Somasiri Skandakumar in Sunday Island, 7 February 2021
As the clock moved towards 10.50 am on January 31, 2021, my mind went back 25 years to that fateful day. It was a Wednesday, and having finished our weekly meeting of the Parent Board of Directors in the Board Room on the eighth floor of Steuart House around 10.30 am, we sat around to exchange views on matters of a non-official nature as was customary, before returning to our rooms.
Enjoying the view of the sea beyond the Central Bank that faced us from the opposite side of Janadipathi Mawatha, was a favourite pastime of ours on such occasions. Janadipathi Mawatha on that last day of January was as busy as always as people flocked into the banks, business offices and hotels that stood imposingly along it. Yes, the human traffic on this busy street was as heavy as the vehicular.
Nearer to 10.45 a.m., we heard what sounded like gun shots and sensed trouble. Moving to the large french windows that were the hallmark of “Steuart House,” we observed a lorry like the ones that used to bring down tea from the plantations to Colombo, attempting to scale the pavement bordering the Central Bank.
The intention to enter the lobby of the Bank seemed obvious. An alert and courageous security guard shut off the access only to pay for his noble deed with his life as the occupants in the vehicle shot him dead.
“Gosh that looks like a suicide bomber,” exclaimed Chairman Scott Dirckze and then the bomb exploded! We were all thrown to the floor as the glass of the board room windows shattered and scattered. The intensity of the after effect of the explosion was so severe that the sturdy teak board room door on the eighth floor was wrenched from its hinges and ended up many yards beyond.
The grandfather clock that stood majestically on the Chairman‘s floor escaped damage and chimed 11 o’clock as Scott and I staggered out of the room, dripping blood, followed by our colleagues who were more fortunate. The Chairman‘s PA, Saumya, was on hand and provided assistance. As we limped down the eight flights of stairs, the ensuing mayhem was apparent. Our uninjured employees rallied round bravely and heroically while those of our tenants, American Express and Indian Overseas Banks, together with Reuters struggled to do the same.
The Chairman and I declined offers of assistance although we were bleeding from injuries sustained. Encouraging those who were unaffected to continue their excellent work, we took to the street past the Hilton by foot, when an ex-planter of George Steuarts recognized us and drove us to the accident ward at the General Hospital. By this time, we both realized that our injuries were not life-threatening and, as ambulances screamed in ferrying the injured, we decided to walk across to the Hayleys Office to seek assistance.
Understandably the security personnel at their gate nearly freaked out on seeing us both in that state until we asked them to let Chairman Sunil Mendis know that there were two Directors of George Steuarts to see him. Sunil was down in less than a minute with his colleagues and swiftly arranged for us to be transported to Asiri Hospital at Kirula Road. There an X ray revealed that I had a fractured nose. A gash at the back of my head which was still bleeding slightly did not require sutures. Scott ‘s face was cut in many places but mercifully his eyes were unaffected.
By this time the tragic news of fatalities and brutal injuries came filtering through and we both struggled to control our emotions. I turned down a well-meaning surgeon’s offer to “fix” my fractured nose by assuring him that I wished to retain it as a grim reminder of my relative good fortune.
Our delay in getting back to our respective office rooms after the Board meeting also turned out to be fortunate for me, as the very heavy ceiling in mine had crashed on to my desk and chair! A tiny statue in Jade of Lord Ganesh that faced me on my desk had miraculously remained intact, and when Saumya handed it to me at the hospital I felt assured that there was a way ahead.
Our employees stood firmly and loyally by the Group in the ensuing months and together with professional guidance from Architect Ranjit Samarasinghe and Engineer Sugi Rajaratnam, we restored Steuart House and moved back into occupancy in May that year knowing that life down the most prestigious street in Colombo was not going to be the same again for a very long time.
The Group‘s Directors and our employees swiftly refocused on their official responsibilities from makeshift offices at the Galadari and Trans Asia hotels, while a few including me took a modest office down Hospital Street to keep an eye on the rehabilitation of the building. The Travel subsidiary‘s initiative in arranging a charter flight for that famous World Cup final in Lahore on March 17, 1996, barely a month and a half after the devastation was a tribute to that commitment. Through all this we continued to assist our injured some of whom had suffered damage to their eyes and head. Our ensuing Parent Board meetings until we moved back into Steuart House in May that year were held at the Chairman‘s residence in Nawala. In the new millennium the Group reaped the rewards of that loyalty and commitment of our employees.
In a coffee table book compiled by the succeeding Board following my retirement in 2008, to commemorate the Company’s 175th anniversary in 2010, the initial eight years of the new millennium were referred to as perhaps the most successful in the Company’s prestigious history.
I stood in silence on January 31, 2021, at the same time that explosion occurred 25 years ago, as I have done every year since that destructive day, to pray for the repose of the many innocent lives that were lost, remembering the pain, heartache and suffering of their families, and those who were injured.
I remain grateful for my second lease of life, even if it offered little consolation for the devastation caused to life and limb of innocent civilians, and to prime property, and have been conscious of the debt I owe providence: one I know I can never adequately repay.
A MEMO from Michael Roberts, 8 February 2021
As Trevor Roosmale-Cocq , who had been a lifelong friend form our Galle days, was one of the George Steuart Directors, I have some familiarit with the offices that feature at the start of this tale. Scott and Skanda were also among my acquaintance … nay, friends.
Not many will know tht Sknadakuamr was an off-spinner allrounder on the fringe of Selection for the tour of England in 1975 when illness scuttled his chances. He took to the airwaves subsequently and I was among those who appreciated the manner in which he shredded the efforts of the Australian Captain Kim Hughes to blame the pitch/umpiring for their defeat in a match at the Oval [where Lalith Kaluperuma was the chief destroyer].
I got to know Skanda more directly when he was fulfilling roles in the BCCSL in the 1990s. …. and yet better when he served with distinction as our High Commissioner in Canberra recently. He has also kept his charity work via Oru Panai(?) under wraps …. and I am searching for illustrations at the moment, but have been hampered by computer problems and my ham-handed capacities in this realm.