January 05, 2005

Countless stories of heartbreak, moments of joy

by Bonnie Marx

CARBONDALE, Ill. - Having breakfast on the beach in an exotic locale on the south coast of Sri Lanka, William Recktenwald, journalist-in-residence at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, noticed what he thought was a "rogue wave" rolling onto the beach about 100 feet away.

He grabbed his camera and began to snap photos of the water pounding toward the outdoor dining area of the Hotel Club Lanka, where he was staying. Within a couple of minutes, Recktenwald was fighting for survival in 16 feet of water, desperately clinging to a pillar and fighting to avoid being pulled out to sea as the raging water receded after each surge.

It was, of course, the tsunami of epic proportions that struck southern Asia on Dec. 26.

Recktenwald calls the experience "totally unreal," thumping himself figuratively for not recognizing what was going on. But, he notes wryly, he also found out that "I do not have an underwater camera."

He's back home now in Southern Illinois physically unharmed except for "bumps and bruises, scratches and cuts." But the residual psychological effect is turning out to be a seminal event in his life.

It wasn't Recktenwald's first journey to the area. Two years ago he was part of a U.S. State Department-sponsored delegation to train journalists there. He was so struck by the beauty of the country and kindness and openness of its people that he returned a year ago. This year he planned on a two-week stay.

Now he wants to help the tiny island nation get back on its feet.

It may be difficult for the rest of the world to grasp the enormity of the destruction, especially when the world seems so full of wars and crises. But Recktenwald boils it down succinctly, "In Galle, where I was, three times as many people died in five minutes as did on Sept. 11; eight times as many people died in those five minutes as U.S. service people who have died in Iraq." He also believes the final death toll will be much higher than current estimates.

Realize that this is in Sri Lanka alone. And Recktenwald believes that larger, better-known neighbors may overshadow Sri Lanka and other tiny nations when it comes to receiving aid.

"We have so much wealth in this country, a history of helping other people. This is the thing that makes our country great," he said. "We need friends in the world right now, to be admired for what we do and this is a good way to do it. It's a lot better than fighting our way into a country that may or may not want us."

There are those who suggest that if the south Asian nations were part of the international tsunami warning system as most Pacific Rim nations are, the tsunami might not have been so devastating.

Recktenwald doesn't necessarily disagree; instead, he sees the practical side. "There's never been one there in recorded history. It would cost billions of dollars to protect against something that has never occurred versus using the same funds for other things in a poor nation."

Hoping that people will find it in their hearts to help others, Recktenwald recounts story after story of the kindness, unselfishness and willingness to help shown to him and other tourists from all over the world. "They opened their houses, shared their food Š any little bit they have they are willing to share."

Among the countless stories of heartbreak, there were moments of joy. A three-year-old visiting with her parents at Recktenwald's hotel was thought lost. They searched but found no trace. As the hotel guests were traveling by flatbed truck to a location 70 miles away, they passed a rural hospital with about 1,000 people waiting for treatment.

As the truck made its way through the throng, two men ran out to it with the three-year-old in tow, unharmed. With the first rush of water into the hotel, the youngster suddenly was up to her neck in water. Two hotel employees grabbed her and ran, ran, ran to the safety of the hospital.

One of the employees was a young waiter who regularly waited on Recktenwald. There was no way to get to him to thank him, Recktenwald says, but their eyes met and the young man mouthed "You OK?" And he returned the gesture when Recktenwald flashed a thumbs-up.

When the young girl was returned to her family, Recktenwald says there wasn't a dry eye to be found.

Recktenwald, a reporter for more than three decades before joining up with SIUC, also has some issues with media coverage of the disaster. He mentions frivolous coverage, such as the well-known reporter who giggled over an elephant stepping on her sunglasses and noting that they weren't even crushed.

"It's ludicrous. It's embarrassing to the news business. We've run out of the ability to report. There's nothing funny about it," he says.

But the thing that impressed Recktenwald the most, he says, "is that everybody worked together and nobody complained."

Getting out of Sri Lanka meant traveling 90 miles, which required seven hours to accomplish. Recktenwald rode in a bus on a "true one-lane road," with miles and miles of bumper-to-bumper traffic.

"No one complained, no one got angry," he said. "In Chicago, (where Recktenwald spent most of his career) there would have been gunplay."

Recktenwald's suggestion for contributions -- and the place he is sending his own -- is: The Sri Lanka Red Cross Society, c/o Embassy of the Republic of Sri Lanka, 2148 Wyoming Ave. NW, Washington, D.C., 20008


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Aftermath - Employees of the Hotel Club Lanka survey the tsunami damage on the main highway leading away from Colombo, Sri Lanka.
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First waves - At the Hotel Club Lanka, William Recktenwald, who only moments before was enjoying his breakfast in the hotel's outdoor dining area, snapped this picture of the first torrents of water rushing in. He survived the wall of water by clinging to two of the pillars.