EFEBy Jose Luis Paniagua Colombo

Ten years ago, a giant nine-meter (30 feet) tall wave came out of the sea, swallowed up and then spat out an entire train, leaving an estimated 1,800 people dead.

Among the very few survivors was the train's conductor, who, a decade later, continues to punch tickets along the same route on what it is known all across Sri Lanka as the tsunami train.

"People call me the conductor of the tsunami train," said Wanigaratne Karunatilleke with a half smile, at the start of yet another day on the trains that travel through old Ceylon.

Every day this 55-year-old swarthy, gray-haired man enters the conductor's compartment, opens up his suitcase and takes out a file to note down the details of the trip, a green flag and a whistle.

As the train pulls out of the station, he half-leans out of the door holding the rail with one hand and waving the flag with the other while simultaneously blowing the whistle.

That is the routine he has been following since 1985 and that he was following on Dec. 24, 2004, a day which would change his life forever, but not his job.

"I still work on the same line and every time I pass the site I remember what happened," he says, with a far-away look on his face.

Samudra Debi, or queen of the coast, was the name of the train that covers one of the routes between Colombo and Galle.

On that day of the tsunami it was carrying about 1,200 ticketed passengers and an indeterminate number of passengers who didn't have a seat.

Karunatilleke recalls that the train stopped in Peraliya, a coastal village, in the middle of the journey, after the alarm signal was sounded to warn about an increase in the water level.

Quickly removing his clothes, the conductor rushed out to try to help the village people who ran towards the train to scramble on its roof and stay above the rapidly rising seas.

Many managed to reach safety in this way when the first wave arrived and wrenched loose only one of train's cars.

Then came the second wave.

The sea tore away at everything in its path, reducing the wagons to heaps of scrap iron which it hurled towards the houses and trees with hundreds of people still trapped inside them as well as those who had climbed atop the train to seek shelter.

Ninety nine percent of Peraliya's inhabitants perished that day, drowned under water and mud or crushed by rubble, wreckage or fallen trees.

"I got into a second-class compartment and shut the windows, the wagon also broke away from the train and began to float as if it were a boat until it stopped," the conductor explained.

The coach remained in a spot close to where he lived so he was able to make his way to his wife and three children who had given him up for dead.

As a Buddhist, Karunatilleke believes that he was "fortunate" but he says he is sad to have lived through "such a disaster" in that train.

Just days after the country paid tribute to the more than 30,000 victims of the tsunami, Karunatilleke says in a reproachful tone that if he had known there was going to be a tsunami he would have been able to save many more lives.

Everyone in Sri Lanka knows Karunatilleke who has become a symbol of how the country bounced back after the tragedy which remains etched in the hearts and minds of the citizens.

"They don't consider me a hero -at least I hope they don't-, but many respect me for being the conductor on the tsunami train," he said.