Belfast Telegraph

2004 Boxing Day tsunami: Killer wave that swept 230,000 to their deaths

Adrian Rutherford looks back at the horror of Boxing Day 2004 when the earth shuddered... and a terrifying natural disaster ensued

It struck without warning. Shortly before 1am on December 26, when people around the world were still celebrating Christmas, a massive earthquake deep beneath the ocean ripped apart the seabed off the coast of north-west Sumatra.

The force of the titanic tremor was 1,500 times greater than the atomic bomb that levelled Hiroshima, unleashing a devastating tsunami which claimed 230,000 lives in what became one of the world's worst natural disasters.

Among the dead were 155 people from the UK and Ireland, including Conor Keightley from Cookstown, who was on holiday when the wave struck.

The speed with which the wave spread, laying sudden and total waste to entire communities, was terrifying. Within 30 minutes it had hit the northern tip of Indonesia - 65 miles from the epicentre.

The wave smashed into the coast, flattening towns and villages and eventually claiming more than 130,000 lives there.

More than half a million people lost their homes in Indonesia.

Banda Aceh was the worst hit, with more than 60% of buildings destroyed by a wave that was over 30ft high.

The tsunami swept on to Nicobar and the Andaman Islands, leaving an estimated 1,894 dead. Soon its trail of destruction reached Burma, where 59 died, and Malaysia, killing 89.

By 2.30am - just 90 minutes after the earthquake struck - the west coast of Thailand and Phuket were hammered by the huge wave. A thousand tonnes of water crashed down on each metre of beach. At Khao Lak, the wave reached 30ft, causing billions of pounds worth of damage.

The human cost was far greater.Around 5,300 were later confirmed dead and 4,000 more unaccounted for.

Within two hours the water hit Sri Lanka without warning. Huge waves, weighing over 100 billion tonnes, rushed inland like a giant tide. As many as 31,000 people died on the east of the island. Cities such as Galle were virtually wiped out - over 4,000 people died in this area alone.

Eyewitnesses provided searing accounts of the terrifying moment the wave struck. Roland Buerk, a BBC correspondent based in Sri Lanka, described how he swam for his life.

"We were still in bed in a ground floor room right on the beachfront when we suddenly heard some shouts from outside," he said. "We were swept along for a few hundred metres, trying to dodge the motorcycles, refrigerators, cars and other debris that were coming with us

"Then the water started coming under the door. Within a few seconds it was touching the window. We very quickly scrambled to get out as the windows started to cave in and glass shattered everywhere.

"We swam out of the room neck-deep in water, forcing our way through the tables and chairs in the restaurant and up into a tree.

"But within about 30 seconds that tree collapsed as well and we were thrust back into the water where we had to try and keep our heads above the water line. We were swept along for a few hundred metres, trying to dodge the motorcycles, refrigerators, cars and other debris that were coming with us.

"Finally, about 300m inshore, we managed to get hold of a pillar, which we held onto until the waters just gradually began to subside."

The waves carried on further north to India, where they killed 10,000 people.

Many of the Indian and Sri Lankan victims were women and children - the men who were out fishing floated over the wave, only to return to find towns and villages that had been utterly destroyed.

As the wave continued along its deadly path, it washed over The Maldives.

Miraculously, although 80 people died here, this low-lying country escaped relatively unscathed.

The killer wave then travelled to Somalia, where 300 people lost their lives.

In Kenya the waves that hit were small, their energy further dissipated by the land masses of the Seychelles and Diego Garcia.

Kenyans, fortunately, had seen the news reports and evacuated the beaches. Only one person died - the last victim of a natural disaster almost without precedent.

Fourteen hours later the waves surged across the Pacific, with the water mark in Mexico rising by eight feet.

After its initial, deadly impact, the tsunami receded to reveal utter devastation. Towns had been wiped from the face of the earth, homes and buildings were reduced to ruins. Whole families had been wiped out and lives changed forever. Parents were unable to hold on to their children while couples were torn apart.

The huge death toll left hospitals and mortuaries unable to cope. Bodies were laid out in makeshift morgues in village temples and burials in mass graves began.

Over the coming days, as the scale of the emergency became clear, a series of aftershocks hampered what became the world's largest-ever relief operation.

A decade has now passed since the wave hit. But for the people of South East Asia, the passage of time can not dilute the horror of a day that changed their world for ever.

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