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Thousands of Pilgrims Perished in Tamil Nadu: Habitat Contributes to Recovery

January 16, 2005

by Kathryn Reid in Tamil Nadu state, southern India

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CHENNAI, 16th January 2005: Fishermen who struggled for their lives when the tsunami hit, say they saw 3,000 to 4,000 pilgrims perish on the beach at Veelainkanni near Nagapattinam, south of Chennai, India. People come from all over the world to pray for healing at a Roman Catholic basilica on the site where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to a crippled shepherd boy and healed him.

Sunday 26th December, the morning after Christmas, was a day for huge crowds, with mass after mass held in different languages. Vendors’ stalls lined the beach and families walked there in a holiday mood. Children played on the beach, while their parents attended church services one kilometer away. Perhaps as many as half of those who died were these children.

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“We’ll never know how many died,” said Vinayaga Murthy (pictured), a fisherman who had been selling fish on the beach that day. “Whole families were lost, with no one to identify them or tell if all the family members’ bodies were found.” Two hundred of his neighbors died and a third of them were children.

The day after the disaster, Habitat for Humanity India staff in Chennai organized three youth teams to aid in the recovery of bodies, Eight hundred bodies were recovered right away, and many more have washed ashore since. Now there is little activity at the Missing Persons Enquiry Center. Pilgrims who enter the church pass a sign saying, “Let us pray for our dear ones…”

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‘Let us pray for our dear ones’: A woman with her children scan photographs of the dead

Priests and staff of the church are talking to HFH India’s leaders about helping with long-term housing for the villagers, said Mr. A. Michael, an HFH India field coordinator who moved from Madurai to Nagapattinam to help organize Habitat’s response. “We are taking input from local people. We want to be ready when the government says where and when we can build.”