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I was there when the tsunami struck

19 December 2014

Ten years ago, Maxwell Hutchinson and his wife were on holiday in Sri Lanka when it was torn apart by the tsunami. He tells how they survived


Devastation: above: people walk through the debris of their homes after the tsunami

Devastation: above: people walk through the debris of their homes after the tsunami

MY WIFE, Georgina, and I were at the teardrop at the end of Sri Lanka, south of Galle - we had arrived a couple of days before Christmas. Our friends had found us an apartment on the second floor of a new, reinforced concrete guest-house, one block back from the sea. It was a large room, with a balcony which we shared with a German woman, Bettina.

Unawatuna is a beautiful, horseshoe-shaped bay with a coral reef across the mouth. There were hardly any waves, the sea was blood-temperature, and there was lovely soft sand. The food was excellent - the hottest curries ever.

We got up on Christmas Day, and had a wonderful day eating panettone, playing football on the beach, swimming, and having too much to drink. Too much to drink is eventually what saved our lives.

The next day, my alarm went off, and I thought "Oh, no," because, to be honest, both of us had a hangover. So I had a bit more of a lie-in. Once I had woken up, I went out on to our balcony, and our neighbour, Bettina, was getting ready to go to the beach.

She said: "Are you going to come with me?" "No," I said. "I just have to get our towels and bathing costumes. You go on."

And so I got the towels and bathing costumes, and told Georgie: "I'll see you at the usual place." I went down the steps to the beach, which was probably about 50 yards away.


SUDDENLY I saw that people were running towards me. There was a trickle of water behind them. Then this great wall of water came towards me. I didn't know what to do, except run like crazy back up the staircase.

As I ran, the minibus that was parked outside was thrown into the hotel, smashing into the reception area. I ran into the room and said to Georgie: "The coral reef has burst. The water's rising: we're going to drown."

The sea water had reached the first-floor balcony. It had huge power behind it; so I thought "Get on the roof." We ran to the top storey, and then helped each other up on to the roof - there were about five or six others. I was standing on the roof saying "Hail Mary, full of grace . . ." They were all looking terrified. (I remember somebody saying afterwards: "We knew it was serious, Maxwell, when you started saying your rosary.")

And then we saw Bettina's body floating past. One poor woman was sitting on top of a floating fridge, still alive: her bikini had been ripped off. The water had been throwing cars up into palm trees, and there was rubbish, and bits of buildings, and a lot of injured and dead people floating in the water. It was awful.

HEN it reached a kind of equilibrium - the water was about 15 or 20 feet deep. We went down to the first-floor balcony, and started pulling people out of the water. Quite a lot were badly hurt - mainly lower-body injuries, lacerations to the legs. There was a little boy who was dying, and we pulled his father out, and he held him in his arms. We didn't really know what to do.

The water was over the top of most buildings, which were single-storey shacks. There were cars thrown everywhere, and bits of roofs. I said: "We have got to get out: this building is going to collapse."

By now, the water had gone down to chest level; so we jumped into the water and started wading in the direction the family who owned our hotel were taking us; but we didn't know where we were going, and had no idea what would happen next.

It hadn't entered my mind that we were going to drown, but then I slipped into a gully and went up to my neck in water. There were railings, and I tried to pull myself out, but I couldn't. A little Sri Lankan managed to pull me out.

THEY took us to a hotel which was on a slightly raised piece of ground at the bottom of the mountain. I raided the hotel, and tore up sheets to make bandages, and took bottles of vodka from the bar to kill the pain and to use as a disinfectant. In the mean time there were more people wading out of the water who were badly injured.

I went up to people and said: "I'm a Christian, would you like me to pray with you?" Nobody said no. I did the usual formularies, said the prayers of the Church, and held their hands. They were crying. A lot of them had internal injuries, and I remember thinking that they were all going to die. I said the Lord's Prayer with them.

One woman was in hysterics: she was Australian, and had been on the beach with her husband and two children. They were changing into their wetsuits when the wave struck, and she had lost her husband and two children. I prayed for the children, and we prayed for God's grace, mercy, and love in their lives.

They wanted me to stay; they didn't want me to move on. It was a really formative incident for me in practical faith. I was staring the reality of the fragile nature of humanity in the face, dealing in a practical Christian way with those who were dying.

I kept thinking about Christ's suffering and how he suffered for us, the miracle of the resurrection, and the redeeming value of faith in people's lives.

AFTER we had looked after these people, and done the best we could for them, what were we to do now? I had a premonition that there was going to be another wave, but we didn't know what it was at this point. I hadn't even heard the word tsunami before.

Somebody mentioned that there might even have been nuclear war. The sea, which had been our friend the previous day, was now so frightening.

We went a bit higher, to the Buddhist temple. I said that we needed water; so the young men went back wading into the sea to the hotel, and came back with armfuls of water bottles. We still didn't have any food. I said: "What are we going to do now?"

A big Sri Lankan man pointed and said: "We go up, we go up." We followed him, carrying as much water as we could, climbing up a steep slope in the jungle.

I'm asthmatic, and I was getting really tired. We were exhausted. I remember getting covered from head to toe in red ants that were biting me, and I thought: "This is it. I've had enough now."

Georgie said: "I'm not giving up on you yet"; so we ploughed on, and we got to the top, and there was a little village. There were lots of other people who had climbed the mountain, and we were offered food - dal, on banana leaves. Food had never tasted so good.

CLIMBED up to higher ground to see the most remarkable sight. The sea had gone back about five or six miles, exposing the shore. Local people were going out to the seabed because there were coins, and diving masks, and goodness knows what else lying on the bottom.

But the sea came back again with double the force, just as in my premonition; and an awful lot of people died in the second wave.

We could hear a helicopter coming; so we did something really Hollywood and corny - we wrote "Help" in palm leaves on the ground. We took our shirts off and waved them.

We weren't doing badly: we had food, we had water, and most of us were uninjured, or had only minor injuries. I couldn't sleep, though; it was the longest night of my life.

WE DECIDED that the next day we would go back again. We climbed down a muddy slope to what was left of the village. You could see inside people's houses, and cars seemed to be upended by palm trees. There were bodies everywhere.

Our guest house was still there. The door to our room was locked; so we broke it down. Everything was as we had left it. We collected our belongings, and Georgie went up and down the mountain to get things for other people.

HEN, several days later, we saw two people coming towards us, saying "I'm Mark, and this is Christopher, and we're from the British High Commission." It was like something out of Dan Dare.

They told us to go back down to a hotel to spend the night, but at dusk we were suddenly rescued. We were taken to another hotel, and then, by bus, to the capital, Colombo. We were taken to an exhibition centre with mattresses on the floor. There were sockets so that we could charge our mobile phones and get messages back to our families.

I sat on a mattress, Tannoys going off all the time. There was a little bit left in a bottle of vodka, and we drank it all, crying and holding each other. And then we slept.

The third-largest earthquake ever recorded hit the Indian Ocean on 26 December 2004, triggering a devastating tsunami, which killed an estimated 230,000 people in coastal regions in 14 countries. Donors from around the world gave more than £11 billion to provide humanitarian aid to the countries affected.

The Revd Maxwell Hutchinson was made deacon at Petertide this year, and is NS Assistant Curate of St John on Bethnal Green. He is also an architect and broadcaster. He was speaking to Tim Wyatt.

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