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Train offered no escape from a deadly wall of water

TELWATTA, Sri Lanka -- The train known as the Queen of the Sea chugged slowly up the sandy, palm-fringed coast of eastern Sri Lanka, carrying hundreds of residents from the capital to visit relatives or enjoy a day at the sunny resorts near the town of Galle.

The train had nearly reached its destination Sunday when the tsunami struck -- a wall of water some 30 feet high, enveloping the Queen and lifting its cars off the track into a thick marsh, killing at least 802 people.

In the utter wasteland around this once picturesque area, the train stands out -- both as a testament to the force of nature that tossed it off the tracks and as the largest single loss of life on an island that suffered at least 21,700 dead.

The train, which started from the capital, Colombo, Sunday morning had stopped at Telwatta, a village 15 miles from Galle, just before the wave came racing ashore. Many of the dead were local villagers who tried to escape rising waters by climbing on top of the train with the help of the passengers.

Yesterday, the Queen and the surrounding area were little more than debris. Eight rust-colored cars lay in deep pools of water amid a ravaged grove of palm trees. The force of the waves had torn the wheels off some cars, and the train tracks were twisted like a loop on a roller coaster.

Baggage from the train was strewn along the tracks, and some of the clothing and other items looked new, possibly New Year's gifts for family or friends.

One thousand tickets were sold in Colombo for the train, and rescuers recovered 802 bodies from the train's cars, said military spokesman Brigadier Daya Ratnayake.

No relatives claimed 204 of those bodies, so they were buried in a mass grave yesterday, with Buddhist monks performing traditional funeral rites. They chanted and poured water on the grave to symbolize the giving of merits of the living to the dead.

Venerable Baddegama Samitha, a Buddhist monk and former parliamentarian who presided over the ritual, said he realized some of the dead were of other faiths -- the region has a large Muslim community -- and a moment's silence was held to honor them.

"This was the only thing we could do," he said. "It was a desperate solution. The bodies were rotting. We gave them a decent burial."

Authorities took fingerprints of the dead so that they could be identified later if possible, he said, but there seemed little possibility anyone would find the time to try.

At a nearby police station, officers laid out about 100 identification and credit cards, as well as drivers' licenses and bank books found at the train site. They included an electricity board secretary, an assistant lecturer at a state research institute of social development, and a student from the University of Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka.

"Police told us to come and have a look at this collection of ID cards," said Premasiri Jayasinghe, one of a group of people searching through the documents for those of lost loved ones. He found no sign of the three relatives he lost.

At the train site, a young man wept in the arms of friends as the body of his girlfriend was buried. The distraught man spoke out to his lost sweetheart.

"We met in university. Is this the fate that we hoped for?" he sobbed. "My darling, you were the only hope for me."

The train left Colombo at 7:30 a.m. for Galle, 70 miles to the southeast, a resort with large hotels and beaches. The water struck at 9:30 a.m.

It was unclear how many people survived the train disaster. Police superintendent B.P.B. Ayupala said the train driver lived. Police and local residents said one survivor was a woman who lost three children. She sought refuge in a Buddhist temple before leaving the area.

Though 1,000 people had tickets, it was not known how many people were actually on the train when it was hit. Ayupala said more bodies could be buried in the muddy earth beneath the compartments.

"The people in the village ran toward the train and climbed on top of it," he said. "Then the water level went down" -- a telltale sign of the approaching tsunami, which sucks up coastal waters before it strikes. "Ten minutes later, it came back," he said.

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