to drain past our feet at speed. Two shoed girls hurried off without helping the shoeless, who were stumbling all over the place. With no idea how deep the next step is and what I was stepping on, I manage to cut open my foot quite badly.

It’s a relief to finally reach the main road with its firm tarmac surface, although it’s still under about 20cm (8in) of water. Locals tell me to walk further up the road towards Galle as “another one may be coming”. On the side of the road is a motionless body with white foam spilling out of his mouth.

The man who has been screaming out for Ella all this time continues to cry, but for a different reason, as they find each other on the road. Ella herself is smiling as she sees his desperation turn into delight.

At the crossroads of the Galle road and another road into Unawatuna a crowd has developed. Tourists (some still in their bathing costumes) and locals are running out of the road from the village and are not sure what to do or where to go. A lot of the people are wet and some have rubbish in their hair. People start to discuss what happened: it was a full moon that night, perhaps it was some kind of freak wave? Thinking that maybe the southern coast of Sri Lanka is a frequent victim of freak waves, I ask if this has happened before. It hasn’t.

Further along the road a pick-up truck is loading itself up with people. With Gideon, an Englishman staying at my hotel, and some other tourists and locals we pile into the back. The truck takes us up a side road up into the hill behind the village. The driver drops us off and tells us to climb further up the hill, before he drives back down to collect another group of people.

Along with Penny, Martin, Emily, Cristian and another British couple, Gideon and I walk to the top of the hill, past a local Buddhist temple until we come to someone’s garden with a view over the Unawatuna Bay. The bay looks normal, but after a few minutes we see the waters of the bay retreat, exposing all of the coral. A number of people, who only appear as small specks due to the distance, run out onto the beach. A couple of minutes later and the waters return, completely covering the beach. This process repeats a few times over the next 20 minutes.

Soon after a radio confirmed what I had begun to suspect: that a tsunami had hit the entire coastline, and this wasn’t just a localised freak wave. What we saw though didn’t fulfil the typical impressions of a tsunami – that a huge wave, or wall of water, bears down on the coast; for us, it was just rapidly rising water with the normal waves breaking on top (although the waves didn’t retreat).

Kalu, a Sri Lankan who works at a hotel in Unawatuna, comes along and tells us that his mother has died. He has, however, rescued a Dutch girl who can’t find her parents, so he needs a Dutch speaker to speak with her. Keen to do something, I volunteer, believing that my Dutch is probably good enough to speak with a 6-year-old girl. We end up going on a wild-goose chase, but while walking around, I get a view back down to the Galle road, where I see another wave come in higher than before.

In the end, the Dutch girl, Ayla, had already been happily reunited with her parents – the mother, Karin, being the woman who had been screaming “save the children” in the building opposite me during the first flood. Karin and her husband Luc therefore had all of their four children safe.

With the Dutch family were most of the Surfcity Hotel crowd, including Damaris (UK), Odette (Canada), Aidan (Oz) and Lilia (France). Also a Czech couple, Denisa and Petr, and two British friends Raja and Louise who were staying in the Peacock Hotel nearby to Surfcity.

The house they were all staying at, was owned by a charming Sri Lankan lady called Silva. Her, her daughter and Karin, tended to my foot, which I only then noticed was bleeding quite badly. Since I had managed to rip open the crotch of my low-cut thai-style beach trousers while climbing over rocks earlier, Silva also gave me a towel and later a pair of shorts to protect my modesty, as the split in my trousers revealed a little too much when I sat down.

Silva managed to serve lunch for about twenty of us: an amazing act of hospitality. Over the meal, we were all able to exchange stories. Denisa, Petr and Karin had managed to climb over from the wooden Peacock Hotel to the adjacent reinforced-concrete one. From there Karin was shouting for people to save her children and was thinking of going back down during the flood to find them; thankfully Denisa stopped her. Meanwhile Luc was helplessly holding onto a tree as the waters rushed around him.

Damaris, who I had seen soaking wet immediately after the flood, was on the beach just before the “wave” hit. She had seen a man on the beach run off with his daughter, leaving his bag and mobile phone on the sand. Unaware of the approaching water, she had gone to pick them up, before being lifted up by the water and swept into the kitchen of our hotel. She managed to hold on to something as furniture and debris was being washed into the room, and the waters approached the ceiling of the kitchen. As she was managing to swim out of the kitchen, the waters dropped, after which she ran up to the second floor to join the rest of us. A very lucky escape.

Silva managed to bring out a radio for us and we tuned into some world news. The enormity of the situation struck us: the largest earthquake for forty years in Indonesia; a huge tsunami strikes Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

We realised that this was going to be headline news back home, and as people would be waking up back in Europe soon, it was important to get messages back home. However, neither of my parents was staying at home this year and I had no idea of the telephone numbers of the places they were staying at. And since I didn’t have my mobile phone with me, I had no idea what anyone’s mobile numbers were (it’s amazing how much we rely on our mobiles nowadays). Strangely enough the only mobile numbers I could remember were of an ex (Joost) and a school-friend (Aqib) who’s had the same number for yonks (and from the days when you were used to having to dial mobile numbers directly). The best I could do was to arrange to have Raja’s brother back in the UK leave messages on my mother’s, father’s and grandmother’s voicemails.

During the afternoon, both Odette, Karin and some of her children had gone back down to Unawatuna and had managed to come back up with a lot of their stuff. Desparate to go back and get my mobile phone to contact my family, I announce my intention to go down myself, at which point everyone says that it’s not a good idea and that it’s not safe down there. Odette offers to take me down herself, but everyone else’s advice gets to me.

That evening everyone starts getting cheerful as a bottle of wine is brought out. Not feeling up to the festivities, as I am the only one who hasn’t been able to reach my family, I quietly excuse myself and walk to the nearby Buddhist temple.

The temple has become a refuge for many of the people in town, and about fifty people are lying down on the temple floor, about to go to sleep. Unable to find a space, I take a seat on a bench and put my head and hands on my knees to fall asleep. One of the monks comes over to me and offers me his bed for the night. Thinking that he’s only asking me because I’m the only westerner there, I politely refuse. But after doing so about ten times due to his persistence, I finally accept. He takes me inside and gives me his bed, while he shares a bed with his roommate – again the hospitality amazes me.

The next morning I return to Silva’a house. There’s a French-Pakistani man there who insists on having a political debate and starts attacking virtually every government on the planet for the effects of the disaster. I didn’t exactly disagree with him completely, but I tend to play devil’s advocate in situations like these, as I think that people are too quick to blame governments for everything, as they are an easy target. Anyway, he seemed to think I was loony for challenging his opinions, and with the stress of still not having contacted my family, I had a bit of tantrum and stormed off. Fortunately it was just the motivation I needed to ignore everyone’s safety advice and go back down to the village.

Some of the buildings alongside the main road were completely destroyed. A pair of stone gateposts that must have been several hundred years old had been mercilessly knocked over. However there were many people milling about on the road, so I assumed it must be safe. There were no cars around, but several bikes and motorcycles were travelling along the road, their riders frequently having to get off to pull the bikes over some pieces of debris obstructing their path.

Surfcity Hotel is still there, but is surrounded by devastation. In particular, the Peacock Hotel where the Dutch family and Denisa and Petr were staying is now a pile of timber and corrugated iron. The route I took from Surfcity to the main road yesterday with bare feet is covered in rubble, glass and corrugated iron, which would explain why I and so many other people cut their feet in the escape. There is an eerie silence on the beach: nobody is around, the beach has changed shape, the glorious weather of the past week has been replaced by grey skies, and the occasional helicopter passes overhead.

I pack up all the stuff in my hotel room. My passport hiding place has been discovered by looters, but fortunately they have only taken about $40 of cash and left all my important documents and valuables (camera, minidisc player) behind. My flip-flops have also been taken, as someone else has worked out the importance of footwear after natural disasters.

With my camera safe and sound, I used the opportunity to take some photographs of the area:

The view in front of my hotel towards the beach
The view in front of my hotel towards the beach

The view behind my hotel towards the main road
The view behind my hotel towards the main road – before the tsunami the main road was completely obscured by buildings

The new Unawatuna beach
The new Unawatuna beach

Galle Road
Galle Road

More pictures at gallery.alexdixon.info/tsunami

Back at Surfcity, a group of youths is sifting through the sand outside the gem shop hoping to find something. I take loads of Sprites and Fantas from the upturned fridge in the kitchen, as I’m not sure when we’ll get the next bottle of water. The two girls (with shoes who ran off yesterday) and their boyfriends come along and say they need to break into the hotel safe to get their passports and documents out. One of them called Dave says he’s been in contact with the British High Commission and they agree with the idea, as long as he brings back any other passports he finds in the safe. After 2 minutes of banging at the rather weak safe (more like a filing cabinet), they succeed in retrieving the documents, and also pick out Gideon’s valuables, which I offer to take back for him.

With my full rucksack and a wooden staff I picked up to help with my damaged foot, I managed to hike back up to Silva’s house. Instead of rationing the Sprites and Fantas when I returned, we immediately tucked into them as treats! It did however allow me to sit down and talk with the Dutch kids. The only other languages I speak are French and Dutch, both at a barely intermediate level, which is a rather unfortunate combination: many French don’t want to listen to my French unless it is perfect, and many Dutch do not have the patience to listen to my Dutch, when it would be easier if I just spoke in English. The Dutch children however allowed me to speak to them in Dutch (although with a little help from Yoni, the second eldest).

Later, I finally managed to get a Sri Lankan mobile network to allow me to subscribe to it, and was able to send some SMS text messages back home, which cheered me up no end.

Silva's Refugee Camp
Silva’s Refugee Camp

Now, with a phone with no credit limit in hand, I started phoning the British High Commission in Colombo, to see if they could offer some advice. All their lines were busy, but I did manage to get through to the Dutch embassy, so I passed the phone over to Luc and Karin. Apparently, they could offer no help except to tell us to get to Colombo where we would be looked after. They couldn’t suggest any way for us to actually get to Colombo, as we had heard on the radio that the coastal road had been washed away. I get through to the British High Commission later, but they say pretty much the same thing.

The Surfcity dog, Milkshake, made an appearance later that afternoon and became our token dog refugee. Unfortunately Silva’s dogs were not as hospitable to Milkshake as Silva was to us, and there were lots of fights between them for the rest of the day.

The French-Pakistani man, who I had the argument with earlier, came over later and we both apologised to each other. His French mother however was much more hostile after the argument. She lives in the area and had managed to organise some minibuses to take some people away to the central highlands. Of course anyone who had had an argument with her or her son (specifically Odette, who had defended me after I stormed off, Damaris, and me) was not near the top of her list of people to help!

The Dutch family, Aidan and Lilia were going to get the minibuses that evening, and it was all quite emotional as we said farewell to each other. It turned out there wasn’t enough space for them anyway, so after walking around in the dark with all of their luggage for a while, they all came back and so Silva’s Refugee Camp was reunited for another night, but with plans to leave tomorrow morning.

We get woken up around midnight by Uli, a German man who was staying at Surfcity a few days ago, but left for Kandy in the highlands on the 24th. He had driven for twelve hours down from Kandy with a minbus full of water and food to “rescue” us – he’s also a web journalist so he also brought a video camera 🙂

In the morning, he asks some of us to share our experiences in front of the video camera:
Damaris’s and Yoni’s stories 56k | 256k
Alex’s and Gideon’s stories 56k | 256k
(Uli’s editorial licence makes me appear a little too left-wing, but I was just telling it like it was – but at least I seem to sound like Ben Fogle off Castaway!)

The minibus runs an errand into Galle, and from what we hear, the town is in a pretty bad condition – Odette, who went along with them, is particularly shocked. When the minibus returns, they load up with the Dutch family, Damaris and Odette. When it transpires that there might be space for one or two more people, there’s a bit of an undignified scramble, but the resulting sardine can full of people makes those left behind glad to be exactly that.

With Denisa and Petr away on the minbus, the rest of Silva’s Refugee Camp links up with Penny, Martin, Cristian, Emily, Ralph and Melody who have been staying with the family next door. They tell us that the British High Commission bussed out 80 foreign tourists in the morning and will be arranging more buses for that afternoon. Apparently the Hotel Paradiso further down the hill has been looking after huge numbers of tourists and they had no idea that there were more tourists like us who were staying up further up the hill.

Thinking that it’s better to be more centrally located, we thank Silva and her family for their enormous hospitality, and walk down to the Hotel Paradiso. There, Dave, the guy who broke into the Surfcity safe the day before, is running the show and has since become to British High Commission’s representative in Unawatuna! (He used to be an embassy warden.) There should be some more buses arriving in a few hours – so we wait.

With the prospect of arriving in Colombo late at night, I send SMSs to two friends in the UK who have family in Colombo. Both Sala and Pritiva send messages back saying that they should be able to arrange something. But at this point my phone is running dangerously low on battery.

When we hear that the bus has arrived, we traipse down to the road with all of our luggage. The road has now been cleared and is quite busy with traffic. I get a last look at Surfcity Hotel before our bus moves off. It really is one of the last remaining buildings in this corner of the beach:

The green wall is the back of Surfcity
The green wall is the back of Surfcity

Further along the road, we stop to pick up more tourists from the other side of Unawatuna. They all seem far more stressed than we are: there are about a hundred of them and they’ve all been staying at the same hotel that day. Pete, an English chap who I met on Christmas evening, climbs on board with his friends; it’s good to see at least one of the many people I got to know over the past week in Unawatuna. There were still many other people that I hadn’t seen since the flood.

Once we’re settled down, a photo-journalist climbs on board and takes a photo of all of us waiting to leave. Most people are pretty angry at being photographed at this sensitive time, so furiously tell him to go away.
A few days later I stumbled across his photo on the Reuters website:

Foreign tourists being evacuated from Unawatuna
Reuters image: Foreign tourists being evacuated from Unawatuna

Ten minutes later the bus passes through the main southern town of Galle. Just a few days ago, I had been to the market here, but now there was nothing. Hardly any buildings on either side of the road were still standing. There were even two boats that had been swept inland:

Since parts of the main coastal road have been swept away, the bus turns inland. We stop to grab some food from a shop, and Emily and Martin supply the whole bus with biscuits and miniature bananas! We also pass a petrol station where we see hundreds of Sri Lankans forming an orderly queue to get fuel.

Just before midnight we arrive in Colombo. I was expecting we were going to be dropped off there and left to fend for ourselves, but am pleased as we get invited into the British High Commission. Inside the incredibly well-spoken staff give us food, water, first aid and a phone call. They also want to know who else we have seen, and they are pleased when I tell them that Emma and Eugene, who stayed at Camp Silva for one night, were okay, since they had been reported as missing. As I’m waiting to make a phone call, I get to sneak a look at the email account of the official looking after me: I see tens of emails in her inbox about British government statements, lists of missing people in Phuket and Arugam Bay etc.

I phone Pritiva’s sister and mother who had offered to put me up for the night. Ten minutes later they arrive at reception. While all the other tourists are taken to the main Colombo concert hall to be given a mattress, I’m whisked off to a family home, a lovely meal and a nice soft bed.

Epilogue:
I spent the next two days with Pritiva’s mother Indira, sister Anjalika and aunt Chun, in Colombo. My family were keen to have me home, but it was only when I got a chance to watch the horrific images on BBC News, that I thought it best to come back to the UK immediately, rather than carry on with my trip to Thailand. I was able to arrange a flight to take me home the next day.

Links:
Uli’s Internet TV site with videos of Unawatuna – www.web62.com
Please donate to the Disasters Emergency Committee
Wikipedia article on the 2004 Earthquake/Tsunami
Alex’s pictures of Unawatuna

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18 Responses to “The Tsunami Story (Unawatuna)”

  1. Olivia Dixon Says:

    What an amazing account: it fills in a lot of gaps, thank you. It seems to me you have been incredibly, incredibly, lucky. How wonderful those Sri Lankans are: so hospitable, and the monk so selfless…lolyrmxxx

  2. Roger Wrightham (Friend of Adam Freeman's dad) Says:

    Brilliant account and photos. You were extremely fortunate to get away unscathed. My daughter has an appeal day at school tomorrow for Tsunami and I am printing this account for her to take. Hopr you don’t mind.
    thanks and good luck.

  3. Uli Says:

    Hi Alex,

    sorry to read, that you felt like squashed into “a left corner” 🙂

    Good luck with new job !

    Uli

  4. ang Says:

    this was a gripping account to read. do you know if nilok is ok? he drove the green tuk tuk and worked from surfcity. i knew him summer 2004 when i stayed at surf city.thank you

  5. Titus Rodrigo Says:

    I read some of the storis told about my beloved, beautiful country. I wish my people will see the the God given beauty as these visitors see it,and love it and cherich it, and pass it to the next generation.
    God Almighty Who warns us and invite for coversion so that we may not perish forever will definitely build it again as it is God’s santuary. But the speed will depend on our coopration of ourselves. Budhist who persecute Christian over there as well as the government leaders as well as the terrorist who destroying the country for last 23 years destrying should learn to love and share each otherwith respectand caring.
    Titus Rodrigo

  6. Carlos Sousa Says:

    Hi Alex,
    I started reading one of your stories in India and suddenly I found myself reading the hole travel diary!
    Damn, I can say you are a great adventurer. The tsunamy one was terrific. I also read a story of your friend Cora that was stolen during her visit to London! (And I thought I was an adventurer just because desperately I had to sleep one night in hide park! Nonsense!).
    With such a travel experience you must have, I wonder if you ever considered working and living in any of the counties you have visited.
    Looking forward to read more stories
    Carlos

  7. sampath Ariyasena Says:

    we are very greatfull about your report which was you faced tsunamy victim. so we are all the time with Dissater management information work. it is realy greatfull your massage to early worning system about the disaster. so we are hopping to trancelate your report to sinhala and tamil language and deliver to the read inside community of the country.

    if you have any massage please send us

    thenks

    sampath Ariyasena,
    president,
    Mihimaw science foundation
    36/1,
    wanatha Rd,
    Gangadawila,
    Nugegoda,
    Sri Lanka.

  8. Bram Says:

    Nice story, still makes me relive that day whenever I read stories like this.

  9. asoka Says:

    2006-04-10th
    I was reading through your account.
    Unawatuna is now almost back to normal, only a couple of places to be repaired still as some do not wish to come back.
    Most of the pwople were helped by past visitors.

  10. Umayr Says:

    when u talk about pritiva are u talking about pritiva abeyratne? she used to teach me biology in secondary school i wud like to know how she is doing.. nice one

  11. Urban Svensson Says:

    Hi survivers of boxing day!
    We are going to Galle soon and therefore we find your story. We have almost exact same experience but from Koh Lanta in Thailand. I saw two fisherman drawned just in front of me and it was impossible to do anything about it. We climbed up on a high mountain for six hours and spend the night there just wearing swimsuits. We have two daughters 6 and 11 at the time. It was scaring but we have returned to Thailand two times after the Tsunami. Now we want to see some other part of asia and see forward to go to Colombo, Kandy and Galle 25 feb-6 mars 2010. Do you have some conection to any people there and do you knew some need for your Sri Lanka friends we can bring there – let us know. I think we can carried something (not so heavy stuff) and handle that to them. Best regards Urban

  12. Fr.Titus Rodrigo Says:

    I read this story again after 6 years . I am back in Sri Lanka as the principal of this college. well, if you still you read these please reply me. Fr.Titus

  13. Fr.Titus Rodrigo Says:

    today is 27th October 2013. Time is passing quite fast. 30years war is over.
    More visitors come to Sri Lanka. But we need to love and care for each other even though we believe different religions and born to different ethnic groups yet we belong to one human kind. Till we begin to live this in truth this problem will last.

  14. telephone Says:

    This website was… how do you say it? Relevant!! Finally I’ve
    found something that helped me. Kudos!

  15. dien dan rao vat tong hop Says:

    Can I simply say what a relief to find somebody that genuinely knows what they
    are discussing on the web. You certainly know how to bring an issue to light and
    make it important. More and more people have to read this and understand this
    side of your story. I can’t believe you’re not more popular given
    that you certainly have the gift.

  16. UrbanDuniya – Just another day In paradise… Unawatuna Says:

    […] Alexander Dixon was a British tourist staying at the SurfCity Hotel on 26th December 2004, and from his terrifying blog post I could gather that he would have been staying on the same floor, if not the same room, as the one […]

  17. Tsunamien i 2004 - Turen Går Til Sri Lanka Says:

    […] Læs også en førstehåndsberetning (på engelsk) fra den dag tsunamien ramte Unawatuna […]

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