When the alarm sounded, firefighters Darrin Coldiron and Nick Muzik responded. It didn’t matter that the emergency was thousands of miles away in Sri Lanka.
They arrived in Sri Lanka about a week ago, hoping to help victims of the tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands of people. They’ve set their sights on resurrecting the village of Komari.
“The village is devastated,” said Coldiron over a weak telephone connection. “There’s nothing left except a few houses. A lot of these people lived in shacks made from palm fronds.”
Two churches are still standing as well as the shell of what used to be the medical building. All the residents are gone, either dead or in a refugee camp. “No one lives there,” he said. “We’re the first ones to move into town.”
They plan to use donated money to hire former residents to clean up the town and salvage what building materials they can. They want to use those recovered bricks and boards to rebuild the town school. “It starts with rebuilding the school and getting the kids back to school,” he said. “The people will come. They’ll naturally start moving back.”
He picked the school to rebuild for another reason as well. “There’s more than just the rebuilding. You’ve got to inspire the youth, too. They’ve experienced something we can’t comprehend.”
But the two Valley Fire firefighters are giving more than hope. “We’re also stimulating the economy by putting these people back to work,” he said. “The primary need now is to get these people back into their lives again.”
The two men brought medical supplies to treat victims, but ended up donating them to the doctors in the refugee camps. “We got here after the immediate emergency,” Muzik said.
The residents might have to be convinced to come back to their village by the sea. “Right now they are afraid of the ocean,” Muzik said. “They used to live off the ocean. That was their life for centuries. The men who used to go fishing are gone. They’re dead. Everybody else is now afraid to come back to town.”
The men have also spent time in Arugambay, a town down the road from Komari. They have been accompanied by Nuwan Waidyanapha, whom Coldiron has known since 1996. The two attended the University of Montana together and were on the same rugby team. Waidyanapha lives in Sri Lanka, but in a town on the west coast that wasn’t heavily damaged by the tsunami.
He has been helping the two firefighters deal with the bureaucracy. “There’s a lot of confusion over who is in charge of things and what needs to be done,” Waidyanapha said.
The town of Arugambay had its water supply contaminated by the floodwaters. “Here people depend on their personal wells and all the wells are affected,” he said. Those wells are still contaminated despite the military’s attempts to flush the wells clean.
Coldiron wants to raise $30,000 to have a water filtration system installed. Anyone who wants to contribute can make a donation to the Spokane Valley Firefighters Benevolent Association account at any Sterling Savings Bank.
Coldiron has been impressed by the fact that there are volunteers from nearly every nation helping out in Sri Lanka. Though the destruction resembles a war zone, things are peaceful.
“There’s no fighting. There’s no anger. Everyone is working together in harmony.”
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