Sri Lanka train guard mourns tsunami dead 10 years on

A tourist standing in front of the Tsunami memorial in Pereliya, Sri Lanka, on Dec 20, 2014. More than 250,000 people died in the tsunami on Dec 26, 2004. Indonesia bore the brunt, but Sri Lanka was the next worst-affected country with a death toll o
A tourist standing in front of the Tsunami memorial in Pereliya, Sri Lanka, on Dec 20, 2014. More than 250,000 people died in the tsunami on Dec 26, 2004. Indonesia bore the brunt, but Sri Lanka was the next worst-affected country with a death toll of about 40,000. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Sri Lankan railway guard Wanigaratne Karunatilleke entering the train at the railway station in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Dec 15. Mr Karunatilleke stops at the exact same spot every year on Dec 26 to pay his respects to his departed passengers. -- PHOTO
Sri Lankan railway guard Wanigaratne Karunatilleke entering the train at the railway station in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Dec 15. Mr Karunatilleke stops at the exact same spot every year on Dec 26 to pay his respects to his departed passengers. -- PHOTO: AFP
Sri Lankan railway guard Wanigaratne Karunatilleke looking on before his train departs for Matara from the Colombo railway station on Dec 15. -- PHOTO: AFP
Sri Lankan railway guard Wanigaratne Karunatilleke looking on before his train departs for Matara from the Colombo railway station on Dec 15. -- PHOTO: AFP

COLOMBO (AFP) - Mr Wanigaratne Karunatilleke knew nothing about tsunamis before a wave of water slammed into his train on the Sri Lankan coast a decade ago, killing more than a thousand people.

With a little more knowledge, the 58-year-old train guard now believes he could have helped the victims of Sri Lanka's worst tragedy escape to safety.

Mr Karunatilleke was among the few survivors of the disaster on the Ocean Queen Express, which has become a symbol of the disaster in Sri Lanka, and will be at the centre of commemorations for the country's 31,000 victims on Friday.

Shortly before the tsunami hit, he says, the train was brought to an abrupt halt by a wave just after Kahawa station, 90km south of the capital Colombo.

He believes the 15-minute lull that followed could have allowed passengers to escape to high ground, and blames the huge loss of life on a lack of knowledge about tsunamis.

"If I had known about tsunamis," Mr Karunatilleke told AFP in an interview.

"We had about 15 minutes to move the passengers to safety. I could have done it. We had the time, but not the knowledge."

Mr Karunatilleke, who as head guard was responsible for passengers' safety, overruled the signalling system after the first wave and ordered the driver to move, but by then it was too late.

When the tsunami hit, he became trapped inside a compartment that was floating in the water, managing to escape through a window.

The train was rebuilt after the tsunami and since then, Mr Karunatilleke, who is still head guard, stops at the exact same spot every year on Dec 26 to pay his respects to his departed passengers.

This year will be particularly significant, with the Colombo-to-Matara train making a special journey for passengers to attend Buddhist, Hindu, Christian and Muslim ceremonies planned to mark the 10th anniversary of the disaster.

The tsunami wave first hit Sri Lanka's south-eastern coast, travelling across the island at an average speed of about 500km an hour and killing 31,000 people in a single hour.

Sri Lanka had not been hit by a tsunami in living memory before 2004 and the tragedy became the country's worst natural disaster.

The memories still haunt Mr Karunatilleke, who recalls rescuing a small girl and boy from the floodwaters and placing them inside a train compartment only to see it smashed minutes later.

"I will remember those two children for the rest of my life" he said.

"I did not know about tsunamis then and neither did anyone else on board.

"I wish I had known.... I really feel bad that I was not able to save those lives."