Asian Tsunami Heros

Friday, January 21, 2005

Child Hero

ON December 26 morning, Mala, 13, was collecting water at the pump opposite her school, the Olcott Kuppam Middle School in Besant Nagar, Chennai. "Suddenly, there was a lot of commotion. People were running here and there, shouting, `Water is coming in, water is rushing in'," she said. She ran towards the beach, looking for her mother, among the hundreds of people fleeing the waves. Even as she saw that her mother had "somehow escaped the waves" after almost being caught in neck-deep water, she saw to her horror water entering Uroor Kuppam, a fishermen's village on the beach. Her eyes fell on her schoolmates R. Ashok Kumar and A. Nivedha, both aged five. "How can l let them go?" she thought to herself, and ran towards them. She lifted Nivedha and hurled her into a garbage trailer. She then seized Ashok by his hand, dragged him, lifted him and put him inside the vehicle. She then picked up a third child and threw her into the vehicle, before clambering in herself.

Separately, in the same locality, nine-year-old E. Naresh, 9, had found a small child wandering in the tumult as the waves came in. Nobody cared for this one-year-old boy. Naresh picked him up and put him in the same garbage trailer from the other side, and climbed in along with the driver. The vehicle outstripped the waves.

Earlier Naresh had seen a three-year-old girl sitting on a boulder on the beach. "Everbody ran away after seeing the waves coming in. The child was crying. I carried her on my hip, all the while shouting, `Whose child is it?'" After a while, the girl's mother spotted them.

The headmistress, J. Margaret said the children who were put in the trailer's autorickshaw were taken to the Olcott Memorial Higher Secondary School, also in Besant Nagar, where children separated from their parents were kept. There was no difficulty in restoring Ashok Kumar and Nivedha to their parents. The child rescued by Naresh was also re-united with his parents.

Mala looks smart. Her uniform - shirt and skirt - is clean and pressed. Her hair is slicked down and parted in the middle. There is an air of independence about the two child rescuers. Mala belongs to the fisherfolk community, but her father works in a factory. Naresh's father sells fruits on a tricycle. There are three fishermen's localities near the school: Olcott Kuppam, Uroor Kuppam and Tiruvalluvar Nagar.

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