The Big Moment: Officials were overwhelmed. Monks fed the frantic crowds as best they could

A series of articles from <i>The Independent</i> archive recalling key events of the past decade: the Indonesian Tsunami - Boxing Day 2004
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In its original usage, the term meant something akin to "harbour wave" in Japanese. Five years ago, it came to mean much more than that, and this time to a global audience. A devastating undersea earthquake, with an epicentre off the west coast of Sumatra, in Indonesia, measured between 9.1 and 9.3 on the Richter scale, the second strongest earthquake ever recorded on a seismograph. It triggered a series of smaller tsunamis, vividly manifested in waves upto 30 metres (100ft) high. In all, nearly 230,000 people were killed in 11 countries, with most of the land masses touched by the Indian Ocean severely affected. The scenes of ruination and catastrophe were perhaps most appalling in Sri Lanka, from where our correspondent filed the report below.

Walking past what had once been Galle's bus station, I found the elderly Nilina along with the others sifting through the remains of their homes. "When the water came I should have been at my seafront stall selling coconuts and betel but I was on holiday with family at a house inland," she said, her frail voice barely audible. "You may think I'm fortunate but we have lost about 50 relatives. My family had to rescue babies, children from rooftops. I do not know what the future holds."

Ifti Muaheed, one of the many jewellers in Galle, the town perched proudly on the southern tip of Sri Lanka, where King Solomon once purchased his fabulous jewels, stood staring at the ruins of his shop. Tens of thousands of pounds worth of precious stones – including dozens of the unique star sapphires for which the area is renowned – were washed away when the waters smashed through his windows.

"Three generations of our family business have gone just like that," he said.

Yesterday, as the torrents of water drained slowly away, the celebrated town was a damp and devastated shadow of its former self. The colonial streets leading to the imposing 17th-century Dutch fort were gone, flattened by the worst natural disaster the country had ever seen.

Matthew O'Connell, an American who was one of thousands of tourists in Sri Lanka when the tsunami struck, was on Galle's beach when the first wave came up and swept him hundreds of metres inland. "I thought I was dead. I thought it was the end of the world," he said. "You know your life flashes before your eyes. It happened to me."

These scenes of devastation, grief and incomprehension were replicated along the southern coastal regions of the island as residents and visitors struggled to take in the full extent of the disaster, which claimed 12,000 lives in Sri Lanka alone. Across the region the toll was heading towards 25,000.

From the temples of Kosgoda and the riverside homes of Balapitiya to the surf beaches of Unawatuna and Mirissa, the coastal road was littered with debris. Everywhere there was evidence of homes, vehicles and lives that had been cruelly ripped apart by the forces of nature in a matter of minutes.

In Galle, the army closed off a vast section of the town in order to clear rubble from the main streets – and to keep out the inevitable looters intent on stealing buried gems. Thousands of men, women and children could be seen at the edge of the cordon, where they sifted through the wash of muddy debris and concrete in a desperate attempt to find food, clothes or the bodies of loved ones.

In a hospital in the nearby village of Karapitiya, people scrambled over hundreds of piled-up bodies, looking for their friends and relatives. Others milled around outside, holding shirts or handkerchiefs over their noses against the stench of decaying bodies.

The officials admitted they were overwhelmed by the scale of the tragedy. "We have got hundreds of dead that we have dealt with," said one hospital official. "I don't know what to do."

Further afield, amid fragrant tea plantations, cinnamon fields and rubber trees of the hill country, frantic crowds of homeless, hungry and grief-stricken people were seeking refuge at Buddhist temples. Monks and aid workers tried to ensure they were fed, sheltered and provided with medical aid.

Neel Sumanarnthna, a 44-year-old security manager from the coastal town of Ambalangoda, spoke of how his family had lost everything apart from the clothes on their backs as they fled their flattened home to the nearest inland temple. "We heard the water and we ran," he said. "It was me, my wife and my three children in the house. We ran inland and waded through the water until we were put into the back of a lorry and driven here. There were women with babies crying for help and the walls of the houses were falling down. We have nothing left."

Everywhere, the same stories of despair and loss. Among it all, the selfless acts of assistance. Janaka Nanayakkaka, a young man who owned a hotel and two rental properties in the surfing resort of Hikkaduwa, spent hours yesterday retrieving bodies from the debris and driving displaced tourists to his inland family home. His rescue efforts came 24 hours after he fled an approaching 30-foot wall of water with his wife, his five-month-old baby and dozens of his hotel guests. Ignoring the pain of his bloodied foot, Mr Nanayakkaka, 29, said: "The scene in Hikkaduwa is horrendous. I pulled out three bodies this morning from the rubble, including one of a three-year-old child whose parents are missing." He was eventually forced to abandoned his efforts.

"It's too late to save people now. The water went at least 100m from the sea and flattened everything in its path. We are fortunate as the hotel is slightly raised so we had more time. And now the looters are invading the town and taking what they can. It's a very dangerous place."

Among those benefiting from his bravery was a British visitor, Ian Betts, and his wife Anna, who had joined the terrified throng fleeing the area as the waves began to hit the exposed coastal resort.

"The water started coming into the hotel and we just had to run," said Mr Betts, 35, from Norfolk, who had been travelling across Asia. "Tourists sunbathing, surfers and people walking on the beach were just getting swept straight out to sea. We were really lucky to have been with Janaka, otherwise I don't know where we'd be now."

Passing through the army barriers in Galle, the absence of people contrasted with the enormous piles of rubble, while peering beyond the walls of the few buildings that were left standing revealed rooms filled with concrete debris, cars and scattered merchandise.

It was the adjacent Old Fort, a 36-hectare walled site built by the Dutch in 1663 on a promontory, that appeared most vulnerable to the crushing forces of the tsunami. But while the fort appeared to have survived the worst of the disaster, its narrow streets, filled with mosques, churches and hotels, were reduced to an impenetrable mass of rubble.

"This is the end for Sri Lanka," said one mournful tuk-tuk driver, as he joined the exodus of residents and traders heading to the comparative safety – but uncertain future – of the hill country.

But amid the chaos, the stench and the debris, many of the local people appeared phlegmatic. Hundreds of people piled into lorries to help with clearing the roads, while others drove around distributing food parcels and cartons of juice to whoever was in need.

For some, however, the grief was too much to bear. "My mother was killed, she was crushed to death," said a tearful Mahinda de Silva, from Balapitiya, as another funeral car bearing the traditional white flag of mourning drove past.

"She could not escape and I could not rescue her. She was already paralysed and the waves knocked down the walls of her house. What is going to happen to Sri Lanka? How are the people going to survive this?"

They were, unfortunately, questions to which there was no obvious reply.

Tomorrow: The son of a Kenyan scholar becomes America's 44th President

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