On December 26, 2004 an earthquake on the sea floor 160 km northwest of the coast of Sumatra spawned a tsunami that swept over beaches and seaside towns throughout Asia and eastern Africa, killing more than 225,000 people. One of the single largest losses of life was in the town of Paraliya, Sri Lanka, where the Queen of The Sea train was thrown off the tracks, killing an estimated 2000 people.
The Queen Of The Sea was a popular eight-carriage tourist train, running from the capital, Colombo, to Galle along the Sri Lankan coast. On December 26, 2004, the Christmas holidays and a popular Buddhist full moon holiday meant that the train was packed with an estimated 1500 passengers. It travelled slowly along the coast. At Paraliya, at 9:30 am, it was 200 metres from the ocean when the first wave of the Indian Ocean tsunami hit the shoreline.
The Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami are the fourth-strongest earthquake and the most devastating tidal wave ever recorded. The earthquake measured 9.1 to 9.3 on the Richter scale. The tsunami rolled from the site of the quake, across the Indian Ocean, as far as the coast of Africa. The earthquake shook the entire planet by 1 cm. The tsunami took about 90 minutes to travel to the shores of Sri Lanka, directly in the path of its strongest impact.
The first wave threatened the community and stopped the train. Local residents, believing the train to be a safe refuge, climbed aboard or hid behind it. The second wave, measuring an estimated 6 metres, tore the engine and all eight carriages off the tracks and rolled them four times, coming to rest in a marsh. Water inundated the carriages, drowning many. As the wave receded it dragged more victims into the sea.
Of all the passengers and safety-seekers, only a few dozen survived. The town of Paraliya was virtually wiped out, and lost entire families. Rescue and emergency officials, in Sri Lanka as elsewhere around the tsunami’s path, were completely overwhelmed at the scale of the disaster. It was hours before any organized help arrived to assist in freeing survivors. Families showed up to look for loved ones and carry away bodies, but the sheer numbers of dead eventually required a mass grave nearby. Some bodies were never claimed; others were searched for, but never found.
The 2004 tsunami unleashed an unprecedented outpouring of international aid, consisting of manpower, search and rescue teams, emergency supplies, infrastructure rebuilding, and over $2 billion. Application of aid and assistance was spotty and disorganized; it has been said that Paraliya, with its well-publicized train disaster, received a disproportionate amount of aid.
Sri Lanka lost 41,000 in the tsunami. The Queen Of The Sea’s wrecked railcars remain as a memorial to the dead and missing. A new train with the same name travels the route today.