[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 December, 2004, 14:27 GMT
Swallowed up by the savage sea
Soutik Biswas
By Soutik Biswas
BBC News, Nagapattinam and Vailankanni, Tamil Nadu

"If we let things terrify us, life will not be worth living", says the writing on the wall in Vailankanni, a well-known town on the sea in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
Selvi, a resident of Tamil Nadu, in southern India grieves for her lost son.
Selvi's son was swept away when the huge waves lashed the shores

Another graffito on the soggy sea-washed wall of a house says, "Lord is with us, Do not fear".

That was before the fearsome tsunami hit this merry pilgrim town and home to a 16th Century gothic church on Sunday morning.

Today, the once-throbbing 5,000-resident beachfront town of gift shops, lodges, hotels, photo studios and dense bazaars is counting its dead.

And the few people who are fortunate to be alive are running scared.

Legend has it that the Vailankanni Shrine Basilica, as the church is called, was built by the Portuguese after a group of shipwrecked sailors were rescued from the sea and brought there.

Now the place of worship stands alone, unscathed in a landscape of death and devastation.

The missing

On the narrow road leading to the beach, shops are deserted, their wares swept away and lying in the open. Their owners are mostly dead or missing.

The Vailankanni Shrine, unscathed despite devastation in the surrounding areas.
The Vailankanni Shrine was the only building to escape the devastation

On the beach, young resident Rosaline Mary joins her husband and her brother to look for their missing mother.

Two days after the waves lashed their home on the beach, she hasn't seen or heard from her.

Mary is glad to be alive: she was cooking at her home when the killer waves hit the shore and she began running away.

The door came down on her, but she managed to run away, her head bleeding, but lucky to be alive.

Her last stop to look for her missing mother will be the overcrowded government hospital in Nagapattinam town, some 10km away.

More than 2,000 people died after the sea nearly wiped out Nagapattinam on Sunday morning.

The fisherman's cove is now a sandy graveyard of memories

The town now reeks of death and DDT, and the few people living there now are away in the neighbouring farms, attending to mass burials of their relatives and friends.

The hospital has received nearly 2,000 bodies since Sunday morning, and some 200 other wounded survivors lie moaning on its cold floors.

Counting bodies

"The bodies are still coming in. This hospital is no longer a place to treat and send people home. It is just to receive bodies, tag them and hand them over for cremation," says a doctor, who prefers to remain unnamed.

The majority of the dead, he says, are children and old women.

"Death by asphyxia due to drowning," say most of the death certificates.

That is not all. Some of those who were rescued had so much sea water in their lungs that they contracted pneumonia and died.

When the waves hit Nagapattinam, the waters entered the 500-bed hospital, sending the 15 doctors on duty and patients scurrying for safety.

Kanammal, a resident of Tamil Nadu, India, in shock after losing her husband.
A victim from Tamil Nadu is in shock after losing her husband

"I thought we were all going to die. But we were lucky. It will take at least five years for normality to be restored to this place."

"Now all we are doing is counting bodies," he says ruefully.

Ajmal Khan, a local municipal official, hunting for the dead with his 30-member crew in a battered fishermen's cove in Nagapattinam, agrees.

"We have discovered 12 bodies since morning and we are looking for more. The youngest was a five-year-old girl. There's death under every damaged home or tree," he says.

Now they are trying to help to bring out the body of Pakirammal - the wife of Shanmugham, a carpenter - from the debris of their home.

Final journey

Shanmugham and his son, Anandraju, 13, found Pakirammal crushed, face down, under a door in their home after they made their way to the beach on Tuesday morning.

Within five minutes, Khan and his team work through the debris to bring out Pakirammal, cover her face with a red jumper, daub her with DDT and cart her off to the hospital.

"You have left me, you have left me," howls a disconsolate Shanmugham. His son weeps for the first time during the day.

Shanmugham and his son, Anandraju, from the Tamil Nadu state in southern India
Anandraju (r) only began to weep when his mother's body was found

Then, father and son follow their decomposed mother on her last journey.

There is even less dignity in death for the poor than in life.

After tagging her in hospital, a truck will dump her inside a big hole in the ground on top of other bodies and the earth poured in hastily.

Shanmugham and his son are, however, luckier than many.

On the mud-slicked potholed streets of a devastated town, Selvi, a homeless mother, cries for her three-year-old son Anbu.

He slipped away from her grasp while escaping the waves and was swallowed up by the savage sea.

Ilayrani wails night and day for her four-year-old son, Ajay, who was washed away by the waves.

Now, she fiercely clings on to her other son, Vedesh, after neighbours saved him by pumping out sea water from his lungs.

"Will I ever find him? Can you help me find him?," she wails.

Kandamal saw her husband, Govindraju, being taken away by the sea.

"I just wanted to see him one last time," she says.

There are more than 200 bodies, says the good doctor, which were disposed of for burial a day after the tragedy because the hospital does not have a proper mortuary.

The fishermen lived barely 100m from the sea at Nagapattinam.

The fisherman's cove is now a sandy graveyard of memories.

Relatives have begun to grieve


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific