In July of 1996 I was living and working in Colombo, Sri Lanka. At that time it was a beautiful island torn by a horrific civil war that had lasted for more than a decade. Terror and despair were commonplace, yet island spirit prevailed and everyone went about their day
Each day after work, I would take the train home at the same time, always sitting in the 4th carriage because it was the most convenient one to exit at my destination. On the way to the train station I would always have to pass a huge mall, Majestic City, it was called. Normally I would not stop at the mall as I would be always in a hurry to get home before dark.
On this day, July 24th 1996 (which was a few weeks before my wedding), I was as usual hurrying to catch my train. In the mall, there was this decadent pastry shop which sold the best chicken pies. I was hungry that evening and as i passed the smell of fresh baked treats was too much to resist. As I walked down the street towards the train station I had a sudden urge to eat one of these delicious chicken pies that they sold. I was tired and had been on a meaningless diet because of my wedding, I felt I deserved a treat.
The station was in sight, I saw my train pull in and saw my usual commuting partners all rushing to get a good spot. Should I join the crowd and run to get the train or shall I go into the pastry shop and eat the chicken pie I was dreaming of?
I remember even stopping on the road to decide as I looked at the train. i shrugged, after all, the next train would be in 25 minutes i thought. The chicken pie won and I decided to catch the next train.
I savored every bite of the soft chicken, carrots and peas in a silky smooth Bechamel sauce wrapped in warm flaky puff pastry and enjoyed this moment of pure bliss.
Back on the street, I made it in time for the next train and settled in my seat, now feeling full and satisfied and sleepily getting jostled by the gentle sway of the train.
A few moments later our train stopped in the middle of nowhere it seemed- with the ocean to one side and a field to the other. The train conductor looked stressed. He asked passengers to hurriedly jump out of the side of the train that had doors open (without a platform this was quite a jump) then crawl under the train and get to the other side. No one seemed to question this. We all thought it was engine trouble and it was a real adventure to first jump from a train which is quite a height and then worse yet, creep under a train! Someone helped me down. This was all done in haste, no time to think. I was already thinking of the funny story I would recall to others of this bizarre situation.
A few moments later standing in a crowd waiting to find out what’s going on, we were told that the previous train, yes my train that I take every day, had a terrorist bomb on board that exploded. The crowd went silent. Some immediately panicked as rumors floated that every train thereafter had bombs on board. The crowd very rapidly started running away from the train we had just jumped off , including me.
I was sickened to learn that it was the first few carriages that had exploded.Yes i would have been in the fourth carriage. 64 innocent commuters were killed instantly and another 356 severely injured. It was one of the worst train bomb disasters that had ever happened in the country. I knew some people that died who were my travel buddies, we used to laugh and play cards trying to pass the time. Chaos ensued all around me, we were only 3.5 km from the disaster zone.
It took me four hours to get home because of road closures and the many ambulances that went by. I was exhausted, relieved, in shock, sad and got home to hug my mother who was panicking when she had not heard from me. It was an age before cell phones.
It was a devastating day for me, and a harrowing one for my fiancé and my mom who knew I would be on that train. I felt so guilty for being alive when so many had died. “Why was I ok?” I questioned.
I still cannot get over the feeling of what if… other than for divine intervention ,I do not know what made me stop for a chicken pie on that fateful day (apart from my gluttony!) but I am very glad I did.
One crumpled compartment of the train