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Disaster dealt different fates to residents of coastal Sri Lankan town

AMBALANGADO, Sri Lanka—Asia's tidal wave disaster dealt sharply different fates to those along the coasts, depending on how far they lived from the shore.

Those living at the ocean's edge invariably suffered devastation. Neighbors just a block or two back sometimes went unscathed.

This town on Sri Lanka's southeast coast is a case in point. On one side of a beach road, houses are smashed to their foundations. Shattered boats litter the beach. Fishing nets tangle the upper fronds of palm trees. Lives lay in tragedy and destitution.

But across the street and up a knoll, neighbors hardly have seen their lives disrupted. Their homes didn't even get flooded.

For the neighboring Thomson and the Kahingala families, fate could hardly have taken sharper turns Dec. 26, when a massive undersea earthquake off Sumatra sent killer surges across the Indian Ocean.

Before that day, P.W. Thomson Jr. earned his living as a fisherman and a skin diver for lobster and octopus. He owned a boat, and lived with his wife and son in a bright yellow three-room home.

Thomson recounted the morning of the devastation as emotion-laden scenes in a short drama.

First there was fear, when a small initial surge drove water two feet deep into his home and threw his catamaran against beachfront palm trees. Then minutes later there was excitement, as the water receded nearly 400 yards out to sea, exposing sea life. Thomson and other awed villagers ran to an island several hundreds yards offshore to gather exposed lobster.

Then 15 minutes later came utter terror. A second, higher wall of water came roaring in from the sea. Thomson had gathered two lobsters but dropped them to dash toward the knoll. Water caught him up to the waist but he managed to reach dry land.

Swirling seawater covered his house. His catamaran splintered. His wife and 3-year-old son had reached high ground, too, but with nothing.

Thomson guided a visitor carefully through the rubble, crunching broken crockery under foot.

"This is the living room," he said, "there is our bedroom." Taking a few steps, he added: "This is the dining room."

Only part of a wall remains standing. The rest is shattered concrete littered with debris and old clothing. Thomson made a brief inventory of what the house contained: "It had a fridge, TV, cassettes, washing machine, electric heater (and) blender."

"I had 4,000 or 5,000 rupees in the cupboard. I had gold (chains). My wife had gold (jewelry)," Thomson said. The entire contents of the house, as well as personal photos, IDs, bank records, were swept away.

Thomson and his wife, K.C. Inoka, and their son Shehan, are sleeping in the neighborhood Buddhist temple, depending on handouts for their meals.

"I have only this dress. All the other clothes went into the sea," Inoka said.

"The boat is lost," Thomson said. "The house is lost."

A neighbor said local fishermen desperately need boats to pursue their livelihood.

"We can make a coconut frond house," said N.L. Manju, the 40-year-old neighbor, dismissing their lack of housing. "But we need boats, engines and nets."

Up a road some 100 yards from the Thomson house, Renuka Kahingala steps out on the porch of her trim home and acknowledges that her fate is far different than Thomson's.

"The water didn't reach here. We were lucky. We didn't have any trouble," she said.

A fruit and vegetable vendor, Kahingala enjoyed roughly the same standard of living as Thomson before the tsunamis.

She offers no special reflection on her now destitute shoreline neighbors, but her 18-year-old son offered little sympathy.

"The government has advised them that if they live there, be very careful," said the son, Lahiru Dilshan.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): TSUNAMI

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