PERELIYA, Sri Lanka – A packed train in Sri Lanka that was swept off its tracks by waves as big as elephants. A boat patrolling off Thailand’s shore hurled 2 kilometers (more than a mile) inland. Streets in Indonesia turned into roaring rivers that carried people to their deaths.
Vivid memories such as these were recalled Friday during emotional 10th anniversary commemorations of the Indian Ocean tsunami that left nearly a quarter million people dead in one of modern history’s worst natural disasters.
The Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami was triggered by a magnitude-9.1 earthquake – the region’s most powerful in 40 years – that tore open the seabed off of Indonesia’s Sumatran coast, displacing billions of tons of water and sending waves roaring across the Indian Ocean at jetliner speeds as far away as East Africa.
Crying onlookers took part in beach-side memorials and religious services across Asia on Friday, while some European countries also marked the occasion to remember the thousands of Christmas holiday tourists who died in the disaster.
Pain and hope alike were harvested from the tragedy.
“There is no need for anyone to remind us, the sorrow will be there until I stop breathing,” said Kapila Migelratne, a 50-year-old businessman who lost his 14-year-old son and his brother when the train they were riding was derailed along Sri Lanka’s southwestern shoreline. More than 35,000 people in Sri Lanka died in the tsunami, including as many as 2,000 in what is regarded as the world’s worst train accident.
In the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where more than 6,000 people died, Liguvariyal Daveed – a tsunami survivor who lost her son, mother and two grandchildren in the disaster – said the fear from that day remains with her.
“Whenever we see the ocean, we get reminded of how this same ocean took away all these people,” she said at a memorial ceremony in the town of Kanyakumari. “You can’t even imagine how much we fear the sea now. We didn’t even want to stay close to it, so we moved … away from the sea, in a small house allotted to me by the government.”
In Europe, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven delivered a speech at a ceremony at Uppsala Cathedral, just north of Stockholm, to remember the 543 Swedes who died in the tsunami. President Joachim Gauck of Germany, which lost more than 500 people to the tsunami, said in a message marking the anniversary that “locals and tourists found themselves in a situation in which they had a shared destiny, a bond which can still be felt today.”
Those attending a memorial service in southern Thailand included European tsunami survivors, who were serenaded by a small orchestra and took part in a minute of silence and a candlelight ceremony. About half of Thailand’s 8,212 tsunami deaths were foreign tourists, mostly Europeans escaping the winter cold.
The ceremony was held in the resort area of Khao Lak, next to a police boat that was out at sea when the tsunami struck and was carried 2 kilometers (more than 1 mile) inland by the massive waves. The boat has become a permanent memorial to the power of the tsunami.
Many at the memorial ceremonies celebrated how people – locals and the international community alike – pulled together in the wake of the tragedy, saving strangers and launching a process to build back better.
Czech supermodel Petra Nemcova was vacationing in Khao Lak with her fiance, Simon Atlee, when the waves struck. He drowned and she barely survived with serious injuries, including a broken pelvis. After recovering, she founded the Happy Hearts Fund to rebuild schools devastated by natural disasters.
“Ten years ago, everyone who is present here today got connected in a very profound way, and through our experience, which we have shared, our lives have been connected ever since,” Nemcova told the crowd at Friday’s ceremony. “The 2004 tsunami didn’t connect just those of us here, but the whole world, as individuals, families and countries have been asking, ‘How can we help?’ ”
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha noted that the tragedy “allowed us see the kindness and help that came from around the world that helped us pass through the difficult time.”
Indonesia’s Aceh province, which was closest to the quake’s epicenter, was hit first and hardest. Initially, the quake toppled homes and buildings and sent panicked communities rushing into the streets.
About 20 minutes later, a wall of water up to 10 meters (33 feet) high surged inland for kilometers (miles) with seemingly unstoppable force, carrying along trees, houses, train cars – and thousands of people – in a churning rush.
More than 170,000 people died in Indonesia alone, about three-quarters of the total death toll.
Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla led a prayer ceremony Friday in Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh province. He and other officials placed flowers at a mass grave where thousands of unknown tsunami victims were buried.
“Here in this field 10 years ago … we tearfully saw thousands of corpses lying,” Kalla said. “No words can describe our human feelings at that time – confused, shocked, sad, scared – in seeing the suffering of the people in Aceh. But we could not remain in sadness. Aceh had to rise again, and all Indonesians in this archipelago helped, and people all over the world offered their assistance.”
In Sri Lanka, survivors and other mourners took a memorial journey to honor those lost in the world’s worst train accident.
The Queen of the Sea was chugging down Sri Lanka’s palm-fringed southwestern coast, headed from Colombo, the capital, to the historic port city of Galle, 110 kilometers (70 miles) away, when the tsunami struck. Waves described by some survivors as being as big as elephants enveloped the train, lifting its cars off the track into a thick marsh in Pereliya village.
As many as 2,000 people died in the railway disaster, including more than 400 local villagers who tried to escape first line of waves by climbing onto the top of the eight-coach train. Only a few dozen passengers are believed to have survived.
The memorial ride on Friday included the train’s original “Engine 591” and five restored coaches. They were decorated with Buddhist flags for the occasion, and Buddhist chants were played throughout the journey, which replicated the train’s ill-fated route 10 years ago.
At a memorial in Pereliya village, Buddhist, Christian and Hindu rituals were performed and relatives lit candles and offered flowers with tearful eyes.
Shanthi Gallage, along with her husband and two daughters, was riding home on the train after a Christmas visit to relatives when the waves struck.
She saw her husband alive, trapped under a log, when she set out to find her daughters. But later she was told that her husband had died and been buried in a mass grave. She found one daughter, but never found the other, who was 13.
“I believe that she is alive and someone keeping her will return her to me today,” said Gallage, who carries portraits of her husband and missing daughter with her. “There are people who tell me to forget about it, but I don’t talk to them anymore. When I try to give it up, something prompts me not to, and I pray and search for her.”