Wannigaratna Karunatilake, 50, was the guard of the train that was swept away in Peraliya, southern Sri Lanka, during last year’s tsunami. More than 1,000 people died. Karunatilake and his assistant R.U.A. Gunaratna survived. This December 26, Karunatilake says he will be where he was last year — at Peraliya.
Karunatilake says he wants to forget the incident but he’s going there as a special guest in a ceremony in memory of those who died. The day will be even more poignant for his assistant. Gunaratna is going to be on duty on the 50 Matara Express — the same train that got swept off, the train that Karunatilake says, has, since that day, been “wrongly called the Samudra Devi (Queen of the Sea)”.
Karunatilake and Gunaratna were on routine duty when the tsunami struck. The first intimation of disaster they had was water on the tracks. It entered the train too, and was up to his knees, he says.
Then he heard a girl screaming for help. He took off his uniform and dived in to help her. He had just pulled her out and was on his way back from the engine when he saw the monster wave coming.
Life hasn’t changed much for Karunatilake since. “I am working again on the same line,” he says. He is back at his job, and has been since the southern line reopened on 20th February 2005. That day, he was on board the first train to ply the line, a train called ‘Galle Princess’.
Karunatilake does have minor celebrity status his neighbourhood. Everyone knows the house of the man who was guard on that train. He brings out a small wooden souvenir in the shape of Sri Lanka.
“The Railway guards union gave me this,” he says. His prized award, though, is a certificate from the government appointing him “State Justice of Peace”.
The government also gave him Rs 1 lakh to rebuild his house, which was hit by the tsunami. Karunatilake points to a crack in the wall. “There was water up to the ceiling lamp,” he says. “My wife and children survived by climbing on to the roof.” Everything in the house was destroyed. Now he’s put most of it back together but the fear of that day is still on his mind. Karunatilake points to a newly constructed first floor room. “Now we can go upstairs if there is another tsunami,” he says. And the survivor of the disaster he calls the ‘Titanic of Sri Lanka’ still needs sleeping pills, like he has since last December 26.