NAGAPPATTINAM, India – To save his only son, Vijay Kumar hugged the boy as hard as he could. But in the struggle against the horrific power of the waves, that last embrace just wasn’t enough.
Kumar fought hard. He refused to let the first wave take 3-year-old Rajaraman when it lifted the pair to the height of a two-story building and whirled them around.
He wouldn’t let go when the wave bashed father and screaming child against snapped trees, tumbling chunks of concrete and other debris as they tried to keep their heads above the choking dark water.
But then the tsunami dropped them as quickly as it had snatched them and something wooden, a tree or a piece of a smashed boat, hit Kumar hard in the back.
The force of the sudden blow threw open his arms. The water pulled Rajaraman away and down into a roiling torrent, and all his father could do was watch the terrified face of his son as the boy disappeared.
On Tuesday, Kumar still had not found his son’s body, so there cannot be a burial, a proper goodbye. And a father’s heart is as empty as the menacing ocean is deep.
“What else is there left in life? I have lost my son,” he wept outside the ruins of his home in the port area of this southern Indian city. “My God, what did we do wrong to lose him?”
At least 2,000 people died in this city Sunday morning when three waves struck, tossing dozens of fishing trawlers around like playthings, dropping one upside down on the pedestrian bridge that joins two parts of the port.
The waves rolled hundreds of yards up the street leading into the port’s customs compound, leaving dozens of corpses in the middle of the road. Volunteers who helped collect the bodies said they found several dead women clutching the corpses of small children.
Hundreds of bodies were still believed buried under the sand along the city’s beaches on Tuesday, and the stench of death filled the air. Many residents wore surgical masks, hoping to ward off the sickly sweet smell.
Worried that rotting corpses could take more lives by spreading disease, health officials ordered them collected in city trucks and dumped in mass graves. Many were buried before they could be identified.
More than half the dead were children, and burial teams continued to pile their corpses in mass graves Tuesday, mainly alongside women and the elderly. These people were too weak to hold on or were slammed against walls or heavy debris.
The survivors are left to live with a tormenting question: Could they have done more? Did they try hard enough to save the children who weren’t strong enough to save themselves?
“I’m the only one in my family now,” said Nagaraj, 45, a fisherman who sat dazed on a broken slab of concrete with his last few belongings stuffed in a plastic bag by his bare feet.
Nagaraj, who like many Indian Tamils goes by one name, managed to ride out the waves by holding onto a large chunk of tree bark and bodysurfing the raging waters.
His 80-year-old mother, Ponnammal; his wife, Valli, 40; and their 7-year-old son, Rishekeshan, disappeared in the water.
“And there are multitudes of other children orphaned,” he said.
Ravi Francis, 33, lost his four children to the three waves, which he said hammered his village next to Kallar River every 30 minutes. The first hit as the family was eating breakfast. In the last seconds that Francis saw his three daughters alive, Maniyarasi, 3, Prema, 8, and Sivashankari, 10, were desperately trying to hold onto the windowsill as the water tried to snatch them away.
The body of their brother Vijayabalan, 9, hasn’t been found. But two of the girls’ corpses were found half a mile away from their home, dumped by the retreating waves near the river. Another was stuffed deep inside a tangle of thorn bushes.
“My daughters are together with the human rubble in mass graves now,” Francis said. “But I have decided to pick up the threads of my life once again. At least I have my wife and mother to turn to. I console myself with that thought.”