Tsunami memory: Awash in misery, a reason for joy
Some 230,000 people were killed in the Indian Ocean tsunami set off by a magnitude 9.1 earthquake on Dec. 26, 2004. A dozen countries were hit, from Indonesia to India to Africa’s east coast. Scores of Associated Press journalists covered the disaster, and as the 10th anniversary approached, the AP asked 10 of them to describe the images that have stuck with them the most. This is the last of their stories, which have been published daily since Dec. 17.
Christopher Torchia, the AP’s bureau chief for southern Africa, covered the disaster from Galle, Sri Lanka:
The hospital didn’t have enough room for the bodies. They filled the morgue, a large ward, the walkways and the grass outside. Standing among the tsunami’s victims, I received some news that made me want to celebrate.
This was the awful dissonance of the Indian Ocean catastrophe, which strained the imaginations of many of those who witnessed its power, in the moment and in the aftermath.
Survivors’ accounts of a monster wave surging ashore seemed fantastical. The scenes of destruction were hard to process. A train lay in a marsh after the tsunami swept it off the tracks like a toy, killing hundreds.
For me, it began like many other urgent assignments. The phone call, the next available flight from my base in Singapore, the hotel room in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital.
This time, it was difficult to focus on the job. My brother had been vacationing in the Maldives, a low-lying archipelago that was hit by the tsunami. My family had lost contact with him.
Much of the Maldives had been inundated. The death toll was relatively low at about 100 in the archipelago, where tsunami waves didn’t gain height and break with the same force they did on the coastlines of other countries.
In those early hours, worried about my brother, I drove to the devastated Sri Lankan city of Galle. At the hospital entrance, a tractor arrived with bodies piled on a cart.
Hundreds lay in rows, swelled up but mostly without visible injury. Sometimes, I studied them. Sometimes, I averted my eyes. From one angle, they didn’t seem so distant from life; from another, they were alien and remote. I felt shame, fascination, pity and disconnection. An awful dissonance.
Then came a text message. My brother was safe. I paused among the dead, quietly elated. Nearby, townspeople searched for missing relatives, scanning the rows of faces on the ground.