ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Waves of Destruction

In India, a family copes with tragedy

Though it was the day after Christmas – a holiday – most of the 2,931 villagers of Kottilpadu were awake by 6 a.m. They were preparing for a rare day of leisure. No fishermen set out to sea. No children went to school. And no women headed to the market. Days later, when nagging hindsight set in, many wished they had, for these destinations would have been much safer than the exposed coastline where their homes stood.

Of those still slumbering, none were awakened by the magnitude 9.0 earthquake, which rattled the Indian Ocean floor 2,000 miles away and sent murderous waves toward Kottilpadu in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Later, some would claim to have felt the tremors. But no one registered much alarm on that fateful morning.

The waves that devastated Kottilpadu that Sunday would have probably destroyed a town built by the world’s best urban planners. But Kottilpadu never had a chance. Its 800 flimsy homes stood close to shore, among the fishermen’s boats and nets, the lifeline of the community. Behind them was a deep drainage canal, thick with sewage. The canal cut off Kottilpadu from the main access road, which linked up to the area’s largest fishing village, Colachel, and then turned inland toward the city of Nagercoil. Just behind the access road sat a small grove of coconut trees, a second, if meager, source of income for the residents of Kottilpadu.

T. Arul Alex, an 18-year-old seminarian back home for the holidays, joined his family – mother, father and two younger sisters, Ancy and Ancilin – for the 7 a.m. Mass at St. Alex Church. Nearly 500 years ago, St. Francis Xavier preached on Kottilpadu’s beaches, spreading the Gospel among the southern fishing communities. Today, nearly all of Kottilpadu’s residents are Catholic.

By the time Mass began, more than 115,000 Indonesians had already perished. Arul does not recollect much of the homily or his own prayers that morning. Later, he said he regretted not praying for his family’s survival. Two hours later, the tsunami was bending north around the southern tip of Sri Lanka, heading straight toward Kottilpadu. While 38,000 Sri Lankans perished, Arul and his family returned to their two-room cement home, adorned with pictures of Christ and Christmas decorations. Arul turned on the television, while his mother, Alice Mary, prepared tea. His father, Thanislaus, went to a neighbor’s house to bathe.

Minutes later, Arul heard the distressed voice of his father. “Alice Mary, Arul! Water’s coming! Get the family out of the house! Run!” Thanislaus had seen people on the beach running inland. A white line on the ocean’s horizon had turned into a thundering rush of water.

Alice Mary, Arul and the two girls – 14-year-old Ancy carrying 2-year-old Ancilin – ran from their home. The homes were death traps. With few exceptions, those who remained inside were killed, either by falling cement blocks or the rising water. The most direct route from the oncoming water led to the sewage canal, the second trap. There was no bridge at that point across the canal. But where else could the family go? As they scrambled toward the canal, the girls, clinging together, were swept away by the water.

The waves, which survivors described as a “dark wall of water,” pushed Thanislaus into the sewer. He was fortunate to be swept under a bridge, not smacked into it, and was spat out on the other side of the canal. He slammed into an electrical transformer, tearing a gash in his thigh, before he managed to cling to the top of a coconut tree.

Arul also was sent into the sewage tumbler. He scrambled to the surface, grabbing hold of a body. The woman, a neighbor, was already dead and Arul released her. As the waves swept him through the canal, another woman, this one alive and kicking, grabbed hold of him, forcing both of them underwater. Arul freed himself and grabbed hold of a coconut tree.

The coconut grove saved lives, but it also took them. The stiff trunks made for a treacherous game of bumper pool – hazards like the overturned boats, water tanks, concrete blocks and other debris pushed on by the waves.

The first and most powerful wave hit Kottilpadu at 10:10 a.m. In merely a couple of minutes, the water had penetrated almost two miles inland, receding almost as fast.

“It was all over in three and a half minutes,” said Father Xavier Lawrence, the parish priest of St. Alex’s. At 10:15 a.m., as Arul and Thanislaus surveyed the corpses scattered around the broken village, they wondered if anyone else in the family had survived.

Those 210 seconds of terror left tiny Kottilpadu with 337 confirmed dead or missing, over 400 wounded, 600 homes destroyed, and nearly all the villagers’ fishing boats and nets destroyed.

Ten days later, Arul and his mother were among the several thousand people packed into Colochel’s Sugantham Marriage Hall, a two-story facility that served as one of 62 makeshift shelters set up along the coast after the tsunami. From upstairs came the savory smell of simmering curry. Downstairs, a man clutched a microphone, shouting directions over the din of the crowd. Arul and Alice Mary stared at the floor. Like many survivors, they had spent the past 10 days shuttling from one place to another. That morning, they had visited Thanislaus, who was recovering at a nearby hospital.

Around noon a rumor surfaced that more bodies had been recovered. Was Arul’s sister, Ancy, among them? The family desperately wanted to bury Ancy alongside her sister and grandmother at St. Alex Church. But, no, she did not turn up. Later that afternoon, Arul and his mother returned to Sugantham, joining other refugees who were crowding the government relief tables, demanding more than just water, food and clothes.

In the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, which killed more than 250,000 people, local and foreign governments, NGOs and private citizens scrambled to mount the most ambitious relief effort in history. Each country – Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India – presented unique challenges, and problems abounded. Some areas were in the midst of civil war, others were too remote for immediate assistance. Some political leaders postured more than they acted. The threat of a massive outbreak of infectious disease loomed.

Kanyakumari, the district where Kottilpadu is located, had its own problems. Most notable was the government’s slow response. Many of the district’s residents claimed that the government authorities did not arrive on the scene until three days after the calamity. Government officials disputed this.

By the time government workers arrived, relief efforts were already under way, guided by Bishop Leon A. Tharmaraj of the Latin Diocese of Kottar and staffed by dozens of local and international NGOs. Since so many of the dead and displaced survivors (estimated at 1,000 and 90,000 respectively) in the Kanyakumari district came from his diocese, he quickly seized the initiative and convened a forum for religious leaders and NGOs in the area.

“Everyone agreed to build up the community, not just in terms of money and materials, but also by concentrating on people’s relationships with one another,” Bishop Tharmaraj said.

The Diocese of Kottar became the command center for all nongovernmental, tsunami-related social service activities in the district of Kanyakumari. Father Jeremias, Information Director of the Kottar Social Service Society, assigned NGOs to villages along the coast. Caritas Switzerland took responsibility for the heavily damaged village of Mela Manakudy and four others; the Holy Cross Sisters were sent to Puthoor; social workers from the Syro-Malankara Catholic Eparchy of Marthandom took charge of three towns; and Social Change and Development (an Indian NGO) went to Kottilpadu.

Many more were involved. The Sisters of St. Ann of Luzern joined mobile medical camps sent to the coastal villages. The Syro- Malankara Catholic Bethany Sisters started rebuilding a neighborhood in Kanyakumari. Syro-Malabar Catholic Bishop George Alencherry from neighboring Thuckalay tended to the smaller settlements around Colachel.

In all, more than 60 local NGOs and 16 international relief agencies stepped forward to work with Bishop Tharmaraj.

“The response has been enormous. We have almost 100 percent coverage of the damaged areas,” Father Jeremias said. “This powerful wave of destruction from nature has been met by an even more powerful wave of generosity from mankind.”

In the first few days after the tsunami, relief workers concerned themselves with providing food, clothing, shelter and medical care to the victims. Relief workers were also available for crisis counseling.

“Right now, some people cannot cry; they cannot talk. But when we go there, sit with them and look into their eyes, they just pour out everything,” said Carmelite Sister Efamia Lucy Joice, a counseling coordinator.

“Afterward, they tell me, ‘Sister, really, it helps a lot.’ Now is the time to cry. Only then will they feel relief. After that they can begin the healing process, accept God again and begin to solve their own problems.”

It took 10 days for Alice Mary to give voice to her anguish. “They should have buried me with my children,” she sobbed to Sister Flory Paranilam. “Why did they allow me to live?”

Later that evening, in another part of the hall, Franciscan Sister Stella Baltazan, of Caritas Switzerland, said Alice Mary’s grief was common among survivors.

“Who can replace these children for her? What can ever fill that void in her life? She finds no purpose in living. But I think this is our mission – to rejuvenate these people, to rebuild them, to give them a sense of purpose and hope that life can still be worth living.”

But how could Sister Stella, or anyone else, provide this hope?

Sister Flory walked by. Amid this sea of grief, she was smiling. “Guess what?” she asked. “Alice Mary just asked me how I was doing.”

Writer and photographer Peter Lemieux spent two weeks on assignment for ONE in south India.

Get to know us and stay informed about the impact your support makes.

Nous constatons que votre préférence linguistique est le français.
Voudriez-vous être redirigé sur notre site de langue française?

Oui! Je veux y accéder.

Hemos notado que su idioma preferido es español. ¿Le gustaría ver la página de Asociación Católica para el Bienestar del Cercano Oriente en español?

Vee página en español