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TSUNAMI-VAILANKANNI (UPDATED) Dec-30-2004 (660 words) With photos. xxxi

Church workers recover rotting bodies at Indian Marian shrine

By Anto Akkara
Catholic News Service

VAILANKANNI, India (CNS) -- Amid the stench of rotting bodies and decaying garbage, Thanjavur Bishop Devadass Ambrose Mariadoss spent several days at India's most popular Marian shrine to oversee post-tsunami relief efforts.

Barefoot volunteers, with faces covered by surgical masks or even handkerchiefs, removed rotting bodies from mountains of debris: houses, shops, remains of thatched sheds, boats and animal carcasses strewn around the scenic beach in front of the Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health. The shrine, which draws 20 million pilgrims annually, remained untouched.

More than 1,000 people, including hundreds of pilgrims, perished within a one-kilometer (.62 miles) radius of the basilica Dec. 26 when tsunamis triggered by a magnitude 9 earthquake deep in the Indian Ocean hit the coast.

"The worst is over. We are gradually recovering from the shock," Bishop Mariadoss said Dec. 30.

The same day, false warnings of another tsunami caused panic as people -- including the shrine's cooks -- fled to higher ground.

Father P. Xavier, shrine rector, praised the efforts of several hundred volunteers who rushed to the shrine Dec. 26; he said government officials left the entire relief and rescue work around the basilica to the church.

"We cannot even keep these rotting bodies for identification," said Father Xavier. Volunteers photographed each of the bodies, then buried them in common graves. The photos were pasted on a notice board for relatives to identify victims.

The stench of rotting bodies was so strong that even on the basilica grounds dozens of priests wore surgical masks in their rooms while coordinating relief work and responding to anxious relatives of pilgrims missing in the tragedy. Basilica staffers, like others, functioned without electricity or running water.

"This is an experience I will never forget in my life," said Jesuit scholastic John Michael, who with a dozen others traveled more than 100 miles from Madurai to join the lay youth volunteers from Thanjavur Diocese.

"We have picked 15 bodies this morning (Dec. 28)," said a man identified only as Brother Michael, who wore a surgical mask and gloves.

Later, another batch of church volunteers collected the rotting bodies in trucks for burial in a distant field where mass graves were dug with excavators.

By the evening of Dec. 29, the church volunteers had picked up 800 bodies; government sanitary workers equipped with a half-dozen earthmovers helped. It was the final day of the search for missing persons.

"The search for the bodies is over. But, we are glad that it has ended in joy instead of despair," Father Joseph Lionel, Thanjavur diocesan chancellor, said Dec. 30.

On Dec. 29, church volunteers picked up a 35-year-old mother, unconscious and clutching the decaying body of her child. The mother was taken to a hospital for treatment.

"The Holy Mother has worked wonders despite the tragedy here," said Father Lionel.

In a Dec. 29 statement, basilica officials noted that about 2,000 pilgrims attending Mass were "miraculously saved" when the surging waves stopped at the gates of the shrine compound.

The waves -- which rose as high as 40 feet -- hit hotels and houses on the same elevation just 330 feet from the shrine.

Bishop Mariadoss noted that the local bus stop on the same elevation as the basilica was farther from the beach, but it was inundated.

"It was a miracle that the water did not enter the church," reiterated Sebastian Kannappilly, a businessman from neighboring Kerala state, who had come to Vailankanni with his wife and daughter. Although his family was at Mass and was spared, his driver perished in the disaster.

"How can we go back without his body?" Kannappilly asked two days after the tragedy, as he and the driver's relatives continued the search.

With dozens rushing to Vailankanni in search of missing family members, church officials said they felt helpless.

"I saw many people being washed away by the waves. We may never get to see these bodies again," said Father Xavier.


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