The Special Report29th July 2001
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By Chris Kamalendran and Nilika de SilvaAfter a night of horror and terror, Airport Services Chief Anslem Peiris who supervised the full scale recovery and damage control exercise has a message for all tourists-the Bandaranaike International Airport is now safe for all.
He says he would like to send a message to all saying that tourists and the airport were not the real target of the terrorists.
"No body should be scared to use this airport. The attack was really on the adjoining Airforce base. The tourists were not the target and no passenger was injured," he said as the BIA limped back to normalcy over the weekend.
But for the Airport staff and the others, it would take a long time to recover from the shock of that experience. Indeed one Sri Lankan Airline employee said that a day or two after the attack he was resting at home when the daughter knocked on the door and the nightmare erupted all over again. He got a shock and fell off the bed.
Describing the events of the night, BIA Duty Manager Samantha Abeywardana said he was on the ground floor of the airport when he heard a huge bang around 3.50 a.m.
" I thought steel sheets had fallen off from a nearby construction site. I even asked a colleague why they had to start work so early. Then the reality hit me as within minutes I heard gun fire," Mr. Abeywardana told The Sunday Times.
"I rushed to the control tower from where I saw a group of people running about at the end of the airport within the air force camp area.
"We had to decide fast whether to switch off the lights or not. Finally we decided not to do so."
This was when the airport was alerted about what was going on right across the fence.
Tuesday July 24, 2001, was a bleak day in the history of Sri Lanka. The country saw a gang of terrorists attack what should rightly have been the best guarded location in the country.
Cloaked in darkness the terrorists had arrived at the Raj Fernando Stadium in Kurana, Negombo, the playground adjacent to the rear of the Air Force base. There they had reportedly picnicked and prepared for the event-the climax of many months of planning.
Journalists who rushed to the airport soon after dawn as hell was breaking loose with the sunrise, had a long agonising and at times dangerous wait until the airport was cleared.
As we walked into the airport accompanied by airport chief Anslem Pieris the smell of a chemical sprayed to force hidden terrorists out of the building assailed us.Passing conveyor belts packed with luggage that fortunately was not loaded on to the planes, we made our way to the apron of the airfield.
It was sad and horrifying to see the carnage on the air field. The wreakage of planes were wrecked, like skeletons or ghosts of once majestic big birds of the sky.The tarmac was dotted with bodies of the suicide bombers killed when they executed their devastating mission.
Their possessions lay beside them. We saw packets of chewing gum, cigarette lighters, spent bullets and empty belts with all cartridges fired.
By 8.30 a.m. about five hours after the hell fires errupted- the last RPG was fired from atop the terminal. The bodies of three terrorist cadres were found in the chiller.
A smell of acrid smoke greeted us, as a 7 Up can and a box of orange slices lay scattered as we walked up to the wreckage of a plane. A green liquid substance used in extinguishing the fire flowed freely around the wreckage.
We crossed the airfield and made our way towards the air force hangars where the burnt out remnants of five Airforce planes were to be seen.
Nearby we saw the bodies of two terrorists. They were numbered. Tiger No 8 had succumbed to gun shot injuries as his unused cyanide capsule hung around his neck while Tiger No. 9 had used his suicide jacket to blast himself.
The receptionist at the 'Laksiri' VIP lounge who was making preparations to receive the Sri Lankan High Commissioner to Australia, Major General Janaka Perera was one of those caught up in the whirlwind of that roaring and raging night.
"Although we have come to work most of us are still in a state of shock," she said.
A.Herman, a SriLankan airline official who was the last to get off the Sri Lankan airlines flight which arrived from Singapore was walking back to the terminal building after the last passenger had disembarked.
"I first saw a ball of fire flying into the sky. I just stood in a state of a shock unable to move. After a little while I managed to run to a pillar close to the terminal building. I froze there unable to proceed for about half an hour while guns and bombs blasted all around me. Finally I managed to get to the terminal building and took cover there, " he said.
While the staff and passengers at the airport were going through this ordeal some of the incoming passengers were unaware that their flights had been diverted to other airports instead of heading to Colombo. It was only when they landed they were told about the diversions, but were not given details of the attack apparently to keep them calm.
A migrant worker Tuan Sabeer and his wife were on the Muscat-Colombo flight on Tuesday returning to Sri Lanka on vacation. "We were on our way to Colombo when we heard about the attack. The plane was then diverted to Trivandrum he said.
French speaking tourists Mr. Wyrwa and Premat, two friends visiting
Sri Lanka on a two week vacation said, "We decided to go ahead with our
vacation in Sri Lanka. We heard of the terrorist attack but we made a choice
and decided to stick to our plans rather than spend the two weeks in India,"
they said echoing Sri Lanka's hope that the airport is now safe for tourists
and that they will not turn away.
For two decades now Sri Lanka has been ravaged by terrorist attacks. The Colombo airport being the highest security zone evidently needed emergency measures for crisis management and rescue operations. But there was little sign of it, as described by some tourists.
Louise King, (27) and Rebecca Skeats (26), from Britain said, "We were in the line at the 'check in' counter when we heard an explosion followed by gun shots.
"We were shaken and asked the staff what was happening but they said they believed it was some shooting practice by the AirForce. But soon it was evident that the airport was being attacked," they said.
Both women were pregnant and the panic that erupted was particularly traumatic for them. They said as they ran in all directions with their husbands they got little help from the airport staff.
Mrs. King, a youth and community worker said, "We kept asking staff members "Where do we go?" or "Just point us in the right direction. but, they appeared to be more confused and scared than us.
"We eventually got out of the airport building and ran towards the fence. Once we got there, our husbands and a few others broke it down so that we could get out." Mrs. Louise said.
"We saw bullets whizzing pass, while mortars and rockets were being fired on the opposite direction. We didn't stop for anything, we just kept running without looking back.", Mrs. Skeat said summing up the anguish of that horrible hour.
When it seemed like there was no hope left, and no means of transport or help in sight, one young man had risen to the occasion. Arnold de Silva, an officer from Sri Lankan Airlines, had appeared on the scene and taken charge.
"He reassured us and asked us to follow him and promised to lead us to safety. He guided us every step of the way, telling us when to take cover, when to proceed and which route to follow, " the tourists said.
"We walked for about half an hour –two to three kilometres–to the hotel.
"As we didn't go by the main road but through safer by-roads that Mr. de Silva showed us, it took longer but, we're just thankful to be alive," they said.
Finally having led the pain stricken passengers safely to the Airport Garden Hotel and handing them over to the hotel management, their 'knight in shining armour' had taken his leave.
"He was brilliant, just brilliant!" said Mrs. Skeat, about their new found friend. "He was so young yet, so calm and collected when leading us out of danger", she added.
"It was definitely a memorable holiday" said Mrs. King laughingly.
W.T.de Jong (53) a Medical doctor from Holland who was on his way out with his wife and four children was among those caught up in the melee. Mrs. Jong said they had scampered out of the airport and kept running without knowing where they were heading to.
"We noticed a Buddhist monk in saffron robes who invited us into the temple. He reassured us that he would look after us and asked us not to be scared. Thereafter we were told that the tourists were going to Airport Garden Hotel. We found a vehicle and managed to get there," she said.
Matthew King, Clothing Manager, said that it happened 15 minutes after he disembarked from UL 106 from Male. "I saw the explosion and there were bullets flying all over the place and we didn't have any idea what was happening, let alone know what to do" He doubts if he would be coming back.
Nishi Gupta from Canada found the whole experience traumatising. She said, "People from both the check in and check out counters were scattered all over the place; we didn't know whom to trust or whom to turn to. With her dress partly torn and fear written all over she said, "We had to break the fence and crouch." Nishi will be in Sri Lanka for two weeks. She was at Blue Waters in the south at dinner the previous night, which she thought was wonderful. She was making plans to come back to Sri Lanka to meet all the new friends she had made here when the tragedy struck.
Wearing borrowed clothes and appearing brave was the young computer programmer from Scotland, Lindsay Galloway. She had been asleep on a chair at the airport since half past one as she was to board the Sri Lankan flight to London when she was woken to the sounds of shelling and what she thought was fire works.
"There were sparks flying all over and the sky was lit up with pink and orange fires as we crawled through the mud to reach the wire fence,"she said.
Lindsay was terrified and scared not knowing what to do next, when two persons, from the Airport canteen assisted her in reaching the Airport Garden Hotel.
Lindsay had heard of the north-east conflict. She however had no fears as tourists in Britain were always told of the beautiful beaches of Sri Lanka and that they would be safe as long as they kept away from the north and east.
Interviews by Ruwan Weerakoon, Esther Suhasini. Marisa de Silva and
Umangi de Mel
Passengers said that in those tense moments airport staff had told them to leave their baggage and run for safety. But several days later they had still not heard anything about the baggage.
One passenger who came from Singapore said they had left their baggage and taken cover but by Friday they still had no word as to what happened to their bags.
When journalists went in to the airport some five hours after the attack,
they saw no sign of security measures to look after the baggage. Any looter
could have walked away with the bags.
By Hiranthi FernandoAs the dust settled at the Bandaranaike International Airport, after the terrorist attack , Sri Lankan Airlines is raising its head to resume operations with reduced flight schedules. The national carrier, with a fleet of 12 aircraft, lost six of them in the terrorist attack.
Sri Lankan Airlines Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Peter Hill said at a news conference on Friday, that three of the aircraft, one A 340 and two Airbus A330, were total write offs, while the other three were damaged. An Airbus team from France arrived on Friday and has found that the three damaged aircraft were repairable, although the cost of repairs was not known yet. "The insurance will cover the financial liability on the aircraft and the cost of repairs," Mr. Hill said. He stressed that replacement of the destroyed aircraft depends on how quickly business returns to the airline. "There have been some cancellations in the UK. However, from past experience, we are surprised at how quickly the tourist industry returns to normalcy after such an incident," he said.
Although the picture looks bleak, the CEO said they were resilient and were confident of surmounting the problems. "We have received many messages of support in the past few days and we believe our colleagues will support us," Mr. Hill said.
The backlog of stranded passengers has been cleared to a large extent, with those stranded here being given accommodation and overseas passengers also being provided hotel accommodation.
On the more positive side, in three months the airline hopes to have the three damaged aircraft back in operation. They will then have nine aircraft functional. They also have plans to possibly use one or more aircraft from Emirates, which are stationed in Sri Lanka for four days at a stretch. Sri Lankan Airlines will draw on the resources and capacity of Emirates in the coming weeks to supplement their own schedules. At the same time it is also planned to develop a mini hub in Dubai as well as in Singapore and mount regular service between these countries to feed customers from Colombo through the Middle East and onto Europe, where they are unable to operate direct services.
In the meantime, Sri Lankan Airlines has worked out a short term flight schedule .The schedules have to be worked out daily for the next few days depending on the availability of aircraft. On July 26, Friday, seven flights were scheduled to operate while 12 were cancelled. On Saturday, eight flights were scheduled and five were cancelled, while eight flights have been scheduled to operate today and nine have been cancelled.
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