January 06, 2005 12:00 PM

As Walls Collapse, a Doctor Delivers a Baby

Dr. Ruvan Samarasinghe had just delivered a baby girl by cesarean section and was preparing to sew up the incision when a panicked nurse burst into the operating room of the hospital in Galle, Sri Lanka, with the news: A giant wave was about to hit. Samarasinghe, 35, assumed the nurse was just overreacting to choppy seas along the coast, just a dozen yards from the hospital. But then, he recalls, “someone shouted that a wall had collapsed and the water was coming in.”

On the operating table, new mother Rohini De Silva – bleeding and numbed by anesthetics, but conscious – heard the shouting. Then the lights went out. “I begged them to help me and my baby,” says De Silva, 26. “I was asking God to save me.” Though Samarasinghe’s own wife and infant son were in the staff quarters of the same hospital’s first floor, he reassured De Silva and kept on working, feeling his way in the dark to determine where to suture. “I felt like a blind person,” he says. For 20 minutes he kept stitching as the ocean water demolished nearby hospital walls and employees and patients fled. Meanwhile, medical staff tended to the baby in the dark, using a syringe to clear her mouth instead of the usual electric-powered suction equipment.

Once the surgery was complete, a couple of other remaining staffers helped De Silva and 5-lb. newborn Angela Shahani reach a nearby temple from which an ambulance took them to a hospital outside town. De Silva’s parents, five sisters and one brother assumed she had been killed until someone from the hospital called that night to say she’d had the baby. Her husband, Sharman Prasad, 31, who works in a hotel 2,000 miles away in Dubai, rushed back to Galle. Shattered by the sight of the city – “Everything is broken, everyone else is crying,” he says – he was filled with relief at the sight of Rohini and Angela, now living in her parents’ inland home. “I am happy my wife is here,” he says. “I am happy for my baby.” [IMAGE “1” “left” “std” ]

Finding Hasani, a Family’s Lone Survivor

P.D.T. Amaradasa was safe at home in the town of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka, when he got word of the devastating waves that had struck the island nation’s shores. He panicked, knowing that at that very moment his daughter, her husband and their two young daughters were en route to visit relatives – aboard a train that skirted the country’s picturesque coastline. But with roads destroyed by the tsunami, it would have been impossible to find them. “I was helpless,” says the grandfather, 60, a widower who makes a modest living selling used furniture. “I didn’t know whether they were alive or dead.”

The prospects were bleak: Waves had overtaken the train, trapping more than 1,300 people in its eight passenger cars and killing most of them. Traveling by motorbike to hospitals and relief camps in the days that followed, Amaradasa was devastated to discover the bodies of his daughter and son-in-law on Dec. 28.

Still, he kept showing photographs of his grand-daughters to anyone who would look, until on Dec. 30 a policeman recognized 3 1/2-year-old Hasani and reunited the pair in a hospital. “I was shouting and crying, and she was also crying,” says Amaradasa. “She saw me and said, ‘I have a grandfather, and I love him.’ ” (There is no sign of her sister Nona, 8.) “Now I am happy for Hasani,” says Amaradasa, “though every night I pray for the people who died.” [IMAGE “2” “left” “std” ]

One Man Takes In 230 Refugees

Watching from the third floor of his family’s five-bedroom home as the deluge destroyed his native village of Lampaseh, Indonesia, Aminullah Usman prepared to die. “I thought my time on earth was up,” says the 47-year-old bank president, a devout Muslim. “I told everyone to receive God’s will.”

The disaster took the lives of all but about 260 of the 2,000 residents of the Sumatran coastal hamlet, but Usman, wife Nurmiati and their five children survived, and then he reached out to help others, opening the doors of his modest two-bedroom summer home six miles inland. The first night, 40 people – 25 of them with severe injuries – packed the one-story concrete house, sleeping crisscrossed on mats on the tiny living-room floor and outside. says Usman: “I told them all, ‘You are my family now. This is your home. Stay as long as you like.'”

Word of his generosity spread so quickly that within two days he had taken in 230 people, including more than 60 children, housing some in two tents in the yard. Many had lost their entire immediate families. Usman designated a cooking and cleaning staff, spending thousands of his own dollars to pay for bottled water, rice, noodles and vegetables. At night the refugees share their stories of survival and heartbreak. “I have nowhere to go,” says Arnita Husen, 32, a homemaker who lost her parents, three sisters and only daughter to the giant waves. “Mr. Usman is a good man with a big heart.”

So large, in fact, that he has turned no one away. “If 100 more refugees show up on my doorstep, they are welcome,” he says. Hardly immune to the tragedy – he has lost six close relatives and dozens of cousins – he is merely responding to the devastation by trying to offer hope. “This is not the end of life,” says Usman. “We still have a lot of living to do.” [IMAGE “3” “left” “std” ]

After Three Days, a Dad Reunites with His Son

He touched hearts around the world, a tiny blond ray of hope amid the horror. Twenty-month-old Hannes Bergström’s family was lounging by the pool when the killer wave hit their Khao Lak, Thailand, resort. The water ripped Hannes from his grandfather’s arms, and his grieving family assumed he was lost. But hours later an American couple found a dazed Hannes in the care of Thai survivors. On Dec. 29 he was reunited with his father, Marko Kärkkäinen, 33, in a Phuket hospital. “Big, stupid wave,” the boy said. Now home in Sweden, Marko, an electrician, remains hospitalized for leg wounds, and Hannes stays with his grandparents. “He’s happy, lively and joking,” says his aunt Viola Hellström.

Hannes has no concept that his mother, Suzanne, 32, is presumed dead. Still, says her sister Viola, “I’m just so happy he is alive. It feels like I haven’t lost her entirely. A part of her is still here.” [IMAGE “4” “left” “std” ]

How You Can Help

Charities aiding victims include:
The American Red Cross
International response Fund Gives supplies, medical care and technical support to the needy
1-800-HELP NOW

Supplies food and water and runs anti-poverty programs

OXFAM America
Provides water and sanitation

Mercy Corps
Provides shelter and emergency items

U.S. Fund for UNICEF
Gives survival supplies to victims and services to children

Tips for Giving

Give to established charities with a track record in the region
These groups have histories of dealing with local governments and people. New charities that spring up, however well-intentioned, may be ill-equipped to provide real help.

Beware of scams
Before writing a check, “be sure the organization you are giving to is really the organization you are giving to,” says Suzanne Brooks, director of the Center for International Disaster Information, which lists reputable charities at www.cidi.org. Sites such as charitywatch.org and charitynavigator.org compare groups on such factors as what percentage of donations actually goes to the cause. The Better Business Bureau runs a site, www.give.org, on how to avoid charity cons.

Money makes the best gift
Many communities in the quake radius are short on food, clothing and supplies, but delivering these items to the stricken is costly. Cash allows agencies to buy exactly what is needed in each area.

Send a check, not yourself
At this point, aid groups say that volunteers without training in areas such as medicine, nursing or sanitation engineering only get in the way.

Keep on giving
Money usually pours in just after a disaster, when the world’s attention is focused on it, then slows to a trickle. But rebuilding after the tsunami may take decades.

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