Tsunami

The Day after Christmas

Full Moon - December 2004

I had been staying at Mamallapuram, India, right on the beaches of Tamil Nadu, for the last few days.

I had gone there for the famous Indian Classical Dance Festival that is put on there every year.

Odissi Dance

The setting for all the dances are the wondrously carved rocks, almost a thousand years old,

that are near the beach and form a perfect backdrop for the performances of this ancient dance form.

(This is the Rock wall at Mamallapuram showing the Sage/King Bhagiratha,

performing the tapas of standing on one leg, arms above his head, bringing down the Ganges to earth,

attended on the right and left by Lord Vishnu, the Gods, Devas, Nagas and animals)

On the day before Christmas, I had visited the village of the fishermen who lived along the beach where I was staying.

I had gone over early in the morning and was quickly fascinated with their lives

and the life of fishing they were involved in.

They were friendly towards me and, as usual in India, I was quickly surrounded by children,

several of whom spoke good English.

Around 8am, most of their boats had been hauled up on shore after their early morning fishing run off the coast.

Some of the boats were nothing but 8 large timbers lashed together with rope,

looking like a cross between a dugout canoe and a raft.

(The steel mount on the back of the boat was for mounting the motor).

Some of the boats were more conventional (to me)

with brightly colored sides of white or green or red or blue and yellow.

Here and there, men were carrying large bundles of heavy nets off the beach.

Other men were seated on the beach with large needles, their nets spread out before them,

attentively working the material , fixing any tears that had developed.

Most of the nets were a dull white, but some of them were brightly colored in green or orange.

After the motors had been taken off, women from the huts had come

to select from what I considered a meagre haul of fish.

While wondering around and photographing, I was asked repeatedly to "Give me something" by the many children. I gave one pen (I only had one) to the eldest of the children who spoke the best English and was the most reserved.

I took him aside and told him that I gave the pen to him first because of his gracious manner, that he did not pester me for a gift, and that he had only asked once and had gifted me with most excellent answers

to my many questions that I had about what was going on with the people on the beach.

 

He appreciated this. He then told me about the men winding long skeins of string that would be used to make nets and told me where they stored the large balls of it in a special house on the beach.

 

Later, because I realized that giving just one pen to one boy was great cause for jealousy for the other children, I promised to bring pens and notebooks to all the young people of the village. This was met with all-around great excitement. This was the day before Christmas.

 

Christmas day I went to Kanchipuram, inland from Mamallapuram and famous for its large stone temples built over a thousand years ago. I came back late that night and planned to give the pens and notebooks to the fishermen children the day after Christmas. The next morning, I got up before dawn, did my usual warm oil massage and began to hear the strange sound of a birdcall that I had never heard before. I have tried to identify it since, but still, even afterwards with the help of several local Indian people, was not able to do so. It sounded like a high plaintive whistle, disturbing in its sound. It went on for about 10 minutes and then began to be answered by the sounds of the Indian black crows (which are not usually noisy before dawn) with their discordant squawking.

 

Then, all of a sudden, I could feel the whole room softly shaking; it was a deep and distant shaking, unlike any earthquake I had ever felt before. It went on for what seemed like two minutes and then I realized that the birds had become silent. Once again, all I could hear was the ocean waves. All seemed particularly serene and quiet and I lay down on the bed to relax and enjoy the morning.

View from my room Christmas Day

Beach Resort Christmas Day

After about an hour, my phone rang in my room and it was my friend, Chris in Tiruvannamalai, who has lived in India for years. We discussed my coming to visit him at the Ramana Maharshi Ashram there and my previous visit to a local Palm Leaf reader, (a unique wonder of India which I have written about elsewhere). We went on talking, which we love to do for about 20 minutes or more, when all of a sudden, I began to hear the sound of rushing water, softly at first and then louder and louder. I thought ‘This is a very large hose someone is using’.

Within seconds, the sound of water increased even more and I began to hear several women screaming in fear, throughout the cottages on the oceanfront property. I told Chris to ‘hold on’ and I ran out onto my second story porch, about 50-yards from the ocean and saw the tremendous and powerful immensity of the whole Indian Ocean quickly pouring through the Coconut and Palm trees, over the walkways and small walls and into the ground floor of all the cottages, filling the area below and around me where the women were screaming. I thought, 'tidal wave' and ran back to the phone. I told Chris that the ocean was pouring onto the land and this may be 'it', thinking that I may be swept away, and hung up the phone abruptly.

Water at about 3ft

 

The water was moving with a great power, rising quickly and there was clearly nothing I could do for those screaming. In the immensity of what was happening, I envisioned that the water would continue to rise until my second story unit, about 15 feet off the ground, was flooded. I thought I must save my computer, because there was so much work, so many pictures and writing in it. I quickly wrapped it in a plastic bag, while hearing the water of the ocean continue to come in. Then I wrapped that bag in another and made what I thought to be a watertight seal around it. Finally I fit the computer all wrapped, into its carrying case to protect it. I did the same with my camera and then ran back out onto the porch to consider if I should jump into the water now with my computer and camera and be carried inland or should I wait and see.

 

I had no idea of what was to come. I was concerned that there was to be some incredibly large wave following all this water onto the shore. I did not want to be trapped in my room as those below. Large objects, carried by the ocean, banged into the building I was in and also into the buildings around me. All sorts of things were in the water as the ocean continued to rise, nearly a foot every 10 seconds. I felt a wave of finality and inevitability. Then I had the feeling/thought, 'I am fated to do many things and live a long life, I will survive'.

 

The screaming of the women in the various downstairs cottages intensified and I was awestruck with the immensity of the whole thing. I thought that this awe, this complete awe-full humility in the face of overwhelming force, must be what other people feel when they witness a great natural disaster. I also thought that my relative ability to consider all this could end any minute now, when I was forced to jump into the surging water below and enter into a struggle just to stay alive.

 

As I considered all this, I was standing on the porch, looking at the ocean rushing in below, hearing the screaming women and in a state of calm excitement. Then, I noticed that the water seemed to pause for a second, that the ocean was no longer rushing in. The water was about six feet high below me, which meant that a surge of around 15 feet had come in off the ocean. Then the water started to reverse and go back to the ocean. At this point I thought, 'I must use my camera', and went back, took it out of the plastic bag and then ran back out onto the porch and started taking pictures.

The screaming stopped as the water began to recede. Soon, I heard the shouts of men from the hotel that were coming to check on people. I caught their eyes from my porch and gave a thumbs up and shouted for them to check the people down below. The water went down from 6-feet to 2 feet in about two minutes and then simply disappeared, except for large pools of water over the property in another few minutes. The people, women and families who had almost drowned below came out of their rooms and began to wade over towards the main buildings, the women and children crying as they went.

Tsunami on the way out

I was so excited to have witnessed and survived this whole thing. Then I thought about the fishermen up the beach who I had just photographed and played with their kids only the day before yesterday. I put on my shoes and ran down the steps, through many remaining large pools of water and out onto the beach. The ocean was muddy and had receded to where it 'ordinarily' was. The whole beach area was covered in trash and debris and there were rivers of water pouring off the shore in different places. I went down the beach in front of my room and then turned left and followed the shore to where the fishermen’s village had been, about two hundred yards up the beach. It was simply gone.

All the boats, about a hundred or more, were gone. Almost all of their huts were gone as well.

There were a group of older men standing where their huts had been

and there were a few younger men about trying to carry some of their nets in off the beach.

 

I began to take some pictures and one of the young men reacted angrily to me and began to yell at me almost screaming as if this had been my fault, It was only at this point, that I realized the catastrophe that had just happened all up and down the coast of India. (It was not for another day that I would realize how large an area had been affected and how many lives had been lost).

 

I began to understand; These people had just lost many of their old and young people. They had just lost all their boats and nets and motors. They had just lost all their houses and possessions. Everything had just been swept away. This wave had caught them suddenly and unawares. The young man was completely distraught and angry at life for what had just happened. I completely understood and sympathized. He was not angry at me, just at life and I provided the immediate focus.

 

I turned away from photographing and again took in what had happened to his village, it was gone, all the huts and houses gone, the boats all gone, the motors all gone, the nets mostly gone, I saw one boat floating out at sea, unmanned. The very old people were gone. The very young people were gone. Their life, as they knew it, had just been destroyed. I realized that this was happening up and down the Indian coastline and that a very big disaster was occurring.

 

I put away my camera and began to help them pull in their nets from the surf. It was hard work and I felt my back begin to go out. I finished the one net I was helping with and just began to walk away. I left them to their fate.

 

There were to be several more Tidal Swells that came in that day in a time frame of less than two hours. After the first Tsunami, I had a driver take me to the town of Mamallapuram. Below you can see the ocean beginning to go out again in this picture.

 

The ocean came back about ten minutes later in an even bigger wall of water. I fled inland soon after this picture was taken. The main 'thing' was that no one knew what was occurring. The Indian police did not know when I asked them. Most of them believed that this was a typhoon off the coast that had pushed up the huge wall of water- they had experienced this before in a smaller scale. I believed it to be a Tidal wave as I had felt the earthquake that morning. I had called my girlfriend in the US to see if she could find out what was occurring. It was difficult to get any clear information outside of the fact that there had been a large earthquake off the coast of Indonesia.

 

I was concerned that these first large swells of the ocean were to be followed with a huge, massive Tidal Wave like you see in the movies. It was only after the first tidal wave, when people observed that the ocean was beginning to go out again, that they realized it was a tidal wave. Most of the people in this picture fled off the beach after the first people started running.

Boats washed up into the town of Mamallapuram several miles away.

The water came far into town bringing a few boats well inland.

Beach Resort flooded

They lost all their records of future bookings and their computers

To see more pictures of Tsunami click here