Same train, same staff, different run | india | Hindustan Times
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Same train, same staff, different run

Wannigaratna Karunatilake was the guard of the train that got swept off the tracks in Peraliya in southern Sri Lanka. More than 1,000 people died on that train. Karunatilake, 50, and his assistant RUA Gunaratna survived.

india Updated: Dec 22, 2005 17:02 IST

WANNIGARATNA KARUNATILAKE was the guard of the train that got swept off the tracks in Peraliya in southern Sri Lanka. More than 1,000 people died on that train. Karunatilake, 50, and his assistant R.U.A. Gunaratna survived.

This December 26, Karunatilake will be there -- at Peraliya-- again. He wants to forget the incident, he says, but he is 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 will be on duty on the 50 Matara Express -- the same train, which as Karunatilake says, has since been "wrongly called the Samudra Devi (Queen of the Sea)".

Karunatilake and Gunaratna were on duty on the train from Colombo to Matara when the tsunami struck. The first intimation of disaster they got was water on the tracks. It entered the train too and was up to his knees, Karunatilake says. Then he heard a girl screaming for help. He took off his uniform and dived to help her.

He had 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 was back on duty on February 20 - the day the southern line reopened -- on Galle Princess, the first train to ply on that route again.

Karunatilake does have minor celebrity status in his neighbourhood. Everyone knows his house. 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". "For the whole island," he proudly says.

The government also gave him Rs 1 lakh to rebuild his house. It still stands, but Karunatilake points to a crack in the wall.

"There was water up to the ceiling," he says. "My wife and children survived by climbing to the roof." He has 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 it the "Titanic of Sri Lanka" -- still needs sleeping pills, like he has since last December 26.