Thursday, October 30, 2014 10:24 am
Sinniah Yogarajan only stepped in at the last minute to drive a group of workers to a Sri Lankan sugarcane factory as a favour to one of his sons.
By the time he returned home a couple of hours later, his wife, two sons, daughter-in-law and grand-daughter had all been swallowed up by a giant mudslide.
“The entire neighbourhood had just disappeared. Where our homes used to be, it was just a river of mud,” an emotional Yogarajan said at a nearby relief centre in the central Koslanda tea-growing region.
“This is something that shouldn’t happen to anyone. There is no point in my living anymore. What am I going to do without my family?”
Around 100 people are feared to have been buried alive in Koslanda after a giant mudslide wiped out scores of homes on a tea plantation Wednesday following days of monsoon rains.
Officials say there is no chance of anyone caught up in the disaster having survived
Like many of the plantations which produce Sri Lanka’s most famous export, Ceylon tea, the Meeriyabedda estate is usually a picture postcard of rolling green hills set against deep blue skies.
But on Thursday morning, the landscape looked more like a battlefield as hundreds of soldiers sifted through the slick of mud with the help of mechanical diggers.
Yogarajan, whose wife Krishnathi worked as a nurse on the estate, escaped with his life only because he stepped in to take a truck-load of workers who would normally have been driven by his 24-year-old son Raja.
– Last goodbye –
“My wife cooked me a meal and then she just said goodbye as normal.
“Raja usually does the drive to the sugar factory, but I took his place because he needed to stay back to sort out a loan to buy his own truck.”
While the colonial era houses on some of Sri Lanka’s tea estates have become up-market tourist destinations in recent years, the Meeriyabedda homes were basic one-storey buildings that didn’t stand a chance when the wall of mud came down the mountainside.
None of the bodies of Yogarajan’s family has yet been recovered.
“The soldiers are trying their best but every time they scoop out some of the mud the hole then just gets filled up again with more mud,” he said.
Officials say the death toll could have been much higher but that many of plantation workers had already begun their shift.
When Jaanaki Sinnappai heard about the disaster, she rushed home only to find the building had been washed away.
“I can’t find my daughter and her two small children,” the 56-year-old told AFP at a school where she took shelter overnight.
Vevaratnam Marathamuttu, who ran a shop in the village, was also at work when disaster struck. He was one of the few people who managed to flee the mudslide.
“I thought it was some sort of a bomb blast,” Marathamuttu said, looking at a picture on the front-page of a newspaper that featured debris from his shop. “I managed to escape because I ran as soon as I saw what was happening.”
Eight powerful earth diggers were at the scene Thursday morning, with officials holding out little hope of finding anyone alive.
“This is now a recovery operation,” said an army officer.