Railway has lost one of its last living links to the 1964 tragedy
R. Sunderaraj, a railway officer who, unfazed, stood sentinel as Station Master in the Danushkodi Railway Station hours before the devastating cyclonic storm that destroyed the town on the night of December 22, 1964, passed away at the age of 80.
With his death at his home at K.K. Nagar in Madurai on Wednesday morning, the Southern Railway has lost one of its last living links to the horrific tragedy that destroyed the railway station and washed away the incoming Train No.653, Pamban-Dhanushkodi Passenger, killing all 115 on board.
Mr Sunderaraj turned out to be the last Station Master of Danushkodi Railway Station and among the few who survived the natural calamity. After serving the day shift on December 22, 1964, he returned home in the evening, little realising that it would be his last day at the station.
Survived by his wife S. Gladys, two sons, three daughters, four grand daughters and three grandsons, Mr Sunderaraj died of old age following a brief illness, his son Godwin Nova said.
Recalling the nightmare unleashed by nature and the most unforgettable moment of their lives, Ms Gladys Sunderaraj, talking to The Hindu over phone, said they were living in a house close to the shore, near a Church, when the cyclonic storm crashed into the tiny town.
The haunting memories are fresh, she said. As they sat for dinner around 9 p.m., their five-year-old elder son looked terrified and refused to have dinner. He went to bed without eating only to wake the family at half past midnight.
He looked terrified. There were gusty winds and her husband noticed water seeping into the house through the main door.
Her husband tried in vain to stop it by placing a gunny bag.
When he opened the door, water gushed into the house and soon things started floating. "We left all our things and started walking towards the railway station, carrying their three children — a five-year-old son, a three-year-old daughter and three-month-old daughter," Ms Gladys recalled.
She said they walked for hours in neck-deep water, carrying their children on their shoulders and reached the railway station around 4 30 a.m. Only later, her husband came to know that Train No.653, Pamban-Dhanushkodi Passenger coming from Pamban was washed away on being hit by a huge tidal wave.
(The tragedy came to light only after 48 hours when the railway headquarters issued a bulletin based on the information given by the Marine Superintendent, Mandapam).
They stayed in the station for a week before they were shifted to Mandapam on a ship, she said. Their three-year-old daughter Shanthi, who fell sick during the tragedy, died after they moved to Tuticorin, she said.
Mr Sunderaraj joined the Southern Railway on April 16, 1956 at St. Thomas Mount near Chennai, before serving in Tiruvarur and Ariyalur. He was posted as Station Master in Danushkodi in November 1964 and hardly served there for a month. Hailing from Thoppur in Tirunelveli district, he retired as the Senior Goods Supervisor in Tuticorin Railway Station till he attained the age of superannuation on May 31, 1991.
This article has been corrected for a factual error.