Those who boarded the early train from Columbo on December 26 were heading south for an important Buddhist new-moon holiday.
The railway line to Galle follows Sri Lanka’s palm-fringed west coast, often within sight of the ocean, and this popular train was nicknamed the ‘Queen of the Sea’. At Telwatta, a little north of Galle, it halted. As the driver waited for the signals to change, an enormous wave tore ashore and villagers rushed towards the higher ground of the railway line. The train seemed to offer protection from the waist-deep water, and some sheltered behind it while others clambered onto the roof. The wave surged around the coaches and retreated.
This is a telltale sign of a tsunami, which sucks up coastal waters into a vast, destructive wave, but those at Telwatta were unaware that an earthquake off the coast of Indonesia had set in motion a tsunami of cataclysmic power. The second wave flattened the village, snapped and uprooted trees and tossed the train off the tracks. Eight carriages crammed with terrified holidaymakers were tumbled over and over as seawater flooded in through open windows. Only a few managed to scramble out while windows remained, briefly, above the waterline.
The rest drowned in the train or were buried in mud and debris.
The water ebbed, leaving the twisted, crumpled train in a wasteland of tom trees and razed buildings. Families and friends who searched and grieved alongside an army team in the waterlogged chaos did not know that this scene was being repeated all along Sri Lanka’s ravaged coastline. At Telwatta, many bodies were never found, many more remained unidentified. Police displayed identification papers and unclaimed bodies were photographed and fingerprinted, and given a respectful burial by Buddhist monks.
When was the ‘Queen of the Sea’ Train Disaster: December 26 2004
Where was the ‘Queen of the Sea’ Train Disaster: Telwatta, Sri Lanka
What was the ‘Queen of the Sea’ Train Disaster death toll: More than 1,700 – the world’s worst-ever railway disaster.
You should know: A local woodcarver and his family saw the whole tragedy from the concrete roof of their latrine. In retrospect, they considered the tsunami nature’s ‘statement’. Like many other Sri Lankans, they tried to find meaning in the disaster.