On Thursday, February 1, 1996, I walked towards my workplace in the Bank of Ceylon Headquarters building with total depression. Yes, it was happening everywhere but this time it had happened to us! The most destructive bomb in Sri Lanka hit us the previous day.
Just before noon on January 31, we heard gunshots. Naturally, we dashed to the windows. I saw people frantically running towards Galle Face. Not understanding, we looked towards the Central Bank and saw this old lorry going back and forth, ramming the gates of the Central Bank and back, over and over again. Since then I have never been able to look at a lorry without apprehension. When the bomb blew, black thick smoke spread into the Bank of Ceylon building through shattered glass and ripped venetian blinds. Repeated fire drills came to mind and we ran for the ‘smoke lobby’ and then down the stairs. I had escaped with a piece of glass in my foot!
People were praying and climbing down, some 30 floors. Everyone made it to their allotted places on the lawn, but from there we had to work our way home. There was absolute chaos all over Fort. Down the stairs hobbled injured people, some carrying others, the chairman and the peon, and all of us united in fear. The last straw was when word came that another bomb may explode, but thankfully this did not happen.
The mayhem and havoc on Thursday was a pathetic sight. People in the Central Bank and Ceylinco did not have to report for work to those buildings. But to my horror I saw vehicles piled up like accordions on the road. A shaky small steel ladder poised from the top floor of Ceylinco to the next below. This had been the means of escape for some. The steel stair escape had been smouldering hot and the stairway on fire. Blood stains along the staircase in our bank building, the stench still in my nostrils. Bank employees with stitches and eyes in bandages were back at their desks. The hub of the lorry was found on the top most floor of the Bank of Ceylon and that is how as Kipling said we summoned up vestiges of courage and “stooped and built them up …”
Can we ever forget or live down that day? All communities were affected. The bomb echoed from Fort to Ratmalana. It was the most violent and widespread we ever experienced.
Up to the Bank of Ceylon floors we could hear people trapped in the Central Bank, screaming! Did they die there? Slowly... with no hope? Did the President, PM, politicians of that time do nothing? What of our engineers, doctors, construction workers? Why were they not alerted to do something without ignoring the situation? Anywhere else in the world, rescue missions would be ongoing 24/7. As of now, I did not hear of any rescue operations. Only huge loaders, tractors, shoveling bodies, rubble and where were they dumped?
The exterior and interior of the bank building was damaged to a semicircle around the circumference on every floor. It took years to get back to normal.
I wonder if we ever will get back to normal after such harrowing experiences. It is now 21 years since this horrendous event -- and what was achieved?