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The day after... a trail of devastation in Azheekal

By G. Mahadevan and N.J. Nair

Concrete houses flattened by the tsunami at Azheekal near Karunagapally in Kollam district. — Photo: S. Mahinsha

KOLLAM, DEC. 27. At first it was fun for the residents of Azheekal in Kollam district. On Sunday morning the sea began pouring onto the beach in wave after wave. A short while later, the mirth turned into wondrous delight when the sea suddenly retreated about 100 metres, revealing a lot of crabs and fish. Many people rushed onto the newly visible sea floor and began collecting the thrashing fish and the scurrying crabs. Then the horror began.

Somebody looked up and screamed that the sea was coming in. The people on the beach looked up to see a wall of water many metres high and hundreds of metres long advancing towards them. They ran... knowing full well that caught as they were between the swooping waves and the impassive Travancore-Shoranur canal, they really had no place to run.

The killer moment

The moments of uncontrolled panic and sheer terror that followed are etched in the minds of the local people — and would probably be never erased. ``Men and women ran for their lives. Mothers and children cried out to one another. By then the water had started crashing over the houses,'' said Gopakumar, a fisherman whose family narrowly escaped the tsunami.

Many of the women who died at Azheekal died because they tried to save their children first. As the mass of fleeing people reached the shore of the canal, they were quickly ushered on to the few canoes that were moored there and taken across to safety. Some people scrambled up coconut trees nearby and clung on till the water receded. Others were not so lucky. Eyewitnesses said that Geedas, a physically challenged man who was holding on to his two children while trying to run, was tossed aside by the rush of water and saw his two children being swept away.

Though the sea gave vent to its fury on this narrow strip of land on Sunday afternoon, it was only today morning that the full magnitude of the waves' might became clear.

The 17 km from Panikkar Kadavu to the Azheekal `pozhi' was a trail of destruction. Huge quantities of black sea sand topped the winding road. Concrete roofs of houses on the side of the road near the beach had been lifted up and flung across the road.

All along the coast, a few pieces of brick and concrete was all that remained of what was till Sunday homes to thousands. The body of a physically challenged woman was recovered from the debris by local youth around 11 a.m. At once place, the carcass of a cow could be seen amidst the debris of the shed in which it was tied.

People returning

Some of the local people who had fled on Sunday started coming back today to see what was left of their homes. They were greeted by the harsh growl of excavators clawing through the debris, searching for bodies trapped beneath flattened buildings. ``We needed these yesterday,'' said Vinod, a fisherman, angrily as he made a bundle of his few clothes.

The arrival of the Fire and Rescue Service and the excavators was greeted with anger by local people: they demanded to know of the police where they were on Sunday evening and night. ``Not a single MLA, MP or Minister has come to see our tragedy,'' shouted a man who lost his house. ``We don't want you here now, go back,'' he told the Fire Force personnel. Later, some people surrounded the District Collector, B. Sreenivas, who came to Azheekal to oversee the rescue activities, and refused to let him go till either the local MLA or a Minister came to the spot.

Asokan, who lives near the canal at Azheekal, told The Hindu that had there been a bridge at Ayiram Thengu — a long unfulfilled demand of the people — so many people would not have died. ``More people could have escaped and the death toll reduced considerably had there been a bridge at Ayiram Thengu,'' said Gopi, a local resident.

Hospital scenes

The Karunagapally taluk hospital witnessed moving scenes when the bodies of those who were caught in the debris were brought there in the morning.

A huge crowd that assembled before the hospital rushed forward to see whether any of their relatives were there in the ambulances.

When Sachidanandan, a fishworker, left for work on Sunday morning, he never knew that his wife Susheela and 13-year-old son Sujith would be killed by the deadly tide. The three-member family had been staying near the Paschimeswari temple at Srayikad. On getting information from a friend about the surge of waves, he rushed to his house around 12.15 p.m. His wife's body was found a few kilometres from where his house stood, and Sujith was missing. Later, his body was recovered and both were taken to hospital. ``My son was exceptionally good in studies and extracurricular activities and fared well in all the examinations. I have lost everything. The waves could have taken me too,'' he broke down.

Temple washed away

The 150-year-old Paschimeswara temple of Durga and Subramanian being managed by the Araya Samajam was washed away. Only the imposing flag mast remains. Waves swept Srayikad even as pujas were in progress in the temple, Satheesan Thekkamannil, a local resident, said. Satheesan was searching amidst the dead and the injured in the hospital for his relatives who were missing since Sunday afternoon.

Usha, 45, was seen running around those admitted to the hospital to find her mother who she had lost in the melee on Sunday. ``I had a narrow escape since I went to the town for some personal needs,'' she said.

Coffins were kept in a row in front of the hospital, and after identifying each body they were taken in. Men and women were seen wailing when small coffins to carry the bodies of children were taken in. The crowd that waited at the hospital complained that the Government machinery had not acted effectively to search for those trapped in the debris. The locals said that the search operations were being carried out till 11.30 a.m. at the initiative of the youth in each locality. But for deploying some policemen and hiring two excavators there was no serious effort on the part of the Government, they said.

They had a word of praise for N.K. Premachandran, MP, who had reached the spot immediately on getting news about the incident. He took the lead in making arrangements to keep the bodies at the mortuary and transport the dead and the injured to the hospitals.

Many voluntary organisations, including the Ideal Relief Wing, a local group, today stepped in to provide food, medicine and clothes to those housed in the relief camps and admitted to hospitals. Lack of facilities at the taluk hospital as well as the private hospitals in the area where the injured have been admitted was a matter of concern. At times the crowd on the taluk hospital premises, especially before the mortuary, swelled beyond control and the hospital authorities kept on announcing that all bodies that reached there from time to time have been identified and handed over to the relatives. The policemen on duty had a tough time controlling the crowd.

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