In these last hours, video has captured a tsunami rolling ashore in the town of Palu, Sulawesi, Indonesia. Ten-foot waves can be seen in the background sweeping structures, palm trees and debris before them. The death toll, sure to rise, stands at 830.
The images recalled what the world observed in horror on December 26, 2004 when a 9.1 magnitude earthquake in the Indian Ocean set in motion a series of giant waves that savaged the coasts of Sumatra, Sri Lanka, Thailand, India, and the Horn of Africa. Seismologists confirm that, so violent was the quake, it caused the entire planet to shudder. When the ghastly totals were drawn, nearly a quarter of a million seaside dwellers were lost with numberless survivors injured and left with shattered lives.
My wife, Mary Kay, and I met one survivor on a south-bound bus from Chennai, India one January evening. He and his entourage clambered aboard headed for ‘Pudu’ or Pondicherri, the former French enclave in India made famous as the setting for the ‘Life of Pi’. It was wedding season in India, and for his family, too.
I ask him if the great wave had touched him and his family. Yes, he replies. ‘I live in a small fishing village and that morning had gone with my wife to tend our garden in the hills. The roar of the wave found us there, though we understood nothing. Only that fate had struck. We rushed home to find the sea had taken our entire lives. Our house, the fishing boat, but worst of all, our daughter and her grandmother. Vanished in one terrible moment.’
He recounts this to me matter-of-factly as he stands in the crowded bus in his wedding best, surrounded by his family in resplendent saris. It could not have been more incongruous. I stammer my sympathy for such colossal loss. He lays his hand on my shoulder as though to comfort me. Yes, he says, it was painful. ‘But it would be selfish to be paralyzed by grief. Poverty and struggle teach us not to collapse in the face of such reverses.’
That night from the fourth floor of our Pondicherri hotel, we laid awake listening to the drumming and song from a wedding celebration. And the words of a fisherman riding the crest of wedding joy beyond the wrath of a terrible wave.
Part II to follow.