Amazing Story: Outracing the Sea,
Orphans in His Care
He raised his hand in the direction of the flood and shouted, "I
command you in the name of Jesus -- stop!"
December 30, 2004
By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
NAVALADY, Sri Lanka, Dec. 29--Two hundred yards from the beach,
in the orphanage he had built, Dayalan Sanders lounged in his bed
early Sunday morning. He was thinking, he said, about the sermon he
was due to deliver in the chapel in half an hour. A few yards away,
most of the 28 children under his care were still in their rooms,
grooming themselves for services.
Then he heard the pounding of feet in the corridor outside his
room, and his wife burst through the door, a frantic look on her
"The sea is coming!" she said. "Come! Come! Look at the sea!"
But the children did not die. Thanks to quick thinking, blind
luck and an outboard motor that somehow started on the first pull,
the orphans and their caretakers joined the ranks of countless
survivors of the epic earthquake and coastal disaster that so far
has claimed the lives of more than 84,000 people in Sri Lanka and 11
This is their story.
It is also the story of their chief rescuer, Sanders, a Sri
Lankan-born missionary and U.S. citizen whose mother and siblings
live in Gaithersburg, where he once owned a townhouse. A member of
the country's Tamil ethnic minority, Sanders, 50, studied to be an
accountant before founding a missionary group and moving to
Switzerland in the 1980s. He worked with Tamil refugees displaced by
fighting between Tamil rebels and Sri Lankan government forces, both
of which have been observing a cease-fire since 2002.
In 1994, Sanders founded the Samaritan Children's Home in
Navalady, a small fishing village that occupies a narrow peninsula
on Sri Lanka's economically depressed eastern coast, about 150 miles
east of Colombo, the capital. He built the orphanage with donations
and money from the sale of his Maryland townhouse, he said.
With ocean on one side and a lagoon on the other, the four-acre
orphanage was a strikingly beautiful place, set in a grove of
stately palms. The children -- some of whom had lost their parents
in the civil war -- lived four to a room in whitewashed cottages
with red tile roofs and attended school in the village nearby.
Bougainvillea spilled from concrete planters.
"People used to come and take photographs of the flowers," said
Sanders, a handsome, youthful-looking man who speaks precise
idiomatic English and peppers his conversation with Scripture. "They
used to say it looked like Eden."
It was a busy, happy time at the orphanage. On Friday, the
children sang, danced and performed the Nativity scene at their
annual Christmas pageant, followed the next day by Christmas
services and dinner for 250 guests, many of them Hindus from the
nearby village. Sanders was so exhausted by his duties as host, he
said, that he went to bed early on Saturday night. He also forgot to
check, as he usually does, on whether the outboard motor had been
removed from the orphanage launch, as it was supposed to be each
night as a precaution against theft.
It proved to be the luckiest mistake he ever made.
'A Thunderous Roar' On Sunday morning, Sanders said, he rose at
his customary hour of 4 a.m. to wander the grounds and pray, then
went back to bed. He woke up again about 7:30. He recalled the
stillness. Not a breath of air stirred the surface of the sea. Small
waves rolled listlessly onto the beach, then retreated with a gentle
"It was so calm and so still," he recalled. "The surface of the
ocean was like a sheet of glass. Not a leaf moved." Two young men on
his staff wandered down to the ocean for a swim.
It isn't clear who saw the wave first. Sanders's wife, Kohila,
said she was alerted by one of the orphans, a girl who burst into
the kitchen as Kohila was mixing powdered milk for her 3-year-old
daughter. Kohila ran into the brilliant sunshine and saw the
building sea. Even the color of the water was wrong: It looked, she
said, "like ash."
Kohila ran to inform her husband, who told her not to panic, he
recalled. "I said, 'Be calm. God is with us. Nothing will ever harm
us without His permission.' " Wrapped in a sarong, he ran outside
and looked toward the ocean. There on the horizon, he said, was a
"30-foot wall of water," racing toward the wispy casuarina pines
that marked the landward side of the beach.
With barely any time to think, let alone act, he ran toward the
lagoon side of the compound, where the launch with its outboard
motor chafed at a pier. By then, many of the children had heard the
commotion and run outside, some of them half-dressed. Sanders
shouted at the top of his lungs, urging them all toward the boat.
Desperate, he asked if anyone had seen his daughter, and a moment
later one of the older girls thrust the child into his arms. Sanders
heaved her into the boat, along with the other small children, as
the older ones, joined by his wife and the orphanage staff,
clambered aboard on their own. One of his employees yanked on the
starter cord and the engine sputtered instantly to life -- something
that Sanders swears had never happened before.
"Usually you have to pull it four or five times," he said.
Crammed with more than 30 people, the dangerously overloaded
launch roared into the lagoon at almost precisely the same moment,
Sanders said, that the wall of water overwhelmed the orphanage,
swamping its single-story buildings to the rafters.
"It was a thunderous roar, and black sea," he said.
As the compound receded behind the boat, Sanders said, he watched
in amazement as the surging current smashed a garage and ejected a
brand-new Toyota pickup. "The roof came flying off -- it just
splintered in every direction," he recalled. "I saw the Toyota just
pop out of the garage."
The vehicle bobbed briefly on the surface, collided with a palm
tree -- the mark of its impact was clearly visible Wednesday -- then
slid over the edge of the compound in the torrent before slipping
beneath the rapidly rising surface of the lagoon. Another vehicle, a
maroon van, was smashed against a palm tree. A three-wheeled
motorized rickshaw parked on the property whirled around as if it
were circling a drain, Kohila Sanders recalled.
A Narrow Escape The orphans' ordeal did not end when their boat
pulled away from the shore.
Not only was water cascading over the lagoon side of the
peninsula but it was pouring in directly from the mouth of the
estuary about two miles away. Sanders feared the converging currents
would swamp the small craft. At that point, Sanders said, he
recalled a line from the Book of Isaiah: "When the enemy comes in
like a flood, the spirit of the Lord shall raise up a standard
He raised his hand in the direction of the flood and shouted, "I
command you in the name of Jesus -- stop!" The water then seemed to
"stall, momentarily," he said. "I thought at the time I was
As the launch then headed away from the mouth of the lagoon, he
began to worry that waves would overtake them from behind, swamping
the small boat. Reasoning that it was better to hit the waves head
on, he said, he ordered the helmsman to reverse direction and head
back toward the open ocean.
But that maneuver carried its own risks. As it made for the mouth
of the lagoon, the boat was broadsided and nearly capsized by the
torrent pouring over the peninsula. "The children were very
frightened," recalled Kohila Sanders, 30. "We were praying, 'God
help us, God help us.' " As the waters began to roll back out to
sea, the turbulence subsided. It was then, Sanders and his wife
said, that they became aware of the people crying for help as they
bobbed in the water nearby. They were villagers who had been swept
off the peninsula. The passengers rescued one young man, who was
"howling for his missing wife and daughters," Kohila Sanders said.
But they had to leave the rest behind. There wasn't any room.
"People were crying, 'Help us, help us,' " Kohila said. "Children
Eventually the boat made it to the opposite shore, about a mile
and a half distant in the city of Batticaloa. Sanders and his wife,
their daughter and perhaps a dozen of the orphaned and now-displaced
children have found temporary refuge in a tiny church; the rest have
been sent elsewhere.
The city is short of food and water, and on Wednesday afternoon,
corpses were being burned where they had been found at the edge of
the lagoon. With more than 2,000 people dead in Batticaloa district,
local officials say that they lack the means to dispose of the
bodies properly and that residents are burning them as a precaution
The scene at the orphanage was one of utter devastation. The
grounds were covered by up to three feet of sand. Several buildings,
including the staff quarters, were entirely wiped away, and the
others were damaged beyond repair. A body burned near the ruined
Surveying the wreckage, Sanders broke down and cried. "Twenty
years of my life put in here, and I saw it all disappear in 20
seconds," he said between sobs. The orphanage had no insurance.
But at other moments, Sanders was philosophical about his loss.
"If there was anyone who should have got swept away by this tidal
wave, it should have been us," he said. "We were eyeball to eyeball
with the wave."