Tsunamis' impact felt locally

Wednesday, January 5, 2005

Amila Ramanayake didn't read about the mountainous tidal waves that stormed the shores of South Asia in the newspaper.

The 26-year-old Sri Lanka native and Southeast Missouri State University student didn't see images on a TV screen of hundreds of people -- mostly children -- being tugged kicking and screaming from land out to sea and certain death.

And Ramanayake, who only last month was safe at home with his wife in Scott City, didn't see pictures on the Internet of people dumping countless bodies in mass graves.

He saw it. He lived through it.

All of it.

Visiting his homeland to see if his kidney was a match for his sick father, Ramanayake experienced the most terrifying -- and later most heartbreaking -- moments in his life.

Ramanayake is one of the tsunami survivors.

This is his story.

Amila Ramanayake loved growing up in Sri Lanka, a small island south of India in the Indian Ocean. An avid swimmer and scuba diver, he made a playground of the country's 1,300 miles of tropical coastline.

In 1997, Ramanayake came to the United States in search of a better education. At first, he went to Arkansas State University to pursue a degree in management information systems. In 2000, he decided to move to the Cape Girardeau area, where he enrolled at Southeast Missouri State University.

In 2002, he married a U.S. citizen, an Arkansas girl named Amanda Sadler. After enrolling at Southeast, he took a job at Ryder Transportation in Cape Girardeau, where he worked part-time fueling vehicles and doing other odd jobs. A co-worker, Tina Hennecke, says he is "a super nice guy."

One of his university professors, Dr. Stephen Overmann, also thinks highly of Ramanayake, recognizing that he was a hard-working immigrant who was "trying to get a piece of the American dream."

That is perhaps part of the reason Overmann allowed Ramanayake to take his final early when he asked near the end of last semester.

Something about his father being sick. Ramanayake needed to go home.

His visit was fine at first.

Then, it happened.

On a day when more than 150,000 would later lose their lives, Ramanayake and a friend were going to go scuba diving and swimming in the eastern province of the country.

"I wanted to go to the beach very early, about 7 o'clock," Ramanayake said. "But my friend had forgotten to buy our return train tickets, so we had to wait until the ticket counter opened at 8:30 a.m. I said, 'Let's take the bus,' but he really wanted to take the train. Otherwise we would have been at the beach when the wave hit," Ramanayake said.

After waiting awhile at home until it was time to leave for the train, they came outside and heard people screaming.

"Thani! Thani!"

In Tamil, one of several languages spoken in Sri Lanka, that means "water."

"First we did not understand what that was about, but when we looked at the ocean, we knew what was going on," Ramanayake said.

The two saw a huge tidal wave heading for them.

"Just like in the movie 'Armageddon,'" he said. "I don't know how I started running, but I did."

But he couldn't run fast enough. The water picked him up off the ground and threw him against a tree.

"I was really scared, and I did not know what to do," he said. "I could not let go of the tree. I knew I was going to die if I did that."

He also remembers gagging because the water was dirty and salty.

Amazingly, he remembers after the first wave being in awe as he looked out and saw that the ocean looked empty. He could see emptiness for more than a mile where before water had been.

The water was on land now.

A second wave took everything back to the ocean, including screaming adults and children.

"I was shivering because I was scared," Ramanayake said. "I wanted to live. I saw hundreds and hundreds of people dying. Unfortunately, most of them were kids. It was so painful to see that."

He and his friend managed to live. Later he learned that his family survived.

He and his friend ran to a bridge they thought would be a safe place if another wave were to hit. Reaching the bridge, they were met by a sea of dead bodies.

"We wanted to help people by the bridge, but we could not do that because the water was so powerful," he said. "My God, it was a disaster. My friend and me went to a hospital. It was like one big funeral. There were so many bodies, there was no space to put them."

He remembers seeing a couple weeping over the lifeless body of their only child.

"He was 6 and the father could not hang on to him," Ramanayake said. "The second wave got him. I cried when I saw that ... There were thousands and thousands of families like that."

The scene has become common in the days since the disaster. Survivors are blessed to be alive, but they have been left homeless, hungry and desperate for help. By Ramanayake's estimation, more than 900,000 families in Sri Lanka have lost their homes. Foreign aid is starting to trickle in.

"The whole world is helping us right now," he said. "But the biggest problem right now is that most people are emotionally down. They are too sad to function."

Ramanayake hates what has happened to his homeland.

"It's really hard for me," he said. "I love everyone, regardless of race. It really is sad to see them buried like that, especially kids and women. They're being buried without proper respect."

His thoughts linger on that day. He knows those memories always will be with him.

"If I were to leave for the beach as early as planned, I would be among them," he said. "I hope this will never happen to anyone again. I don't think I can take it."

He plans to return to America in a week or so. He admits it will be difficult to leave.

"We went through this tragedy together," he said. "How can I leave my countrymen alone? But I have no choice. I will do anything to help them from the U.S."

He has been writing to organizations to ask for help. He will continue to do that after he gets back to his wife in Scott City.

He hopes those who hear his story will help, too.

Meanwhile, his wife waits in their Scott City home for her husband. She has worried, cried, watched the news reports and talked to him every day since the disaster.

"He's probably the nicest person you could ever meet," Sadler said. "Before him, I didn't know what I was going to do. Then he changed my life."

She expects the tsunamis have changed her husband.

"After what he's seen," she said, "how can he not be changed?"


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