Diyalagoda (Sri Lanka), Dec. 28: When the first waves rolled in, A.D. Chandaratna was mending a fishing net on the beach in front of the single-storey house he shares with his wife and four children. Fearing for their safety, he did the sensible thing and evacuated them to higher ground. Then he committed what could have been a fatal mistake: He went back to take a second look.
With puzzlement but no real sense of alarm, Chandaratna said, he stood on the beach with a number of other men as the sea slid away from the shore, exposing rocks and sand for a distance of perhaps 600 feet. By the time he saw the second set of waves ' higher, foamier and angrier than the first ' it was almost too late.
Lifted off his feet by a surging tide that also knocked down the front wall of his house, Chandaratna was carried inland for nearly half a mile, washing over a coastal road and a set of railroad tracks before he finally regained his footing at a point where the land began to rise.
Others weren't so lucky. In a village just a few miles to the south, at least 11 men drowned when ' like Chandaratna and his neighbours ' they returned to the beach out of curiosity to marvel at the spectacle of the receding sea, in some cases after escorting women and children to safer ground when the first waves struck.
One reason residents here were so curious ' and so vulnerable ' was that none had ever seen a tsunami.
'All the sea was like a desert,' said Chandaratna, still marvelling at the sight of the suddenly unveiled seabed in front of his village of Beruwala. 'We had never seen this happen. This was the first time.'
A retired government worker in a neighbouring village, who gave his name as Senarathna, said it was no coincidence that all of those who died were men. 'The ladies, they didn't come,' he recalled. 'They were very worried.'