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Velankanni: Death in the churchyard!

George Iype in Velankanni | December 28, 2004 14:51 IST

It was a watery death for hundreds of pilgrims thronging the Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health, the famous Catholic pilgrim centre in Velankanni in coastal south India, on the Sunday after Christmas.

"We are still pulling out bodies from the beach. It would have been celebration at this time of the year in our church. But sadly, our shrine has suddenly turned out to be a burial ground," says Father P Xavier, rector of the shrine.

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Every year some 20 million pilgrims flock to the shrine from all over India and abroad. Many offer candles in the shape of affected organs, and most return with stories of miraculous healing of their ailment.

Hundreds return with small organ replicas in gold and silver to thank the Mother for healing them. Offerings, addressed to the shrine, are also occasionally thrown into the sea in sealed bottles or hollow bamboo.

December 26, Sunday. 9.30am.

It was meant to be a day of celebration. It was the beginning of the holiday season, and thousands, including the sick and the infirm, had come to pray at the shrine.

The Tamil mass in the shrine was over and the Malayalam mass had begun. Hundreds of Malayalis from neighouring Kerala were attending mass and tragedy struck.

Those on the shore scurried for cover from the wall of water. But the force of the waves blew most of them away. Though the waves receded in the same lightening speed that it had come, hundreds were caught in the swirling waters and pulled back into the sea.

But the killer tsunami crashed into the beach, the shrine's compound and nearby villages and hundreds of shops, homes and pilgrims were washed away into the sea.

The otherwise busy shrine on the seashore now wears a deserted look.

The compound wall of the church collapsed under the force of the waves. The seawater did not enter the shrine because it is on a higher plane compared to the beach.

But the waves took way hundreds of pilgrims who were on the beach.

The water gushed into the main road and arterial lanes leading to the shrine, inundating several shops and houses.

"We have no idea how many people died. But I have been leading rescue teams all day and night. We have extricated more than 300 bodies," says Father Xavier.

Rescue teams led by church authorities and the Nagapattinam district administration continue to scour for bodies in the sand and rocks strewn all over the place.

Heartrending scenes could be seen in the coastal villages around the shrine as rescue teams pulled out the bodies.

A large number of bodies are yet to be unidentified.

The church authorities have now begun digging mass graves to bury the pilgrims.


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