The jungle had turned into the ocean--26 December 2004, the Indian Ocean tsunami --

The jungle had turned into the ocean

The jungle had turned into the ocean
Agu, who survived 13 days in the sea of the Nicobar Islands after the Tsunami.
CHENNAI: "We climbed a peepul tree to escape the sea," says Agu. "The waves just engulfed the beach. Higher ground was at least one and a half kilometres away and the sea was coming in too fast." There were eight people that fateful day, eight years ago, on a remote beach in the Nicobar Islands. Eight people — including a wildlife biologist who was studying the nesting patterns of the giant leatherback sea turtle, Agu his research assistant, two forest guards, and four aging birding enthusiasts from Pune on their first visit to these Islands.

The beach on which they had camped, on the southern tip of Great Nicobar island, was just 125 kilometres from the epicentre of the massive 9.1 Richter earthquake that shook the coast off Sumatra. The Nicobar Islands had sunk a few metres as the tectonic plates converged and the sea had rushed in to claim the sunken land.

Tsunami South Asia
Unknown to the eight shivering people on the tree, the quake had also generated killer tsunamis that had already set off on their destructive journey with terrifying speed and force. Agu remembers two powerful waves that swept past them as they clung to the tree. 

One of them had risen over their heads. Soon after that, he heard a sound like an engine whirring loudly, and a dark wall of water, about 30 feet high, rose ahead of them. The trees ahead of them snapped, and in what seemed like just a second, the foul, muddy giant wave had knocked down the peepul tree and all eight people on it.

That was the last time Agu saw his companions. Of the eight, he was the only one to survive.

Saw Agu, from the Karen tribe, had been working with the Andaman and Nicobar Environmental Team for a few years, assisting biologists on research in remote corners of the islands. He had visited the Galathea beach in Great Nicobar Island since 2000, walking the coast looking for and tagging the critically endangered leatherback sea turtle - the largest living turtle - as they nested on these shores.

The night before the tsunami, they had walked the shore till 3.00 am and had seen up to 35 nesting turtles, a figure higher than normal. It had been a good night. When the earthquake woke them up at around 6.30 am, he remembers that it made him dizzy because it lasted for a full few minutes. He had to hold on to a khajur tree to stay steady. Soon after that the nightmare had begun, and, less than an hour later, the tree with all his companions, had fallen.

Agu surfaced, a few minutes later, gasping for breath, swallowing mouthfuls of muddy, smelly water. Massive trees that had been uprooted were whisked about as the sea continued to swirl menacingly. He was pulled underwater again and again, hitting branches and continuously injuring himself. His clothes had been ripped off him with the force, and he was completely naked. He had broken his collarbone and a few ribs.

By the afternoon, the sea calmed down. In intense pain, he clambered onto a floating treetrunk, looking all the while for his companions. Not a human soul was in sight.

That night it rained. When morning came, the devastation was numbing. Debris floated everywhere. The coast was unrecognisable. The jungle had turned into the sea. He could see land at a distance, but it was too far to get to. Agu decided to wait and recover his strength so he could make an effort to get to land.

He kept track of the days. For the first few days, he saw helicopters circling overhead, looking for survivors. And though he tried to wave them down, they did not see him. Saltwater crocodiles, monitor lizards, turtles and green snakes moved about in the debris. He could even see a monkey - the Nicobar macaque - floating on a tree for two days.

Prayer kept him alive. In excruciating pain, the thought "Will I survive?" never left him. He had no food, and tiny sips of muddy seawater were all he allowed himself. Exhausted, he decided one day, that in his condition, surviving would be difficult if he kept on in the same way. With heroic effort, he decided to swim for the shore.

It took him two days, using a stick, to swim slowly towards land, with several rest breaks amidst the debris. On reaching shore, at the foot of a mountain forest, he got his first taste of freshwater at a spring. He spent that night there.

Making his way slowly through the forest, Agu took almost three days to traverse the 7 kilometres to the nearest village, which had luckily been on higher ground. On 11 January, sixteen days after the tsunami, he staggered into the village.

One of the villagers, who had often helped out the research team, recognized him. Painfully exhausted, and so thin that his bones were showing, the villagers gave him his first meal in sixteen days - paratha and potato curry.

In an amazing co-incidence, a search party that was looking for the research team, came back again that day, flying overhead in a helicopter. They were flagged down, and Agu was airlifted to Port Blair the same day.

A healthy 27-year-old at the time the tsunami struck, it took Agu only a week at the Naval hospital, and two months of rest at home, to fully recover from his wounds.

Now 35 years old, married and with a child, Agu says he has not forgotten anything about those days. But he prefers not to talk about it to people - the thought of the seven others who did not make it is still painful. "I am fine now," he says quietly. "That was our kismat."

Tsunami Anniversary

Exactly, eight years ago to the day, on 26 December 2004, the Indian Ocean tsunami took the lives of an estimated 2,30,000 people in 14 countries. It is considered one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history. According to official figures, about 11,000 people died in India and about 5,000 were said to be missing, now presumed dead.