3rd January 1999
By Udena R. Attygalle
It was 5 a.m. on Christmas morn. The keenest of children were slowly tiptoeing towards their Christmas stockings. Meanwhile in Panagoda 14 young men were leaving for Udawalawe, on a trip they had been planning for a long time.
By afternoon the next day, six of them were dead. Drowned, in the swirling waters of a rain filled Mahagalwewa in Thanamalwila.
Kaushaliya Dias (24), Chaminda Dissanayaka (23), Aruna Dissanayaka (26) Ravindra Marasinghe (28), Kamal Hemal (22) and Eranga Udayanthe (19) were the ones who never returned after that trip.
Kaushaliya, a hotel school graduate who worked at the Cey Fish Restaurant in Fort, worked late on Christmas eve. His parents asked him to stay back and come home in the morning. But eager Kaushaliya came home when his parents were asleep, and before the crack of dawn, left with his friends forever.
It was to be a two-day van trip. First they visited the Sevanagala sugar factory and settled down for lunch at a bungalow belonging to the factory.
Refreshed they headed on for Kumaragama in Thanamalvila. They had dinner at a friend's place. They sang, danced and had a very good time- as a group of young men would, far away from home on an outing. Little did they know that this would be the last meal they would be having together.
Chaminda, a documentation clerk at Wijeya Newspapers and Aruna Dissanayake, brothers, died together in those murky waters. Their father had not objected to the trip but with parental wisdom had warned his sons against boat rides and bathing in rivers.
On the far side of the Mahagalwewa river, it is said that you could find interesting caves on a rock face of a cliff. Their youthful curiosity aroused, the friends had sought the help of some local "boat people" (fishermen) to get to the far side of the river.
On their advice two plastic boats were connected together with planks of wood, so that all the friends could go together. But two of them had doubts. Krishan and Kaushaliya really didn't want to go. Kaushaliya though, later joined his friends on the boat.
Krishan couldn't be persuaded. As it turned out, his cautious behavior, perhaps laughed upon at the time, saved his life. Gihan Dissanayaka (20) a school-leaver and one of the survivors, later said that they had specifically told the "boat people" that none of the friends could swim, asking them to be careful.
The ride towards the cliff went without a hitch. The young travellers spent some time exploring the caves. Being tired and hungry they were in a hurry to get back to the other side.
The return ride started well. But with just 50 metres to go one of the planks connecting the boats snapped. The boat rolled over throwing everyone aboard into the water.
Not knowing how to swim the young men flew into desperate panic, clinging on to anything they could, including each other. Chaman Liyanage (21) another survivor was one of the few who could swim.
He vividly remembers how about four of his friends clung on to him. Shivering with exhaustion Chaman broke away and swam towards the toppled boat where a few others were clinging on, while Suresh Wickremasinghe (22) did his best to steady the boat.
Meanwhile Chaman was able to pull two others onto the boat. But by now with five hanging on, the boat was very unstable. A sixth person would have spelt disaster for all.
While all this was going on Gihan had been saved by his friend Kumaragama Ajantha and together they were hanging onto a tree branch. Another had managed to climb a tree .
As they were fighting for dear life they kept on shouting for help, long enough for a fisherman named G.A. Premadasa to come to their rescue.
Premadasa managed to drag some from the unstable boat towards the bank. But it was too late for the rest. The murky waters of the river had made them its own.
Meanwhile the two "boat people" who were with them had swum ashore, ignoring the cries of the drowning men.
The parents are now left with the sorrowful task of saying goodbye to their children, all in the prime of their lives.
On the 26th night the day they were to return home the parents received a call, asking them to come to Thanamalwila. With a feeling of dread and inkling of disaster they went that very night. Only eight of the 14 friends were united with their parents. The rest had already left this world. Carelessness and tragic circumstance it seems was the ultimate culprit of this terrible accident.
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