Darkness, flares and then there was a fireball

Friday night’s LTTE air raid on Colombo was a nerve wracking experience for many people particularly for those who were in the Fort area and were caught up in the heavy firing that occuured as the light aircraft crashed onto the Inland Revenue Department (IRD) building. The explosion that occurred with the crash damaged several buildings including the Convention Centre, Trans Asia Hotel and the Air Force headquarters.

There were many people attending functions at several star class hotels that stud the area. While some hotel officials followed proper procedure, of moving guests to the lobby and basement areas, some did not.

Residents and office workers rushed to rooftops or balconies to see what was unfolding after power was shut down and news began to spread of an impending LTTE air attack. The Sunday Times spoke to some of the eyewitnesses.

M. M. Chalosinghe, who works at the Sri Lanka Scouts Headquarters, right next to the IRD said he saw the plane flying between two buildings amidst a lot of flares. “There were flares everywhere, like fireflies. Then we heard the sound of gunfire. After that the power went off and we heard a loud explosion above our heads,” he said.

Mr. Chalosinge’s colleague R. T. David who was with him during the incident, said, he saw the plane heading towards Beira Lake and turning back towards the IRD building. “We saw the plane between 9.30 and 10 p.m. It flew towards the lake and turned back again and flew towards the building. There was a loud noise and the building shook. Everything fell to the ground. Both of us ran into the bathroom and hid in there for about an hour,” he said.

Gamini Situge, the security guard on duty at the St. John Ambulance Services centre located right in front of the IRD building said he saw a huge ball of fire overhead followed by a loud sound. “It must have been around 9.15 p.m. Searchlights and flashes were trying to track the plane. About 20 minutes later we saw the plane coming from the direction of the Beira Lake and flying overhead. Suddenly there was a huge ball of fire and a loud noise,” he said.

Transport Manager of the St. Johns Ambulance Service said 16 of its ambulances sustained heavy damage following the crash. The main building, its equipment and the guardroom were also damaged due to the impact of the explosion.

Sri Lanka Scouts Headquarters

Meanwhile, there were several high society events taking place in the star class hotels in the vicinity when the air raids got under way. The Taj Samudra Hotel in Colombo was the venue of the Colombo fashion week that was taking place on it’s rooftop with US Ambassador Robert O’ Blake, among the invitees.

Many invitees to the function, who were shaken by the experience were irked by the attitude of the management of the hotel who did little to evacuate people to the safety of the basement of the hotel and instead asked people to remain on the rooftop where they could have been exposed to gunfire or falling shrapnel.

“After the power was turned off, we were told that the Defence Ministry had knocked off the lights as a precaution of a possible air attack but shortly after the lights were turned on and the show got underway again. There was loud music and amidst that we began to hear sounds of firing. It was then that we realised what was happening,” an invitee to the fashion show said.

The show was stopped then but the person in charge asked everyone to remain calm and be seated and it was after several guests insisted that they be shown the fire exit to make their way down, that they managed to leave the rooftop. While some of the invitees chose to remain, several walked down the fire exit from 9th to the ground floor to get into the lobby area and safer environs.

At the Hilton Hotel among those who experienced unnerving events was the Palestinian Minister of Religious Affairs Jamal Bawatna. However, in this hotel the staff had evacuated the guests from all floors to the lobby areas and basement and asked them to remain there till the power came on and things returned to normal.

This procedure was followed at many of the other hotels as well with people being asked to stay inside till the power was turned back on.

Meanwhile the Colombo International Airport was shut down for several hours last night and flights diverted to Chennai due to the air raids but things returned to normal by this morning, airport officials said.

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