Just ordinary people, on an ordinary day... then the waters took them

The flood receded to reveal heart-breaking and inspiring tales. Cole Moreton reports
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The Independent Online

The baby

Suppiah Tulasi was sleeping in the back room of the restaurant run by her mother and father in the holiday resort of Penang, northern Malaysia, when the tsunami struck. She was just 20 days old. The powerful waters that surged through the building swept her father and mother away with no idea what had happened to their defenceless child. Customers sitting at tables were carried off, some to their death. The couple survived, however, and picked their way through mud and wreckage back to the restaurant, where the roof had caved in. The baby's mother, Annal Mary, was astonished to find her child still alive. "Thank God the mattress was floating in water about five feet deep," said the father, A Suppiah. "My baby was crying."

The mother

Louise Willgrass, 43, was on her way to the beach in Phuket, Thailand, when she popped into a supermarket to buy suncream. Her husband, Nigel, also 43, and their four children stayed in the car. They never saw Louise alive again. When the tidal wave struck their car, Mr Willgrass and the children - aged between six and 16 - escaped and stayed afloat by holding on to debris. Despite the devastation all around them the children kept their heads. "They were all calm, a bit scared, but they didn't complain or panic - they were so brave." Mr Willgrass, from Colney near Norwich, later found his wife's body among many in the morgue. "I wanted to take her wedding ring and they wouldn't let me. There was nobody there for me," he said. "Louise was a really kind girl with many, many friends. Her one thing was her family, her children - the things you take for granted until they are taken away from you."

The toddler

Four-year-old Vathanyu Pha-opas was left stranded in a tree without food and water while more than 1,000 Thais and tourists in the resort of Khao Lak were killed around him. The child was playing near his home when the wave came. "I was convinced I had lost him, because he could not swim," said his father, Suthipong Pha-opas, who was in a boat with a friend five miles out at sea at the time of the disaster. They floated for more than four hours before being rescued. "I don't know how he survived with only minor bruises and mosquito bites," he said. "I had given up hope of seeing him again."

The fisherman

Raja Shekar lost his home, his family's possessions, his life savings in cash, his livelihood and his sister. "I was working on my nets on the shore," said the fisherman from Kanaga Chettkuluan, a village on the eastern coast of India. "We saw the water coming and I ran with my sister back to the house. The water came and it just dragged her back out. By then the water level was above the door." His neighbours ran for higher ground but Mr Shekar stayed. "I searched three hours for my sister, but I couldn't find her. Nobody else was here, everybody had run. I should have run too but I wanted to find her." When the water had gone, leaving smashed wood and foliage all around, he found her body 60 feet from the house. Saraga, 20, was buried with a dozen others from the beach, without the usual Hindu rituals. One of the dead was three years old. She had slipped from her father's grasp as they ran.

The rescuer

Jo-Anne Wau ran for her life as the waters rose on the island of Nias, off the Sumatran coast. The British-born woman urged children to join her on higher ground, but one little girl, Malarti, 10, fell and was being sucked down a drain until Mrs Wau, 27, managed to grab her by the hair to stop her disappearing. She held the screaming child until help arrived. "I don't think she would want to be singled out for praise," said Mrs Wau's mother, Annette Windle, from Sheffield, who spoke to her daughter on the phone afterwards. "There were incredible things happening." Mrs Wau has lived on Nias for four years and married a local man in October.

The exiles

Moulana Mazahir, who lives in Harrow, north London, lost more than 50 relatives when the wall of water swept through his home town of Hambantota, a resort in southern Sri Lanka.

His wife and three sons had been on holiday until three hours before the disaster. "My wife is terrified - she has lost almost all her family," said Mr Mazahir. "Their homes have been destroyed and their bodies are being found daily. I can't imagine what it was like - within minutes everything changed. It has devastated my family. I feel helpless here, there is nothing I can do." His elder brother, Seyed Hameed, was burying members of the family as bodies were found. "I would not have the strength to do what he is doing."

The teenager

Meghna Rajshekhar, 13, survived for two days in the water by clinging on to a floating door, while the island she lived on was devastated. The daughter of an officer in the Indian air force was found walking on a beach, dazed, after being washed back to shore on the island of Car Nicobar in the Andaman Sea. Her mother and father had been killed along with 7,100 others when the tsunami destroyed an air base and settlements on the island. She shouted out when helicopters came overhead looking for survivors, but was not heard or seen. Meghna was heavily bruised but hopeful, as she knew she was drifting towards shore. The commander of the air base, VV Bandhopadhyay, said her survival was "a miracle in the midst of the disaster the tsunami wreaked".

The cricketers

At nine in the morning, two teams were playing cricket on an idyllic pitch in Cuddalore, on the coast of southern India. Moments later, without warning, the mighty wave carried boats, cars and the remains of smashed houses through the air and across the playing field, sweeping away every one of the sportsmen. "We saw the cricket people running forward; the waves were following them and attacked them," said Ajit, nine. "The waves went out 15 seconds later and we didn't see any of the cricketers in the water. They were all covered. I saw an auto-rickshaw rolling in the water and a car floating past us." Ajit heard a neighbour shout "run" and he did so, with his younger brother. He did not look round, so did not see his neighbour covered by the wave.

The teacher

Many of those caught up in the disaster have posted their reactions on websites, alongside messages appealing for information on the missing. "My cousin's five-month-old son has been taken away by those wicked waves," wrote a teacher, anonymously, from Sri Lanka. "They lived in Polhena, one of the beautiful coastal areas. About 80 per cent of my schoolchildren have lost their houses and all of their belongings. My cousin's son's dead body has been found and has been buried in a common grave together with about another 150 dead bodies. My cousin asks me how she can bear it when her breasts fill with milk for her lost kid."

The sons

Sharon Howard was as happy as she had ever been on Boxing Day. She had just agreed to marry her boyfriend, David Page, 44, a deep-sea diver. "They sounded so happy," said her mother, Rita. "They were having a wonderful holiday." When the tsunami hit the resort of Khao-Lak Phang-Nga, north of Phuket, she survived but lost her fiance and her two sons. The youngest, Taylor, six, was found dead. Mason, eight, and Mr Page, were missing, feared dead. Ms Howard, 37, from Hayle in Cornwall, is in a Thai hospital recovering from head injuries.

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