Lag­gala tragedy: Alert vil­lager's phone call saved lives up­stream

Un­usual to­po­graphic fea­tures of the area re­sulted in the sud­den up­surge of the wa­ter level in the Oya on that fate­ful day, say of­fi­cials Life guard, Po­lice con­sta­ble R.M.A.S. Rat­nayaka says bathing near wa­ter­falls more dan­ger­ous than bathing in any other

Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) - - NEWS - By Akash Wi­dana­p­athi­rana

In what could be a pre­lude to last week's tragedy of eight peo­ple from two fam­i­lies drown­ing while bathing in the Thel­gamu Oya in Lag­gala, comes a re­port of how just be­fore the in­ci­dent a group of about 40 to 50 bathers were saved from suc­cumb­ing to a sim­i­lar fate about 6-7 kilo­me­tres fur­ther up­stream due to an alert vil­lager.

On that fate­ful day on-duty life guards, Matale po­lice of­fi­cer R.M.A.S. Rat­nayaka and K.N. Upul Was­an­tha Ku­lasekara of the Wil­ga­muwa po­lice keep­ing vigil over the rapidly chang­ing cur­rent of the stream at Il­likkum­bura a pop­u­lar bathing spot along the Thel­gamu Oya.

“I got a phone call around 12.10 p.m. from a vil­lager, Rathinda, who was about 10 kilo me­tres up­stream and he said there is a sud­den surge in the wa­ter level. I im­me­di­ately shouted out warn­ings and blew my whis­tle and got the at­ten­tion of the bathers who within about three min­utes were out of the wa­ter," said con­sta­ble Rat­nayake ad­ding that soon after that the wa­ter level at this spot too rose dan­ger­ously.

But trag­i­cally the eight peo­ple who were bathing near Wed­dapeni Ella in Etan­pola, around 6-7 km down­stream were swept away by the cur­rent.

Of­fi­cials said the un­usual to­po­graphic fea­tures in the area had re­sulted in the sud­den up­surge of the wa­ter level in the Oya end­ing in tragedy.

The vic­tims were Kingls­ley Rat­nayaka 40 , his two chil­dren Chithrani 12 and Hiruni their aunt Manaw­itage Chan­drakan­thi 59 and mem­bers of an­other fam­ily Ravin­dra Was­an­tha,38, his wife Ra­mani Dil­ruk­shi 37 and their daugh­ters Kr­is­han Wan­isha,12, and Imasha Widusha,7.

Il­lukkum­bura, where the group of about 40 to 50 were bathingis a pop­u­lar bathing spot among lo­cals in the area and tourists alike. Since 23 peo­ple had drowned at this very same spot in the past 15 years po­lice life guards are de­ployed at the lo­ca­tion on week­ends and on pub­lic hol­i­days.

“But the spot that claimed eight lives is not a pop­u­lar bathing spot and hence no life guards are de­ployed there," con­sta­ble Rat­nayaka said.

He said usu­ally when the wa­ter level rises there are warn­ing signs such as float­ing logs, branches and de­bris, but it was not so on that day.

He sus­pects that since the catch­ment ar­eas up­stream had re­ceived sig­nif­i­cant rain­fall, the wa­ter level would have risen sud­denly. “More than 50 small wa­ter­falls flow into the stream from the River­ston and Etan­wala moun­tains on ei­ther side of the stream. This can create a sud­den in­crease in the wa­ter level within a short time after a rain­fall. Vis­i­tors to the area are un­aware of this," he said.

An of­fi­cer at the Lag­gala Po­lice Sta­tion, told the Sun­day Times that the un­usual sharp el­e­va­tion of the area-- nearly 2,000 feet within a short dis­tance of less than 15 km-also leads to the sud­den rise of wa­ter in the area when the up­per wa­ter catch­ment ar­eas re­ceive

rain­fall. The ve­loc­ity of the cur­rent also in­creases dra­mat­i­cally. Mean­while vil­lagers charged that although at least six qual­i­fied life guards should be de­ployed along the stream, there are only two. "There are only 10 life guards for the en­tire Matale divi­sion," one vil­lager said. Con­sta­ble Rat­nayaka mean­while said that bathing near wa­ter­falls is al­ways far more dan­ger­ous than bathing in the sea or in a lake. “There are no safe wa­ter­falls to bathe in in the hill coun­try. Even a life guard finds it dif­fi­cult to res­cue some­one drown­ing near a wa­ter­fall as the cur­rent is strong.” He said many drown­ing in­ci­dents near wa­ter­falls are ei­ther by slip­ping from rocks above or jump­ing into the wa­ter from a height. “There are places near wa­ter­falls that have quick­sand sed­i­ments. These are not clearly vis­i­ble from out­side. Step­ping on them is very dan­ger­ous and peo­ple can be dragged into deep holes formed be­tween rocks near wa­ter­falls.” He em­pah­sised the im­por­tance of both lo­cal and for­eign tourists in­quir­ing about the safety of an un­fa­mil­iar place be­fore step­ping into the wa­ter. The po­lice­man also warned that peo­ple should not be overop­ti­mistic about their swim­ming skills and should re­frain from con­sum­ing al­co­hol.

He also added that the cur­rent tourism trend es­pe­cially among youth is to se­lect un­known and un­pop­u­lated ar­eas as bathing spots. “Some peo­ple check­out un­known, scenic places on the in­ter­net and visit the place on their own. They have no idea about the sur­round­ings. Cer­tain places which are not ear­lier iden­ti­fied as dan­ger­ous are now deemed dan­ger­ous but peo­ple visit these places with­out any prior knowl­edge." The po­lice­man also added that tourist abodes are be­ing built near streams and beaches with lit­tle knowl­edge of the safety of the sur­round­ing wa­ter body. He added that most of these places are un­able to deal with a drown­ing emer­gency too.

Mean­while last Fri­day a Ger­man tourist drowned at sea close to the ho­tel he was stay­ing in Tan­galle. The vic­tim was iden­ti­fied as 53 year old Dimb­hth Wolf­gang. Po­lice said two for­eign­ers were caught in a rip cur­rent while swim­ing in the sea and one manged to save him­self as he was a good swim­mer.

Ac­cord­ing to Po­lice sta­tis­tics, upto June this year 373 peo­ple had drowned, of them 299 were males while last year 877 peo­ple died from drown­ing and of them 700 were males.

Lag­gala-Pal­legama Divi­sional Sec­re­tari­ate's Dis­as­ter Re­lief Of­fi­cer W.M.Sarath Jayas­inghe said, they have put up warn­ing signs at lo­ca­tions deemed un­safe for bathing and plans were afoot to put up more.

The gush­ing wa­ters of Thel­gamu Oya: The spot where eight drowned last week . Pix by Kan­chana Ku­mara Ariyadasa

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