After the Wave
I thought the day after Christmas would be one of leisure, so I prepared a stack of music CDs to burn on my iPod. Headlines scrolled across the television screen: Sri Lanka was hit by floods.
Since the tropical island off the southern tip of India is part of my territory as South Asia Photo Editor for the AP, I called down to Colombo to check on the reports. By the time I logged on to the AP network to check the wire, the death toll had risen to 120 in Sri Lanka. Within an hour, I was booked on a flight from New Delhi to Colombo.
As the death toll kept climbing, there was news that areas of southern India were also being hit by large waves. Our desk editor Sebastian John was on duty. Gurinder Osan, another New Delhi-based photographer, and I looked at the map to determine which photographers should go where. Our first call was to M. Lakshman, our photographer in Madras, the capital of southern Tamil Nadu state, and told him to get to the scene.
Gurinder booked a flight to join Lakshman; still no word from Gemunu.
Eranga Jayawardena, another Colombo-based AP photographer, traveled to the closest coastal area and came across with photos that we put out on the wire early, in time for Asian deadlines. AP was the first to have pictures out of Asia, and it showed in the play the next day, when Eranga managed to get 100 front pages with the first photos of the Boxing Day tsunami, one of the largest natural disasters of modern times.
My first day on the ground in Sri Lanka came some 16 hours later. Pyasena, our trusted driver -- essential in such calamities -- picked me up at the airport with Malaysian photographer Vincent Thian at 2:30 a.m. on Monday. We first drove to Gemunu's house, who had managed to get back to Colombo. He wobbled down the stairs of his home with a bandaged knee that he had hurt when the house he was standing in collapsed. He briefed us on the situation and once again I was huddled around a map with colleagues.
We made a brief stop to buy a generator for backup electricity and set off for Galle, Sri Lanka's largest tourist town in the south. When we arrived about 8:30 in the morning, Vincent and I agreed to go to the hospital in Karapatiya, near Galle, where the bodies from the tsunami were being taken, and meet back at the car in half an hour.
When we walked into the hospital, we had to take care to not trip over bodies; dazed survivors streamed in like ghosts, stumbling through the maze of halls and rooms trying to recognize missing loved ones, or hoping not to.
A loud cry pierced the improvised morgue as a mother found her child, a curl of foam rising from her small, gaping mouth. A woman began to faint as she saw her father with a plastic tube still attached to his throat, a medical attempt to save the drowning man. He was dead.
Boats and cars had been flipped like bathtub toys, onto the road or on top of houses. Sea water had inundated living rooms and shops with mud, leaving furniture in disarray, driving palm trees through windows. In a very eerie way, one could get a glimpse of what people might have been doing minutes before the tsunami hit.
After a short ride along the coast we set up the sat phone and computers to edit and transmit. We managed to get a good signal from a French satellite over the Indian Ocean, but when we dialed up to connect, the line was dead. Murphy's Law: Logistics proved to be more challenging than shooting.
We set off again, back up to Colombo along a riddled road to get images out to the world of the tragedy that huge waves brought to Sri Lanka.
© Elizabeth Dalziel
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