American tourist Matthew O’Connell started laughing when he saw his hotel room filling with water. But when a raging wall of tidal wave water ripped him and Israeli friend Sue Mor apart, the laughter turned to sheer terror.

O’Connell and Mor told Monday of how they survived after being separated by floodwaters at Ambalangoda, lucky to escape being among an estimated 70 foreign tourists among a nationwide death toll of 5,880 dead.

Mor said she woke up O’Connell when the first waves brought in water, but he did not take her seriously. He got up, went out and on his way back found he could not close the door behind him as water surged into their guest house.

"I was laughing as I tried to close the door. Then it went from really amusing to deadly serious," O’Connell said dressed in clothes given by local people — a woman’s blouse and a curtain.

Both were bruised and ended up at the main Karapitiya hospital which is overflowing with the dead and the wounded.

"The (local) people were so kind," she said and pointed to a bag of food she carried. "This bag of food is from local people."

Mor and O’Connell’s testimony was typical of accounts given by foreign tourists across Sri Lanka.

Norwegian Bjorn Risoy, 29, was at the resort of Hikkaduwa when water burst through his hotel door. His friend had cuts which needed stitching up. They were moved to the hospital here from a smaller medical facility near Hikkaduwa.

They said they saw children thrown onto fencing along the beach.

"We are fine, we managed to climb a tree, but children in the beach were thrown on to the fences," Risoy said. "Someone drove us to a hospital."

Hotel worker Upul Aponsu said his hotel was initially under five feet of water when the first wave hit.

"But five minutes later, the second wave came which was 25 feet high. I ran and I saw buses floating on the water."

Security guard Indra Siri was busy trying to save his bank’s ATM after the bank itself was deluged by the lashing waves.

"The water came and we all ran. I was inside and the water came from behind my back," the 52-year-old security guard of the bank said.

"But I am not leaving the place as there is lot of cash in there," he said pointing to the bank’s still erect ATM unit.

The tsunamis were triggered by a huge earthquake off northeast Indonesia, several thousand kilometres (miles) from Sri Lanka. Giant waves also slammed into Thailand, Myanmar, southern India, Malaysia and the Maldives.

"I do not know if there is anything left of the hotel where I was staying," said George (eds one name) from Switzerland.

"I was at the second storey of my hotel when it all happened and the police are now closing off the areas to stop looting."

Numerous incidents of looting were reported from across the country and the police imposed a curfew during the night, which was eased early Monday in certain parts.

Galle police officials said that nearly 500 people died here.

"We are still finding bodies," said police officer Nimal Perera. "I have been a police officer for 18 years and never saw anything like this. There was a car parked outside our police station and now I can’t see where it is."

"At around 0930 am the waves hit my hotel building," said French tourist Olivier, 41, who was on holiday with his wife and three children and staying at the Galle Hotel. "People are so shocked that they can’t do anything."

The waves were seen almost 500 metres inland from the coast and volunteers were still fishing out dead bodies.

More than 300 bodies were in the hospital Sunday evening, with froth coming out of their mouths, an AFP correspondent said.

/ Current Affairs