Tremors felt at 2.15 p.m., alert sounded, widespread panic and traffic chaos as government strives to handle potential disaster

Wednesday post-lunch was not an ordinary workday for Chennaiites. Shortly after 2 p.m., employees from the various offices on Anna Salai spilled out onto the road. Most of them had felt a tremor, as the city shook at 2.15 p.m.

The tremors were caused by two massive quakes off the Indonesian waters, and were felt in several Indian cities including Kolkata, Kochi and Bangalore. A tsunami alert was soon issued, but withdrawn later in the evening.

The tremors led to people emptying out of multi-storeyed buildings across the city. Most of those who experienced the earthquake thought it had been a personal experience until others around them also commented on the strange swaying motion. Within seconds, people were not reachable on their mobile phones even as television channels aired alerts. At the Marina, several shops were preparing for the evening crowds when fisherwomen raised an alarm about an impending tsunami. Shops on the service lane of the beach decided to wait for the police to issue an alert.

Several couples on the beach were blissfully unaware of the tsunami alert. Around a dozen boys were bathing in the sea. But by 2.45 p.m., police jeeps arrived and announced on megaphones for people to clear out. Metal road dividers barred entry to the beach. Shoppers in T. Nagar and crowded on the roads, said residents.

Shuba, a resident of Ice House, had come friends to celebrate a birthday. “I remember the previous tsunami. If the water comes we can run away,” said the girl nonchalantly. But her casual attitude evaporated as a van-load of police personnel arrived.

By 3.30 p.m., the beaches were empty and the Chennai Corporation's commissioner P.W.C. Davidar inspected the arrangements on the beach. By 3.50 p.m., vehicles began piling up on Kamarajar Salai. Buses were overcrowded and people spilled on to the roads near bus stops.

At hospitals, staff members evacuated patients after the first tremors. Those who could walk made their way out of the buildings while others were carried on stretchers and wheelchairs to the yard. “I had my baby in my lap and suddenly everything, cots, even tables and chairs started shaking,” said a 30-year-old woman whose husband was admitted at the Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital.

By 4 p.m., there was a huge traffic jam outside the hospital. Driving to the beach was a challenge as the entire stretch was chock-a-block with vehicles and people who wanted to see the tsunami. All entries to the beach were cordoned off, and police did not permit private vehicles on the service lane. Additional Commissioner of Police P. Thamaraikannan also visited the beach.

Around 4.19 p.m., the second tremors were felt. Television and news photographers who had found a vantage point on the lighthouse on the Marina to capture the tsunami as it occurred were jolted when the building swayed, first one way, then the other. The photographers and camera crew were asked to leave.

By 6 p.m., it became apparent that there was going to be no tsunami. In the hospital yards, patients and their attendants battled mosquitoes waiting for the hospital to declare the buildings safe. The beach remained out of bounds and the entire Marina was swathed in darkness.