What was all that about…? Sri Lanka and Tsunami

Its, 4.10am on 31st of Dec. The date of this travel log should have been the 26th of Dec and the content more cheerful. We had arrived in Sri Lanka on the 12th and we spent a couple of weeks getting ourselves sorted and buying a jeep before going over to Arugam Bay. We bought an old Land Rover and had a few problems getting it to work well enough to go across the country. We finally got it going and arrived in Arugam Bay at 7.30am Christmas morning. We nearly didn’t go for Christmas and was going to stay in Colombo, but we were on a mission to get there so the kids could have Christmas on the beach. Penny and the kids spent the day chilling and swimming in the sea and I spent it fixing the last few problems on the Land Rover with my new found local mechanic. We had dinner in the evening and opened our presents.
I woke up the next day around 8.00am. I thought… this is the first day or the rest of my life and all that… or at least whilst I am in Arugam Bay. I had done a deal with myself that if I did not have time to go for a swim every morning… then I was doing something wrong. This was the first day of living that dream, I finally had the time! Angus came down with me and was a bit scared so he sat on the top of the beach which was about 5 foot above the shore line. I went for a swim and came out. I had my breakfast and had my laptop already sitting at the breakfast table ready to do my ‘and so the journey ends’ travel log. I had my back to the sea and Angus was near by. I was talking to Sri the girl who jointly owns the Galaxy Hotel and has spent the last year building it up. We were chatting away and… her face looked concerned as she looked out to sea, I looked around and saw the sea bubbling up 30 feet from me. I said ‘ is this normal for here’ Sri’s face said it all, I got up and now saw a 10 foot wall of shit moving towards me at about 10 miles an hour. I started running and realised we had a tidal wave hitting the beach.
‘PENNY, GET OUT OF THE HUT, RUN FOR YOUR LIVES, A WAVE IS COMING’… ‘ANGUS ANGUS WHERE ARE YOU’. Penny popped her head out of our little wooden hut and lucky for once in her life was on time and left with Sasha who had been playing on her new phone and Claudia who had been playing with the sand just outside. It was now about 20 seconds after I still had a fried egg on the end of my fork. We were running down the road behind the Galaxy away from the sea. I still had the laptop in my hand, looking back I could see the wave taking all the huts with it and thought it was about time I let go of the laptop.’WHERE IS ANGUS?’ ‘ PENNY!’ Angus, when he wants to, I know, can out run me, he was in front, he had seen the sea coming in and didn’t need any encouragement. We were all together when we got to the road, there was nothing on the other side what seemed like for ever to climb up. There was an army Land Rover and we piled the kids in, the water hit us, Claudia was on the bottom of the Land Rover as people climbed in on top of her. We all clambered for the roof. The first time I thought we might all die is when the vehicle then just lifted up and flipped over throwing us into what I can only describe as a fast moving flooded river. I fell in and came up for air moving along with the current. We were now probably a few minutes into it. It was like a real bad dream, I was not in control of the plot… but I was in control of me… I saw Angus starting to go by me, I grabbed his hand and not like my night mares I had hold of him and was not going to let go. We flew along bashing into vehicles, fridges, bits of woods, and clung on to anything that was floating. We had no idea where we where going and I had no idea where the other three where, you didn’t have time to look around or yell, we where dragged under by the current, I pushed Angus’s hand up so he might still get air, I swallowed a load of sand and water, yet was calm and new I would come up again. I clung to various floating debris and as the wave finally started to lose its power we slammed into a palm tree and I put Angus on top of the crap that had built up around it… and hung on. I looked back and Penny was doing the same. She had some how managed to pull Claudia out from the bottom of the Land Rover and get her on top of it within seconds and hold on to her for the last 300m.
‘PENNY… WHERE IS SASHA? PENNY… PENNY.. WHERE IS SASHA?’ Penny was looking frantically fifty feet away from me, we could not see her, the sludge was now down to 4-5 feet deep. Do I dive in? Where do I dive in ‘SASHA WHERE ARE YOU’ That was the worst moment of my life, what I did in the next few minutes could save or lose Sasha’s life. Sasha had fallen in and rode the river ride on her own. She managed to grab hold of the back of a fridge that had been wedged between two trees and had stopped her ride a hundred feet or so before us. A plank of wood had slammed into her and she had to pull a nail out of her foot whilst holding on. The water level went down. A very nice guy called Stefan from Sweden saw her situation and gave her a piggy back over to Penny. I will never forget seeing Sasha appearing out of nowhere on Stefan’s back. Stefan, you are my night in shining armour, thank you very much for what you did. We grouped together. We were calm, no one was crying, ‘Dad… what was that’ ‘It was an earthquake at sea Angus’ I’d seen a documentary on tidal waves a year early. I had wanted to watch it to see if they happened in Sri Lanka. Up to now they had not.
‘ Eese OK now, we go back beach… OK now’
Think… think…. Oh yeah…the documentary also said there is often more than one wave . ‘GET ON THE ROOF’ ‘I don’t want get on the roof daddy’ ‘GET ON THE ROOF!’ We had no clothes on, just swimmers and pants… I pushed Penny up on a roof and she dragged the kids up. ‘HELP ME, I’VE BROKEN MY LEG’ A woman was on the ground near by ‘Don’t leave me down here to die’. ‘BILL THERE IS A NOTHER WAVE COMING! GET UP HERE NOW…BILL!’ What do I do, do I leave here… do I help her… fuck I haven’t got time to work out what to do ‘GET UP, HOLD ON HERE… GET UP THERE’. I shoved her up and she was dragged onto the roof. I then started to clamber up climbing on the jagged bricks sticking out but they kept on breaking under my weight, the doctors have always said being too heavy could kill me…. ‘BILL GET UP HERE’ ‘DADDY GET UP HERE THE WAVEIS COMING’ I could see it now, it was 20 feet away. I got up there some how. Woosh… it swept through the house filling up to about 5 feet and then resided away. Bendu, the Sri Lankan guy who had got up there with us said ‘It’s Ok now, we go back now..’ ‘You said that 20 minutes go. We’ll stay here.’ Woosh, another wave. I took a lot of the tiles off and got a firm footing on top of one of the outer walls. ‘Guys you better come off the top of the roof. If any of the walls go you will go with it’ ‘I don’t want to move Daddy’ ‘GET OFF THE ROOF!’ They clambered down, even Helen (we knew her name by now) and stood on the edge of the house.
‘Daddy, can I have a sprite tonight?’ A big beaming smile from Claudia trying to make fun of the situation, what a star. We had another four waves hit the house over about an hour… each time the water would go right down showing the grass. What to do, what do we do? Do we stay, do we move, the house is not going to take much more…. and then it happened, a massive wave came in bringing a wall ten feet high of shit. It hit the house and it shook, rushing through it only a few feet from ours. This is the second time I thought we might all die. I climbed up the roof where they had all been sitting after the wave had gone to see where we could go, and the other side of the house… had literally disappeared, there was not rubble on the floor, it had just all floated away. We had Andrew with us by now, he was a very capable German we found in a palm tree 20 feet away. Everyone was saying we should make a move to some high rocks after this one as the house won’t hold another wave.
What do we do, we go down and a wave comes we’re dead. We stay here and another big wave comes and we’re dead. I remember looking up and seeing a load of birds that looked like vultures and all I could think was ‘you lot can fuck right off’ ‘OK let get down! Lets go!’ We could see the rock 200m away through the trees and it was shit or bust. Get to dry land and move to what we thought was the final level of the game we where in and win a price… our lives. We clambered down stumbling through rubble, grass and god knows what else was under the knee deep water. We kept falling over, I had Sasha’s hand, Andrew had Helen, Bendu had Angus and Penny had Claudia. We where not going to lose anyone again on the next wave. Whilst walking in the open a helicopter came over… Sasha was so pleased to see it and thought it was going to rescue us, we waved madly and Claudia did one of her best screams ever to try and get attention. It flew past, it saw us, it kept going. If any one thinks Sasha is a sweet innocent little princess, think again, you should here what she called that helicopter when it was disappearing out of site. I was shocked.
We had to swim across two rivers currents to get across and we… finally got there. We clambered up and just sat on dry rock and felt absolutely chuffed to bits. We were ALL going to live!’
Helen was in agony and the kids all gathered round to keep her conscious, Andrew and Bendu went off to get help and came back with a tractor and trailer.about twenty minutes later. We all got out and headed for higher ground where there was a hospital of some sorts. There we dead and dying bodies, people screaming, people walking around like nothing had happened. The kids had seen people drown in front of them… not a word… on their best behaviour. Helping others doing as they where asked the first time… smiling… amazing..but obviously deep in shock.
We grouped together and realised what had happened. It was disappointing to learn it was not a local thing for the obvious reasons as well as the fact that we would be very low on any ones ‘get me out of here’ list. We started finding places to boil water and look for food. The bridge we were told that connected Arugam Bay to Pottervil had gone. We were stranded. It really was ‘ ah… another sneaky level to the game, it’s not over yet, you win when your out of here… not just the water!’
We heard there was another, even bigger wave on its way. I thought, if this hits in the night, I just don’t… think I have the energy to do all that again… we need the facts, not gossip. ‘Where did you here this?’, ‘CNN, my sat .phone is working’. Annie, an ex BBC hack piped up. ‘Bloody CNN, they often get their facts wrong, bet that’s bollocks’.
‘Annie, can you remember the switch board no. for the BBC?’, ‘Yeah’. ‘Where’s that guy with the phone’. Anne called the BBC and after persuading the receptionist that she really should put her through to the news desk even though she did sound a little annoyed, they confirmed that there was no more waves on there way.’ I remembered the switch for News International and checked with the Times and my old paper the Sun. ‘We’re surrounded by crocodiles, its terrible!’ Annie was not impressed ‘You can tell you’re an ex bloody Sun man… there’s no crocodiles here!’ ‘Annie, someone saw one face to face today… and we need to get our story out there’… the penny dropped and we both rang up news desks telling them our story… telling them they must get on to the Foreign office and get some helicopters to get us out of there.
Even Sasha did her bit ‘You got to get us out of here’ she pleaded with a BBC reporter. We had boiled water, coconut milk and a slice of lobster for dinner. The Army were very helpful but did not get the joke that if they had lobster they must have some Champagne sooooome where hidden back at camp. An NGO with some sneaky supplies took pity on Angus and offered him some sweet bread and pineapple jam. ‘Do you have any honey?’ The guy stared back… Angus smiled ‘Pineapple jam will be great’. We sat around a fire and all hoped something would come and save us. Penny was my source of energy, she had kept calm through the whole thing and had sat up stroking the kid’s hair keeping them calm and their spirits high, I am so proud of my wife and my children, we should have all been dead, but we stuck together and worked as team. I will never forget the courage and stamina they all showed that day.
It started to rain and we huddled into a porch next to the morgue full of… people grieving and yelling for their loved ones in their sleep, it was very morbid until one of the locals let off an amazing raspberry inches from Angus’s face that echoed around the room… we couldn’t help it, we were with three kids… we all got the uncontrollable giggles. At daybreak it had stopped raining and so we all went back outside. They must have thought us in very poor taste.
I felt like absolute shit, I had no shoes, no T shirt, just my swimmers and a sheet tied around my neck looking like a bad toga party effort. I picked a tree that would be in the shade, I lay down with Angus and we cuddled up, I had still not slept and having not slept Christmas Eve, was completely knackered.
Bub bub bub bub bub bub bub bub bub bub, ‘Fuck me I thought, it might have actually worked!’ I stood up and in came the first one. It landed at a place one helicopter had landed the day before to take out one of the Sri Lankan ministers. Dam… wrong place! We started walking down to the other area; Sasha was in agony due to her nail injury in her foot. There where 30+ people there, ‘This person should go first’, ‘Well I think my family should go first’ … there was no one in charge. The head of the Task Force who I had become friendly with the night before was not around. The area kept filling up with people. Another helicopter flew over head…. it can’t land her I thought, it must land further up the hill. ‘I think we should go back…’ ‘ Daddy, I don’t want to go back…’ ‘Lets go!’. We left, I was not going to say, ‘Get the wounded up the hill’ for every decent person there, there was another that would be on that chopper in no time’ ‘I thought, bollocks to this, it’s every man for himself, I’ve got to get my family out of here, all these people are single, they can be heroes, I’m taking care of my family before a load more perfectly healthy people who didn’t even get wet get on. We clambered up the hill, we guessed right , a chopper landed and there was about 40 people just staring at it, there was no one in charge and no one new what to do ‘RUN, RU N, RUN FOR THE HELECOPTER’ ‘ RUN!’ The pilot saw us coming and I tried to have that ‘we’re next on the list, honest mate, look’. We threw the kids on and Andrew saw we were there, he held back and then saw that no one else was getting on ‘ANDREW GET ON’. He did a very nice running jump onto Penny’s mashed up leg and we were off.
We lifted up and we just all smiled and started yelling with happiness. We flew over Arugam Bay, or at least where it had been. Most of the hotels had completely disappeared. The restaurant where I had been eating my breakfast less that 24hours earlier was now a patch of sand.
Angus has seen solders on our trip, he seen army camps and he has seen tanks. The helicopter that lifted us out was exactly the same as the ones you will see in any ‘Naam’ film, same age with no doors and one massive machine gun on each side. When the gunner with live ammunition smiled and shook his hand he new this was the icing on the cake. If you have been following our journal all along you will know that Angus has now learnt first hand what running around like a headless chicken means, he knows not to drop the ball… and he now knows exactly what the the saying ‘Go with the flow’ means.

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