Pinned by a killer wave
By MEGAN KINNINMENT
AS WAVES crashed around and above him, the only thing protecting Ian Cohen from the full force of a deadly tsunami was a brittle concrete pillar.
The NSW Greens MP thought he'd arrived in the tiny surfing village in Sri Lanka for a surfing holiday, and instead found himself sheltering behind a concrete pillar as a tsunami tore apart his tiny hut on the ocean's edge.
Yesterday, amid the stench of raw sewage and ruined lives, dead dogs by the side of the street and an overwhelming sense of grief, Ian relived his remarkable story of survival and vowed to stay on to help the gentle Sri Lankan villagers rebuild their lives.
The tsunami descended without warning, Ian recounted yesterday from the humble, family-owned, inland hostel he was sheltering in at the coastal village of Hikkaduwa, south west Sri Lanka.
"It was all over in about 10 minutes," Mr Cohen said.
"I had only arrived at 4am that morning. I was staying in a little hostel right on the water's edge and I was waxing my surfboard. Here I was about to start this idyllic holiday, my board was waxed, and the next thing the ocean welled up about two metres and the waves started pounding into my hut.
"Within minutes the tide was rising like flood waters. It was like an absolute river of water flowing in.
"I ran for cover around the side and crouched behind a concrete pillar to protect myself from the debris being thrown about in the water. My surfboard was pounded against the wall.
"Wave after wave pounded into the hut, hitting the top of the building.
"I was very, very lucky. Others didn't survive. Many of the deaths came from people trapped in buildings, or having walls fall in on them."
Mr Cohen said it was only when he returned to the remains of his hut and saw how badly cracked the concrete was that he realised how close he had come to being killed.
"It was a sobering moment. I thought 'oh my God, three or four more waves and I would have been dead'."
Many weren't so lucky. Ian estimates at least a dozen foreign tourists and another 50 locals perished in Hikkaduwa.
"The Sri Lankans ran with their children to the hills. They were in full flight. It was a full evacuation," he said.
While the initial crisis is now over, a larger humanitarian crisis looms for the survivors and Mr Cohen wants to help in any way he can.
"The biggest threat now is the water supply getting contaminated and also asbestos ? all of the roofs were made with asbestos and the villagers have no concept of how dangerous the stuff is.
"It's very overwhelming here. People are bewildered, they just don't know what to do."
But Ian Cohen knows what he wants to do: He wants the surfing fraternity in Byron Bay, many of whom know the Sri Lankan surfing spot well, to get behind a fundraising effort that will be coordinated by Ian's close friend, Byron Shire mayor Jan Barham.
"It's fine to give to big aid agencies, but I'd like to see these local families looked after," he said.
"My first reaction was to get the hell out of here ... but this is an absolutely huge ecological and humanitarian disaster. I couldn't leave."