On the 26th December 2004, at around 9am, the coastlines of Sumatra, Thailand, The Nicobar and Andaman Islands, The Maldives and Sri Lanka were all hit by a massive Tsunami that had originated just off the coast of Indonesia. In Sri Lanka, beachside properties were pulverised and over 30,000 people lost their lives. A further 5,500 are still unaccounted for. In an interview with Polo’s Bastards, Richard Everingham describes the moment the Tsunami hit the hotel he and his partner were staying at, and the following hours of fear and uncertainty as they made their way onto higher ground.
Q. Richard, when did you arrive in Sri Lanka and what was the purpose of your visit?
My partner, Gabrielle and I had planned our trip to Sri Lanka shortly after returning from a trip to north India the previous January 2004. We usually plan to go away over this period, because we can take holiday out of both years’ allowance and take up to 3 weeks. The trip was planned as a combined holiday and cultural visit, combining a few days on the beach with a tour of the island’s archaeological and Buddhist sites.
Q. Where were you staying?
The first 3 days – from the 24th December, when we arrived, until the 27th December on Unawatuna beach – 10Kms south of Galle on the south coast of Sri Lanka.
Q. Can you describe the resort? Size of hotel, proximity to the beach, number of guests etc…
Unawatuna is known as one of the 12 best beaches in the world. This was certainly borne out. The beach is on a long (approximately 2Kms) bay with a reef about 1Km out to sea. The beach itself is fairly narrow and is ringed by guest houses, small restaurants, a small number of hotels and dive centres. Palm trees provide natural shade. Unawatuna is a beautiful place.
We usually stay in guest houses on these trips, but on this occasion we wanted a bit more comfort. We were also only staying 3 days so needed to unwind and rest after the journey to Sri Lanka. We stayed at the Unawatuna Beach Resort (UBR). The UBR is right on the beach with the restaurant overlooking the beach itself. It has around 50 rooms and was around three quarters full.
Q. Were there other hotels close by?
There was a very new hotel 100metres south of the UBR. This was completely demolished by the wave. There were also some beach bungalows and a small restaurant, all of which were destroyed.
Q. What kind of age groups were there?
All ages, including many families with young and teenage children.
Q. Tell me about the the surrounding terrain. Was it hills, forest, jungle etc…?
The Galle Road (going all the way north to Colombo and further south round to Yalla (national reserve) ran approximately 200 metres back from the beach. Behind this there was a fairly sheer hill; mainly jungle, with some local houses built half way up.
Q. Where were you when you first noticed something wasn’t right?
It was approximately 09:15am in the morning and we were in our room on the second floor. We heard a loud noise, like a storm, and much shouting and screaming. On looking out the window we saw a torrent of water forcing between single story houses next door, and across an old tennis court.
Q. What was your first reaction?
Our instant reaction was to pull shorts and T-shirts on and abandon the room. We left the room and looked over a veranda at the back of the hotel. We saw deep water filling the space up to the hill behind the Galle Road. People were taking shelter on house roofs. We ran along the corridor leading to the stairs down to ground level.
Q. At what point did you begin to realise the seriousness?
We knew the situation was serious when we saw the water and heard screaming. This became clearer as I saw people on roofs, some locals looking after young, white children (we assumed their parents were missing). At the end of the corridor most of the other tourists were sheltering. The hotel staff had realised something was wrong and had managed to get most of the tourists (having breakfast at the time) up to the second floor before the full force of the water hit.
Q. Were you struck by the water?
We were lucky, as were most of the UBR residents and staff. Only residents, who were still in their ground floor rooms and some first floor rooms got hit by the water. The second floor was high enough to keep us clear of the water.
Q. Were there bodies or people drowning around you? People trapped in cars or buried in the debris?
Once the initial water had receded, we all left the hotel. The hotel staff wanted us all to grab what we could and make for the jungle. Most did but about 15 of us decided that it was safer and more comfortable (avoiding snakes, ants etc.) to shelter in a newer hotel block, on higher ground, on the second floor. As we made our way to this, we were aware only of two or three deaths; an old lady who had been trapped under an upturned car, and two others who had looked after a local shop. Apart from this there were many injuries, including broken arms and legs. The injured were brought to the hotel block, where we patched them up. Hotel staff brought water and anything else they could salvage, although the hotel restaurant, kitchen, reception, all ground floor and some 1st floor rooms and the swimming pool were demolished. After a while the injured were ferried up to the Galle Road, where local available transport (scarce) took them to hospital in Galle.
Q. How would you describe your emotions as the full event unfolded before you?
Emotional, we were fairly traumatised at this time, although aware that we had to stay calm for the sake of the locals and children. I had returned to the beach and seen that the sea had been sucked out beyond the reef – over 1Km away. There was an empty sea basin with the reef wall in the distance. I realised the water had to come back and this introduced some panic. The 15 or so of us sheltering in the hotel block really looked out for each other until approximately 2 hours after the first wave, the second one hit. This was very frightening, as we didn’t know how high it would come. In the end we felt the reef gave shelter to Unawatuna and as a result, the second wave was not as big and the bay probably suffered less than it might have done.
Q. How complete was the destruction?
Pretty much complete: All except concrete hotels were demolished. Trees uprooted, cars and Tuc Tuc’s were destroyed.
Q. Were people helping others or was it every man for himself?
Everyone was helping each other. The locals were more frightened of the water than ourselves, as most could not swim. Most had headed for the hills. Those of us that stayed in the hotel block felt safe but were on our own except for hotel staff. We all helped as much as we could. Eventually, a group of us started to help some of the locals pull away debris and try to get motor vehicles running.
Q. Once you were out of immediate danger, what did you do?
I had my mobile, and approx 6 hours after the first wave, I got through to my mother. Our driver was due to pick us up on the 27th to start the tour of the island, so I called him too. He said he would set off early the next morning (2am) and, using inland routes (the Galle Road had mainly been swept away), come down for us. Meanwhile, we just sat it out.
Q. Was there many of you in your group by this time?
By 4pm in the afternoon there were only 10 of us left – 4 English, 2 Germans and 4 French. At 6pm we were told by the hotel to leave as another wave was expected and possibly a Typhoon. We were told to make our way 4Kms to a Temple, up the hill. The French family got a lift, but the 6 of us were left behind to walk. On reaching the Galle Road however, locals panicked, thinking another wave was coming, so we had to climb into the jungle. By this time it was dark. The 6 of us sheltered for around an hour in the jungle but this was impossible. We eventually came down and saw lights up the hill a little further up the road. We went up some steps and came across a Sri Lankan family house, already sheltering about 6 people. The family told us all to come up, where they fed us and eventually put cushions on the floor for the women of the house and the 12 or so of us tourists.
Q. Was there fear of a second wave?
Constantly, as we still didn’t know what had happened.
Q. Did you see any children who’d been traumatised by the event, and who’d lost their parents? This seemed to be what really touched the watching world.
We saw many children, including Sri Lankan and tourists who were in bad shape. It was important for adults to stay calm for their sake. Most of our time during the day was spent looking after the children.
Q. Were you able to get back to the hotel to collect any of your things?
At around 5pm I had the foresight to go back to our room, pack all our belongings and get them out. Although we had to dump them when we had to run into the jungle, we retrieved them when we sheltered overnight with the Sri Lankan family.
Q. Did you have to stay long before you were able to fly home?
Mr Lionel, our driver arrived at 10:30am the next day. We decided to head inland, and took the German couple with us. The girl was blind, so extremely freaked by the events. We went up to Ella in the hills, where we decided to stay on our tour. We had been told by Police and Army in Unawatuna to move inland and that the Sri Lankan people would appreciate any of us staying. We also realised that there would be thousands of package tourists heading to Colombo who didn’t have rooms and would need to get home. We had a tour booked including rooms, so felt it was safer to stay on until the 8th Jan, when we were scheduled to fly home. The trip ceased to be a holiday and on many occasions we felt like coming home. The majority of Sri Lankans are Buddhist and this philosophy helps carry them through. At the beginning of the second week – around the 2nd Jan, there were 42 camps in Galle. This had reduced to 19 by the 4th as people returned home to start re-building. It has been worse coming home and for the first two weeks I had nightmares about the flood, and also guilt about living/getting away. I still feel it was right to stay on. We know that we helped the economy of Sri Lanka, and we left all our clothes etc. with a relief agency. We also met UK army and MOD, and they assured us that relief was in much evidence all up the East coast (most badly affected) and around Galle. They had left as they felt they would have been intruding.
Q. How do you feel about the people who kept their holiday plans and headed to the beaches among the devastation and bodies as reported by the media?
This didn’t happen and wasn’t allowed to happen in Sri Lanka; only in Thailand. However, we felt the Thais were misguided when we finally learned about this but understand that tourism is their livelihood. Of course, even the Thais had to abandon this eventually – thank god.
Q. Do you think you’ll be going back?
Yes – the people of Sri Lanka are beautiful and very friendly. They deserve to have a tourist industry and we only managed 3 days in Unawatuna. Probably not this year but maybe in 2006.
By Lee Ridley, speaking to Richard Everingham