- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 28, 2004

TELWATTA, Sri Lanka — More than 800 people were killed when their train, the “Queen of the Sea,” was swept off the track by the raging tsunami this week, police said, and several hundred bodies pulled from the twisted wreckage were buried yesterday alongside the railway line.

The train was carrying 1,000 people from Colombo to a southern beach resort when it came to a stop just before its destination as waters began to rise Sunday. Residents of nearby towns ran onto the train, trying to seek protection on its roof when the wall of water hit, police said.

The eight rust-colored train cars lay disconnected and overturned in deep pools of water yards from the track amid debris and fallen palm trees yesterday. The force of the waves had torn off some of the wheels, and the tracks twisted like a loop on a roller coaster.

One thousand tickets were sold in Colombo for the train, and rescuers recovered 802 bodies from the train’s cars and the muck beneath them, said military spokesman Brig. Daya Ratnayake.

No relatives claimed 204 of the bodies, so they were buried in a mass grave yesterday, with Buddhist monks performing traditional funeral rites. They chanted and poured water on the grave to symbolize the giving of merits of the living to the dead.

Venerable Baddegama Samitha, a Buddhist monk and former parliamentarian who presided over the ritual, said he realized that some of the dead were of other faiths — the region has a significant Muslim population — and that a moment’s silence was held to honor them.

“This was the only thing we could do,” he said. “It was a desperate solution. The bodies were rotting. We gave them a decent burial.”

The destruction across Sri Lanka’s coasts from the disaster was so heavy that authorities were not immediately aware of the loss of the train, said Sasanka Jayasekara, a lawyer and member of the local government.

The train — named “Samudradevi,” meaning “Queen of the Sea” — had left Colombo at 7:30 a.m. and was traveling 70 miles southeast to Galle along the coastal rail line, which runs about 200 yards from the shore. The train was near the village of Telwatta, about 15 miles from Galle, when the water began to rise.

“The people in the village ran toward the train and climbed on top of it,” said Police Superintendent B.P.B. Ayupala. “Then the water level went down” — the effect of the approaching tsunami sucking in the coastal waters before its strikes — “and 10 minutes later, it came back” in the giant wave, he said.

The train’s driver survived, although police have not spoken to him.

The superintendent said authorities took fingerprints of the unclaimed dead so that they could be identified later.

At a nearby police station, officers laid out identification and credit cards, driver’s licenses and bank books found at the train site. The people in the cards included an electricity board secretary, an assistant lecturer at a state research institute of social development and a student from the University of Jaffna, in the north of the island nation.

At the train site, a young man wept in the arms of friends as the body of his girlfriend was buried.

“We met in university. Is this the fate that we hoped for?” he said, sobbing. “My darling, you were the only hope for me.”

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