My Tsunami Day Story 2004: Close encounter

by Ritesh From archives of my lost domain

Posted on August 20, 2007 at 2:00 PM

I was posted as Medical Officer in-charge at Havelock Island (Andaman and Nicobar Islands) in 2004. As per the tradition then, the Medical Officer posted at Havelock Island had to look after additional duties - including that of the Administrative Officer of the Island. . Havelock due to its world class Radha Nagar beach is very famous among domestic as well as International tourists.

          On 24th evening (24-December-2004) I was informed by my headquaters at Port Blair about the visit of Dr. Balakrishnan K.R. (HOD, CVTS) of SRMC Chennai the next day on 25th December, the Christmas day.

It was a beautiful Saturday and Dr. Balakrishnan, his wife   and his two teenage sons (One was medical student and other an engineering student) arrived by the morning Boat ferry (9.30 am). Accommodation for the family was arranged at the Government Dolphin Beach Resort. Since it was holiday and not enough patients in the hospital, I managed to spend almost the whole day with the family. The evening turned out even better when Dr. Balakrishnan and his sons revealed that they were all music enthusiasts. Within no time my guitar (and accessories) arraived at the Dolphin Resort and to my surprise the Cardiac Surgeon and his whole family turned into good singers and musicians!.

The family was supposed to leave by the 9.30 ferry the next day on 26thDecember. A coral viewing trip in a small diesel engine powered fishing boat (dinghy) was planned so that the guests could see some wonderful corals around Havelock island before they leave. None had any idea what fate had in store for rest of the next day !!.

The journey started from here chinnas boat

26th Dec 2004, a lovely morning, at 6.00 am we gathered near the Havelock Jetty. The fishing boat was small and just enough for six of us - boatowner/fisherman - Chinna, Dr. Balakrishnan's family and me (Total 6). There was enough fuel required for the trip but our Hospital vehicle driver advised and insisted that the fuel tank of the boat be full. A few more litres of diesel was thus filled in the fuel tank of the 'dinghy'. This fueling exercise seemed like a waste of time at that moment But only to realise later that it saved our lives that Day!

google earth - havelock
The location of this story - Havelock : Google Maps

The journey : The trip stared at 6.25 am and barely having moved around 150 m from the Jetty at 6.32 am we saw some unusual big waves splashing near the shores of Havelock though the sea surface was calm. Even having born and lived some 20 years in Islands, it was a new experience for me - I never saw such isolated big waves whipping the shores while the sea appeared silent. It was still nothing turbulent at sea, instead it was calm with minimal waves (usually observed before rains).  Chinna (the boatman) being a experienced fisherman narrated few experiences from his past and he quickly attributed the waves with earthquake (Note : Small earthquakes are quite normal at Andamans -just like Japan!). He also added though that this type of strong waves beating the shores suggests a big magnitude of earthquake and it was not a wise idea to immediately return to the shores till the activity of waves decreased. The situation appeared still normal and Chinna suggested that by the time the shores get clam, we could continue further to see the corals. After some hesitantion from the family we agreed, continued and reached the elephant beach of Havelock. Only after reaching the Elephanta Beach, Chinna sensed something abnormal. The beach was submerged under water although as per the tide timetable it should have been low tide. The beautiful corals were still visible and we were the last privileged persons to see the full spectrum of corals at Elphant Beach at Havelock ! (The corals are still there but after tsunami a good part is missing).

The Havelock Corals : The magnificent Corals at elephant beach, Havelock. Photograph taken almost 3 months after the Tsunami day

Strong current : At 7.15 am, the boat was on heading back to Havelock jetty. The sea was no more looking normal .. no waves ... and only strong currents. The passage we took while coming was now blocked with big trees and debris and Chinna had to take a coarse deviation. The coarse deviation was not a good idea and the boat was gripped by  strong invisible current flowing towards a narrow passage between Havelock and nearby John Lawrence Island. The current was very strong and I could see Chinna's frequently changing facial expressions because of his helplessness. He asked me to sit by his side where he was controlling the rudder of the boat. He was looking calm but was restless beneath. He told me about the impending danger that, if he fails to turn the boat opposite to the flow, the boat will smash on either the Rocks or the Havelock Jetty and also added that somewhere something terribly is wrong with the sea. After a careful assessment Chinna managed to turn the boat somehow. A wrong move would have pulled the boat straight down to the seabed! I informed the guest family that its an usual event after earthquakes and all these maneuvers are necessary, there's nothing to fear about (what a lie) - I don't know whether they believed me or not!.
  Tsunami pics
Rare Photograph : Photograph taken on 26-12-2004 ; 9.00 am , from the fishing bouy that saved us. The small boat seen in the photo is Chinna's boat.

Flowing sea : Being pulled by the current, we were now few meters away from the Havelock Jetty and the boat was held opposite to the direction of the water flow (ever heard of flowing sea !). The boat initially was inching forward against the current but soon gave away and started inching backwards. The engine speed was shifted to full astern and I prayed that the boat should move forward and not backwards. Some 20 minutes passed like that and our boat barely moved an inch forward! And the water current was eager to take us and smash us with the rocks if given a chance! 7.50 am : Chinna unscrewed the fuel tank lid, and dejectedly whispered something that still echoes in my memories "Sir, we are alive for next 15 minutes because that's the amount of fuel left in the tank which will support us to hold against this flow of water".

The net : Within next 5 minutes god heard our prayers and the current flow was dramatically reversed. But now what ! are we again going back to sea. Chinna steered the boat to the floating fish storage nets placed near a island opposite to Havelock. This floating fish storage nets are strange structures made out of 20-30 plastic drums and wooden planks (hence floating). Drums are attached to 4-6 anchors to fix the structure within the sea. This nets have a small hut and generally 1 or 2 persons are housed in there for the maintenance and care of the fishes stored in the net. We could still see the Havelock Island from a distance of few 100 meters.
  Floating fishing bouy
Fish Storage net : Photograph taken when I revisited the same place (with friend Dr. David Prakash) 3 months after the incident. And Of coarse again in with Chinna and his boat.
The angry sea : The boat was tied to the net and we all shifted to the hut of the net. Chinna (and of coarse all of us) was still surprised at the sea, as he considered sea to be his friend for life. Very soon the flow of the sea was seen to be reversing to and fro within a gap of few minutes. At around 8.15 am the sea started to swell and we saw the Havelock jetty and much of the coastline of Havelock vanishing below the level of water. Chinna was horrified to see all these because his house is just few meters away from the shore and was bound to be affected by the swelling waves. Atleast thrice the waves attacked the coast of the Island. Luckily our net was still stable as in fact the big tsunami waves failed to enter the creeks where Havelock Jetty is located (our luck) ; it was the conducted water current responsible for all our difficulties. The next part of the drama involved the filling and evacuation of the sea water in the creek ! and even at one point of time the entire sea seemed to be emptied and flowing over the nearby Havelock Island!.

Danger remains : Its around 9.00 am and the constant filling and evacuation lead to development of concentric water movements near the net. Soon the nearby fishing net rammed with our net. Chinna tied both the nets together. Due to the circular water movements , The net gradually lost 3 anchor points out of six. Losing all the anchor points meant death because few meters away of the sharp water current in which our boat got trapped an hour back. Luckily our fishing Net didn't loose any more anchor points.   Floating fishing bouy    
The nearby fish Net : Photograph taken when I revisited the place again.
The other net seen like a small boat roughly at the center of this photograph
            Around 9.30 we saw M.V Ramanujam (Ship from Port Blair) , and M.V. Baratang at distance. To reach the Havelock Jetty the ships were required to take exactly the same coarse of sharp water current. Any attempt to the enter the jetty would have been catastrophic because the water current surely would have overpowered the ship engines no matter how big they are !, Probably the Havelock Jetty Port control informed the ships over radio about the possible danger and they turned back to Port Blair. That was the boat 'the guests' were supposed to board to get back to Port Blair - but now that was all gone.

At around 11.00 am the sea seemed to be calming down but still the water current was persistent We boarded the boat again for our journey back to Havelock Island. After reaching near Havelock shores it took Chinna a lot of time to identify a spot to tie his boat safely because of the turbulent waves. Luckily there were no casualties in the whole Island. All the resorts near to the sea got a nice sea water bath following which the tourists (total 1123 including foreign nationals) were shifted to the Senior secondary school. The police radio station started buzzing with activity and I was asked to debrief about the situation of the Island to Port Blair control (over the Wireless radio), No other. I heard all the surprising news over the radio about the casualties in Southern group of Andamans. I left Dr. Balakrishnan with other tourists as I was pushed into Administrative duties and left for Island assessment.

The Tourists evacuation : The boats arrived on 27th Dec morning to evacuate the tourists. It was a difficult situation to control the crowd of tourists as everyone wanted to board the only 2 ships (each with capacity of 90 persons) that arrived to evacuate the 1123 tourists !. We had tough time telling people that other naval ships are on the way to  evacuate everybody but all explanation seemed worthless. At last with the overboarded ships managed to carry 350 with them. The next batches were shifted by naval ships arriving later that day.
Some 200 foreign nationals opted to stay back at Havelock.