December 29, 2004 in Nation/World

Tsunami sweeps train off track, kills at least 802

Christopher Torchia Associated Press
 

TELWATTA, Sri Lanka – More than 800 people were killed when their train, the “Queen of the Sea,” was swept off the track by this week’s raging tsunami, police said, and several hundred bodies pulled from the twisted wreckage were buried Tuesday alongside the railway line.

The train was carrying 1,000 residents of Colombo to a southern beach resort when it came to a stop just before its destination as waters began to rise Sunday. Residents of nearby towns ran onto the train, trying to seek protection on its roof when the wall of water hit, police said.

The eight rust-colored train cars lay disconnected and overturned in deep pools of water yards away from the track amid debris and fallen palm trees Tuesday. The force of the waves had torn off some of the wheels, and the tracks twisted like a loop on a roller coaster.

One thousand tickets were sold in Colombo for the train, and rescuers recovered 802 bodies from the train’s cars and the muck beneath them, said military spokesman Brig. Daya Ratnayake.

No relatives claimed 204 of those bodies, so they were buried in a mass grave Tuesday, with Buddhist monks performing traditional funeral rites. They chanted and poured water on the grave to symbolize the giving of merits of the living to the dead.

Venerable Baddegama Samitha, a Buddhist monk and former parliamentarian who presided over the ritual, said he realized some of the dead were of other faiths – the region has a significant Muslim population – and a moment’s silence was held to honor them.

“This was the only thing we could do,” he said. “It was a desperate solution. The bodies were rotting. We gave them a decent burial.”

The destruction across Sri Lanka’s coasts from Sunday’s disaster was so heavy that authorities were not immediately aware of the train’s loss, said Sasanka Jayasekara, a lawyer and member of the local government.

The train – named “Samudradevi,” meaning “Queen of the Sea” – had left Colombo at 7:30 a.m. and was traveling 70 miles southeast to Galle along the coastal rail line, which runs about 200 yards from the shore. It was near the village of Telwatta, about 15 miles from Galle, when the water began to rise.

“The people in the village ran toward the train and climbed on top of it,” said Police Superintendent B.P.B. Ayupala. “Then the water level went down” – the effect of the approaching tsunami sucking in the coastal waters before its strikes – “and 10 minutes later, it came back” in the giant wave, he said.

The train’s driver survived, though police under his authority had not spoken to him.

Ayupala said authorities took fingerprints of the unclaimed dead so that they could be identified later if possible.

At a nearby police station, officers laid out identification and credit cards, drivers’ licenses and bank books found at the train site. The people in the cards included an electricity board secretary, an assistant lecturer at a state research institute of social development and a student from the University of Jaffna, in the north of the island nations.

“Police told us to come and have a look at this collection of ID cards,” said Premasiri Jayasinghe, one of many searching for relatives believed to have been on the train.

At the train site, a young man wept in the arms of friends as the body of his girlfriend was buried. The distraught man spoke out to his lost sweetheart.

“We met in university. Is this the fate that we hoped for?” he sobbed. “My darling, you were the only hope for me.”

© Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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