Volume 17 • Issue 32 • Dec. 31, 2004 - Jan. 6, 2005

Tsunami’s effect on 2 Downtowners

By Ronda Kaysen

Wozzy Dias, an East Village resident, first learned about the tsunami that devastated his native Sri Lanka when his brother called him from California last Sunday. By Monday, he was making arrangements to return to the island he’d left behind 27 years ago.

“I want to shoot [pictures] and I want to write and I want to try to find some meaning out of this whole tragedy,” he said recently. Dias, 44, a freelance photographer who has worked for Downtown Express, hopes to find a sponsoring news agency for his trip. “If I was in a position to pack up and sustain myself, I would,” he said. He plans to return “for a period of time,” at least a year, and record the daunting task of recovery.

His immediate family has all left Sri Lanka — his parents live in England and his four siblings are scattered across the United States and England — but some of his extended family still lives in the small island country. His uncle, Charitha Ranasinghz, was on the beach for a morning swim when the first giant wave struck. He watched the ocean pull back from the shore, exposing the base of the coral reef. In all his 70-plus years, he had never seen such a thing. “The ocean just tanked out,” said Dias. When the ocean came marching back, a giant wall of water, Ranasinghz turned and fled. All of Dias’ family is accounted for. His parents, both in their 80s, still have a home in Colombo, but no immediate plans to return to there. “They’re shocked and saddened,” he said.

With the State Department’s recent announcement of 13 confirmed American deaths and as many as 3,000 Americans missing, Michael Lyons, 38, a Lower East Side resident on vacation in Phuket, is among the lucky survivors. He watched from his second-floor hotel balcony as waves engulfed the café he had eaten at moments earlier. “That’s when I saw the place where I was having breakfast, it was submerged by water,” he told the New York Post. “It looked like a solid sheet of water crashing into the bay.”

Although Lyons sent his friends and family an e-mail message immediately after the wave struck, no one heard from him again until Tuesday, when his sister located him at a hotel in Bangkok. “He was listed as missing. As we were hearing reports of disease and the aftershocks — I don’t think he had any idea that we were worrying — it was just trying not to fear the worst,” Alex Emanuel Grossman, Lyon’s best friend since college, said in a telephone interview. “You became addicted to looking at the CNN Web site and the ever mounting death toll.”

Lyons, an English-as-a-second-language teacher, arrived unscathed at J.F.K. airport on Wednesday night. He stayed up late into the night with Grossman, also a Lower East Side resident. “He looked like someone who’d seen a ghost,” said Grossman, an actor and musician. “We proceeded to stay up really late last night. I think he wanted to let off steam. He said cold dreary New York City never looked so good.”

Dias, on the other hand, is hoping to leave cold and dreary New York as soon as possible and head for South Asia where the death toll from the 9.0 earthquake beneath the island of Sumatra and the ensuing tsunamis that engulfed much of the region has soared to a staggering 120,000. The death toll in Sri Lanka alone is nearing 30,000.

Dias broke his arm in October shooting a wedding at the South Street Seaport and does not expect to be able to assist in the relief effort as much as he would like. The sling cradling his left arm has not deterred him. “The sad thing is, [the tsunami] doesn’t affect me at all,” he said. “I could choose to be detached, but I feel it necessary to at least spiritually be involved with the disaster.”

Dias grew up in Colombo, Sri Lanka and spent his weekends on the shore. Not much of a swimmer (“It’s pretty rough ocean, not much protection”) he preferred to watch his father, a U.C. Berkeley and Yale educated forensic scientist, swim to the coral reef offshore. During the week, he rode his bike along the railroad track to his math tutor. The track, a few steps from the ocean, was mangled by the waves. He left Sri Lanka at 17 for college in England. In 1990, he settled in New York.

He remembers Sri Lanka — a country with a 91 percent literacy rate, equal voting rights for women, and the world’s first elected female prime minister — as a progressive place. He sees the tragedy as an opportunity for his country to finally call an end to the civil war that still affects areas in the north and east. “It’s a huge opportunity for world peace because there are so many countries involved,” he said. “Good could come out of it.”

President George Bush’s announcement to help “in the difficult weeks and months that lie ahead” sent chills down Dias’ spine. “Weeks and months don’t mean anything because the destruction was so great,” Dias said. “It’s going to take years. There you have poor people who were surviving by the grace of God, and they were hit by cataclysmic proportions. When the president says ‘weeks and months,’ it breaks my heart.”

If he is not in Sri Lanka by New Year’s Day, he plans to spend the holiday at the New York Buddhist Vihara in Queens, making sense of his battered country at the temple. “Something of this nature, I want to be a part of it,” he said.


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