PERALIYA, Sri Lanka (AFP) – Head guard Wanigaratne Karunatilleke was one of the few people on the Ocean Queen Express to survive when a wall of water slammed into the train on Sri Lanka’s south coast a decade ago.
On Friday, the 58-year-old flagged off the train for a special journey to commemorate the around 1,000 passengers killed when the Asian tsunami hit Sri Lanka, the country’s worst ever disaster.
"I am sad so many of my passengers died that day," he told AFP.
"But I am happy we are remembering the victims and holding religious services."
The Ocean Queen Express, which was rebuilt after the tsunami, has become a symbol of the disaster in Sri Lanka and was at the centre of commemorations for the country’s 31,000 victims on Friday.
Survivors and relatives of the dead boarded the train early Friday morning in Colombo and headed to Peraliya, the exact spot where it was ripped from the tracks, around 90 kilometres (56 miles) south of Colombo.
There, a series of Buddhist, Hindu, Christian and Muslim ceremonies were held to commemorate victims across the country.
Damayanthi Abeywardene, who was on the Colombo to Matara train in 2004 with her two daughters, then aged 16 and 19, was there to give thanks for their survival and remember those who were less fortunate.
"No one should have to see what we saw. The struggle of people trying to stay alive… The hundreds of corpses," the retired school teacher said, breaking down in mid-speech.
Abeywardene recently published a book about her harrowing escape, but said she and her daughters had never discussed their ordeal in the past 10 years because it was too traumatic.
The tsunami first hit Sri Lanka’s southeastern coast, travelling across the island at a speed of about 500 kilometres (300 miles) an hour and killing 31,000 people.
Sri Lanka had not been hit by a tsunami in living memory before 2004 and the tragedy became the country’s worst natural disaster.
– ‘I wish I had known’ –
Remembrance services were held around Sri Lanka on Friday, while the government marked National Safety Day in the southern town of Hambantota where some 4,000 people died.
Karunatilleke blames the huge loss of life on a lack of knowledge about tsunamis.
He says a smaller wave that brought the train to an abrupt halt shortly before the tsunami hit could have acted as a warning to people to flee to higher ground.
He 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.
"We had about 15 minutes to move the passengers to safety. I could have done it. We had the time, but not the knowledge," Karunatilleke told AFP.
Shanthi Gallage was also among the few who survived the train tragedy, but her daughter, then 13, is still listed as missing.
"I think my husband died, but my daughter is still alive somewhere," the 55-year-old told AFP on board the Ocean Queen. "I will find her some day."
The memories of that day still haunt Karunatilleke, who stops at the exact same spot every year on December 26 to pay his respects to his departed passengers.
He 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."