The buzz of an electric chain saw pierces the air as it cuts through a coconut palm pinning a bloated corpse. It is the only sound of rescue here where the sea swallowed an entire train packed with 1,500 passengers.

At this site of mass death and destruction — where the Indian Ocean sped in and flipped over the train like a toy, killing all but 200 of its passengers — there is a severe shortage of recovery gear.

"We want some machines to push the carriages (so we can) get at the bodies," says an airforce officer leading a team of about 200 airforce and navy rescue workers here, just south of the resort of Hikkaduwa popular with divers for its rich coral life.

"We need cranes."

Rescue workers with no protective gear except surgical gloves and face masks to help them stave off the stench, still have to retrieve 400 bodies trapped inside the gnarled carriages.

The putrid smell of decaying flesh is rapidly getting worse.

Bodies of many more people who lived along the train line are cooking in the tropical sun hundreds of meters away from the track and the water’s edge.

"Look, a child’s body," says Chandana Pushpalal, 38, pointing to a tiny figure under a pile of rubble. "About 10 months old … There are many, many more bodies … you must take pictures."

It is three days since tsunamis hit the palm-fringed island republic of Sri Lanka, killing at least 18,000 people, including the 1,300 passengers on board the train travelling from Colombo to Galle.

Near the end of its 112 kilometres (72 miles) journey from capital Colombo to the resort city of Galle, it was hit by a tidal wave.

Karl Max Hantke, 75, who usually spends three months of every year at a house near the railway track said he saw the first wave rush over the tracks and stop the train.

A few minutes later, he says a second wave came in totally flipping the track and derailing the train.

"People were screaming ‘help, help’," he said shaking his head, still shocked at the size of the calamity. "You could not help."

He was watching from the roof of his flooded home.

Some 200 of the train’s passengers, mostly people going home on a holy Poya (full moon) day, are believed to have jumped out of the train after the first wave and ran for their lives.

Most were still inside when the bigger wave washed over them.

Sujeeva Priyadarshini, 22, lost her brother at their home by the track.

"I was at home when the first wave hit. But for the second, I ran… I heard my brother shouting. I looked and … my father came back to take his body away."

Nearby, bulldozers are collecting the dead and beginning to push them into a shallow mass grave under swaying coconut palms a few metres from the water.

There are people trying to salvage what is left of their ruined homes.

A man pleads with the coroner who is counting the bodies as they are pushed into the grave. The elderly man wants to take away the bodies of his children for a private funeral, a luxury thousands could not afford.

The government has streamlined burial procedures and wants to bury bodies as quickly as possible to prevent the spread of disease.

Official estimates place the death toll at about 18,000 killed. Most of the bodies have been disposed in mass graves as identification was difficult.

Airmen and sailors are going through luggage from the train to see if they can find identity papers or telephone numbers to alert the next of kin. That process is as difficult as the recovery of the bodies in this former paradise where a train was turned into a tomb.

/ Current Affairs