Days of severe torrential rains and strong winds triggered by the monsoon bore a harbinger of the events to come for residents of Neluwa who watched in horror as water swiftly rose above knee level and showed no signs of receding. The Irrigation Department had issued a warning to people in the area, but many described it as a mad scramble for safety.
Residents who lived in the low lying areas were warned of rising water levels and asked to evacuate, but as rains lashed overhead, there was little time for residents to pack up or leave.
Thirty-eight-year-old young airman, Senaka a resident of Kotugoda, Gampaha had left his home on May 24 to report to duty. He had promised his only son Lakshan he’d be back soon. Little did he know, what the future had in store for him.
By May 26, it had rained for over 48-hours incessantly in many parts of the country. Piyal Pushpadewa who served at the Ratmalana Air Force Camp was called in for duty along with Senaka. Piyal was confident this would be an ordinary rescue mission given the fact that Senaka had previously been on such missions and knew the drill.
Both of them left the Ratmalana base at 6.30 that fateful morning and boarded a 547 bell helicopter en-route to Galle, one of the worst affected districts in the disaster. As soon as they were airborne they were briefed on the severity of the situation in Galle, but would only know the harsh reality when they beheld the grim scenes. Just before he boarded the helicopter, Senaka made a quick phone call home to tell his wife, Lakmali that he was embarking on a rescue mission to areas inundated by floods.
The entire area was inundated, Piyal said. There had been a landslide that brought down an avalanche of mud and sludge from a nearby mountainous hill in Neluwa burying many homes. Both of them knew deep down that there would undoubtedly be people who needed to be rescued, so they scoured the site. That’s when they saw people waving back at them. They knew what they had to do. The pilot had to look for a place to land but it was practically impossible due to the flood and rising water levels.
“We decided to drop with the aid of a suspension cable,” said Piyal.“First Senaka, who was the most experienced of us all, was lowered down. He had participated in similar operations before so he knew what to do.”
Senaka was dropped 75 feet below on a cable. There he surveyed the location and inspected the site. When he met the people, he had realized that two of them were injured and in need of medical attention. While he prepared to be hoisted, Piyal toured the site again in search of a place to land.
The helicopter was lowered and a suspension cable was dropped. Senaka helped an injured lady to tighten the belt, so, she could be airlifted to safety. When both their belts were tightened, Senaka signaled to be hoisted up.
While they were being pulled up, at 20 feet, Senaka’s belts sprung lose and he fell. The lady who was injured was hauled up and the cable was dropped again for Senaka to be brought back up. “Senaka came back up safely,” Piyal relayed. “He even spoke to us and said he had had a bad fall.”
Piyal observed that Senaka’s legs were wounded but he stayed in the helicopter. Afterwards, the other pararescueman Bandara was sent down. Another wounded individual was hauled onboard, after which they made their way to the Koggala Air Force Camp. The injured were rushed to the Karapitiya Teaching Hospital for treatment. It was only much later that Piyal would come to know that Senaka had succumbed to his injuries.
Lakmali, his wife was immediately alerted of the severity of the situation and that her husband was receiving treatment at the Karapitiya Hospital. She didn’t know of the danger his life was in or the nature of his injuries at the time. Only that he had met with an accident during a rescue attempt.
She quickly made her way to the hospital but to her horror Senaka was unconscious. She got to know only much later that he didn’t make it. A post-mortem report revealed that Senaka had died of multiple injuries to his torso, chest and spine.
Flight sergeant Y.M. Senaka Yaparathna (24612) was laid to rest on May 29. He was enlisted in the Sri Lanka Air Force on January 19, 2001 and received his initial training at Diyathalawa and advanced training at the SLAF TTS in Ekala. Since then he served at the SLAF Bases in Katunayake, Anuradhapura, Ratmalana and SLAF Stations in Colombo, Batticaloa, Iranamadu and even trained at the SLAF training school to become a fire and rescue expert.
A highly decorated Air Force veteran, the late Senaka Yaparathna was posthumously promoted to the rank of Warrant Officer.
Senaka, Nation salutes you for being the Silent Hero that you were. May you attain the supreme bliss of Nibbana.