Sri Gemunu Beach Hotel after Tsunami
Photograph Contributed by Kirk Peterson
Udhailiyah librarian, Kirk Peterson, writes a vivid and heartfelt account of his experience while in Sri Lanka during the tsunami tragedy. The following is an excerpt.
December 26, 2004 will be a day that is seared into my mind and soul forever. It was a lovely Sunday morning, beautiful blue skies and soft breezes? the makings of a perfect day. I woke up at around 8:30 a.m. got showered and then made my way to the veranda overlooking the beautiful Indian Ocean. I was on the second floor of the Sri Gemunu Beach Hotel in Dalawella-Unawatuna, located in southern Sri Lanka not far from the ancient walled Portuguese city of Galle.
I sat down and relaxed in a large reclining chair outside the room, taking in the fresh air and lovely views, white breakers were rolled into shore, coconut palms swayed in the breeze. It was a lovely morning. I watched a jogger run by on the beach and was considering a morning stroll myself. But I was feeling lazy? music from the Christmas dance had pounded away into the wee hours of the morning and I was still a bit groggy. I sat in the chair and relaxed. There were a few early risers from our hotel down on the terrace above the beach relaxing on lounge chairs. A father and his daughter watching the sea.
Soon my friend Nalin joined me on the veranda. We took a look at my broken fishing pole and tried to figure out how to fix it. On Christmas afternoon the previous day we had walked out across the reef at low tide and climbed up some large black rocks and found a good fishing spot in the deep surf. We had a wonderful time catching fish and laughing. While fishing, the pole had snapped in two. I had planned to go out fishing again that morning but the fishing pole had snapped and was of no use.
At around 9:00a.m. I asked Nalin if he was ready to go down for some breakfast. We walked down the stairs and crossed the palm shaded courtyard to the outdoor dinning area located on a raised terrace about six feet above sea level.
There were just a few guests at breakfast that morning, most of the hotel guests were still up in their rooms on the second and third floors of our small hotel sleeping in after a late night of Christmas cheer.
We selected a table next to the sea under the shade of swaying palms, ordered breakfast and chatted about the day. I ordered eggs over hard with bacon and toast. Nalin ordered a Sri Lankan breakfast of string hoppers and various curries. The fresh fruit plate came, we enjoyed a selection of papaya, pineapple and bananas. Tea came for Nalin and hot water for me. I made up a cup of hot chocolate and then noticed the Milo had expired over a year ago. We discussed whether it would be fine to drink or not.
We watched children playing on the beach just below us, a group of Sri Lankan children enjoying the sand and making sand balls to throw at each other. Just beyond where the kids were playing was a tidal pool with traditional fishermen stilts sticking out of the water and into the air. These poles have a cross pole attached to them on which fishermen sit while fishing. There were no fishermen that morning? just empty poles.
While talking to Nalin I was watching the sea, I saw the sea swell come and cover the stilt polls. I thought it strange. This large swell came in and crashed into the seawall of the terrace we were having breakfast on. I saw the kids washed up to the steps of their hotel.
I saw another huge swell in the sea coming towards us. I got up and told Nalin that we better move or we would get wet! We moved back away from the terrace towards the courtyard just as the huge swell hit the seawall and sent sea spray shooting high into the air. ?Whoa!? It was amazing! We laughed and smiled, but the smiles did not last for long, a larger wave hit again knocking over our breakfast table. I remember seeing my Milo box float towards me across the courtyard. The next wave hit shattering large plate glass windows in the reception hall; the sound of breaking crystal filled the air. We ran into the large open air dining hall for shelter.
Within seconds the ocean heaved itself up and over the sea wall sweeping angry water across the courtyard. We turned to run deeper into the dinning hall to get away from the water? instantly we were completely swept over by incredibly powerful water as the dinning hall filled with rushing water. The water pushed us back into the hotel kitchen; I remember the refrigerator floating around and trying to push it away. I thought we are going to get electrocuted in this water.
The briefest of moments passed before the next powerful wave came sweeping through the dinning hall and kitchen. I was swept from the kitchen and through a side door out into the parking lot. I must have hit a wall going out because later the whole right side of my body was in great pain. I remember the look of terror on other guest?s faces as we were swept out together.
Once outside I found myself swirling around in the parking lot, vehicles picked up by the raging waters were floating around. It was so surreal! I remember trying to push a vehicle away from me. I had no power against the tide; I went where the water took me. Another massive wave swept through the narrow passage way between the two hotel buildings and into the reception area smashing wood and glass into deadly shards. This surge carried me out of the hotel gates and onto the highway. There was a slight incline in the road shielded by the hotel and a walled home; I was able to make my way to higher ground as large waves washed across the road and swept inland on either side of me. I saw the walls of a house on the other side of the road crumble and fall as the surging water spread inland.