Reporter’s diary: memories of the Boxing Day tragedy

Ten years after the Asian tsunami, Samanth Subramanian looks back to the scenes he witnessed when giant waves struck south India.

Women offer prayers on Chennai's Marina Beach to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the 2004 tsunami that killed more than 10,000 people in India, and about 230,00 around the Indian Ocean, on December 26, 2014. Arun Sankar K / AP Photo
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NEW DELHI // I can sleep through almost anything, and I slept through the earthquake that triggered the South Asian tsunami 10 years ago. In my defence, in my hometown of Chennai, the quake didn’t feel severe. Having heard scraps of news on television about giant waves swamping India’s south-east coast, my father and I drove to one of city’s main beaches and looked out to sea. Everything appeared placid.

By the time we left town that evening for a long-planned family holiday, however, the waves had wreaked their devastation and the word “tsunami” had started to dominate the news. Over the next three days, out of cellphone range on a coffee estate in Karnataka, I ached to know what was going on; during sorties to nearby towns, I rushed to phone booths to get news from friends. In this way, I learnt the enormity of the disaster.

The day we returned to Chennai, I set off down the coast to report on the devastation. The tsunami killed about 8,000 people in Tamil Nadu, mostly south of the state capital Chennai, in towns like Cuddalore and, farther south, Nagapattinam. Most of the places affected were fishing villages or small towns, although seaside slums in Chennai were hit as well. All told, about 12,500 people were confirmed dead in India.

In Cuddalore, 150 kilometres south of Chennai, fishing boats lay often hundreds of metres from where they had been moored, fibreglass ripped from their hulls and wooden sections smashed like matchsticks. A concrete promenade had fractured, one wall of a police outpost had sheared off, and swing sets from a seaside children’s park rose forlornly from standing water like skeletal fingers.

From the beach to the centre of the town, the pavements were stained white by antiseptic bleaching powder, scattered on the advice of the United Nations to contain the spread of disease.

It was in Cuddalore that I met Ratnavel, then a 30-year-old income tax official. On the morning of December 26, 2004, he had been playing cricket on the beach with friends.

“There was a bunch of kids learning karate just a few metres away, and when we saw the creek’s waters rise, we began to move towards them, intending to warn them,” he told me. “But then the wave struck with such incredible ferocity that we just had to drop everything and run for our lives.”

Behind them, a boat carried atop a 10-metre wave crashed down on the strip of sand where Ratnavel had been standing just seconds before.

Now married and with a six-year-old son, Ratnavel, who uses only one name, had trouble remembering me from among the journalists who swarmed through his town in the days after the tsunami. He must have talked to at least a dozen, he told me when I phoned him yesterday.

His memories of the wave itself are crystal clear though, particularly the sound of the boat splintering itself on the ground behind him. “That I’ll never forget,” he said.

I spent hours in the office of Cuddalore’s local government official. It was a model of organised chaos. Phones rang constantly, volunteers and journalists thundered in and out in search of information, and an amateur ham radio operator sat in a corner and surfed endless bands of hissing static. This was the nerve centre of Cuddalore’s relief operations. From here, I rode out with government officials to villages up and down the coast.

In one village, fisherfolk sat on remnants of walls and upturned boats and watched with glazed eyes as soldiers cleared away debris, picking through rubble and occasionally finding a corpse. Some of the villagers were still in profound shock at what “their mother” – the sea – had done to them.

Rajendran, a fisherman I met near Cuddalore, had told me he put out to sea in a friend’s boat on the morning of the tsunami and the waves forced the crew to land further up the coast.

“But then I rushed back to my village and found my house demolished, my wife and son dead, and my boat damaged beyond repair,” he said.

Although alive, the survivors were deprived of their livelihoods. Their shanties and fishing boats were destroyed, most of them uninsured.

“Don’t give us blankets; we’ll sleep on the earth. Give us fishing nets instead,” Rajendran had told me. “We want to get back onto the sea.”

With financial grants and housing assistance from the government and NGOs, the fishing villages have now largely recovered.

But as a mark of respect to those who lost their lives in 2004, fishermen up and down the coast of Tamil Nadu did not go out fishing yesterday. Instead, boats ventured out to cast flowers upon the waters before returning home.