Waves of Destruction

Generosity counters devastation in tsunami-hit south India, reports Peter Lemieux

text and photographs by Peter Lemieux

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Though it was the day after Christmas – a holiday – most of the 2,931 villagers of Kottilpadu were awake by 6 a.m. They were preparing for a rare day of leisure. No fishermen set out to sea. No children went to school. And no women headed to the market. Days later, when nagging hindsight set in, many wished they had, for these destinations would have been much safer than the exposed coastline where their homes stood.

Of those still slumbering, none were awakened by the magnitude 9.0 earthquake, which rattled the Indian Ocean floor 2,000 miles away and sent murderous waves toward Kottilpadu in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Later, some would claim to have felt the tremors. But no one registered much alarm on that fateful morning.

The waves that devastated Kottilpadu that Sunday would have probably destroyed a town built by the world’s best urban planners. But Kottilpadu never had a chance. Its 800 flimsy homes stood close to shore, among the fishermen’s boats and nets, the lifeline of the community. Behind them was a deep drainage canal, thick with sewage. The canal cut off Kottilpadu from the main access road, which linked up to the area’s largest fishing village, Colachel, and then turned inland toward the city of Nagercoil. Just behind the access road sat a small grove of coconut trees, a second, if meager, source of income for the residents of Kottilpadu.

T. Arul Alex, an 18-year-old seminarian back home for the holidays, joined his family – mother, father and two younger sisters, Ancy and Ancilin – for the 7 a.m. Mass at St. Alex Church. Nearly 500 years ago, St. Francis Xavier preached on Kottilpadu’s beaches, spreading the Gospel among the southern fishing communities. Today, nearly all of Kottilpadu’s residents are Catholic.

By the time Mass began, more than 115,000 Indonesians had already perished. Arul does not recollect much of the homily or his own prayers that morning. Later, he said he regretted not praying for his family’s survival. Two hours later, the tsunami was bending north around the southern tip of Sri Lanka, heading straight toward Kottilpadu. While 38,000 Sri Lankans perished, Arul and his family returned to their two-room cement home, adorned with pictures of Christ and Christmas decorations. Arul turned on the television, while his mother, Alice Mary, prepared tea. His father, Thanislaus, went to a neighbor’s house to bathe.

Minutes later, Arul heard the distressed voice of his father. “Alice Mary, Arul! Water’s coming! Get the family out of the house! Run!” Thanislaus had seen people on the beach running inland. A white line on the ocean’s horizon had turned into a thundering rush of water.

Alice Mary, Arul and the two girls – 14-year-old Ancy carrying 2-year-old Ancilin – ran from their home. The homes were death traps. With few exceptions, those who remained inside were killed, either by falling cement blocks or the rising water. The most direct route from the oncoming water led to the sewage canal, the second trap. There was no bridge at that point across the canal. But where else could the family go? As they scrambled toward the canal, the girls, clinging together, were swept away by the water.

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