We have no idea how many people died, says Tamil Nadu priest
Nagapattinam (AsiaNews) "They were supposed to be days of celebration instead our church has become a cemetery," said Father Xavier, rector of Our Lady of Vailankanni Shrine, in Nagapattinam district (Tamil Nadu), his shock still not wearing off.
Hundreds of pilgrims had arrived at the national Marian shrine to celebrate Christmas and enjoy the long week-end. The tsunami waves swept them all. So far, about 500 bodies have been recovered.
Speaking to AsiaNews, Father Xavier, who is in charge of the recovery operation, said that work "to extract bodies from the sand" is going on "day and night". But "we have no idea how many people died" among those who were swept away by the waves on Sunday.
"Church authorities," he added, "have begun digging mass graves to bury the pilgrims, even though a large number of bodies are yet to be identified and hundreds more may have to be extricated from the debris of fallen buildings."
In the meantime, hundreds of families are burying their dead because the stench of the rotting corpses is too much to bear.
Father Xavier recounts how the waves "receded in the same lightening speed with which they had come". Who was not killed on impact "was caught in the swirling waters and pulled back into the sea", alive.
The village of Thanjavur, which surrounds the shrine, was wiped out destroying an entire fishing community that had made the shores its home.
'I saw the sea swallow up my wife and kids," one fisherman said. "I have yet to find my twelve year old son. I have given up hope of seeing even his body. He may have already been cremated in a mass grave."
"We loved the sea," the man said. "I have spent all my life on the beach. The sea provided for us, it fed my family for generations. Now I hate it".
Known as the Lourdes of the East, Our Lady of Vailankanni is a national Marian shrine. Every year some 20 million pilgrims flock to it.
Its Basilica was not touched by the tsunami. (NC)