24 Dec Surviving the 2004 Tsunami
10 years ago i was on a boat with my family right in the middle of the andaman sea when the earth violently cracked open off the west coast of sumatra, indonesia and calm waters became a vile beast. at 9.3 on the richter scale, the whole world shifted under its power, terrifying waves of up to 30 meters in height were recorded, and almost a quarter of a million people across 14 counties perished leaving families scarred for life. it was a nightmare and a horror we’ll never forget. how can we? it was one of the biggest disasters in our lifetime.
when i came back to NYC, my home at the time, i put my experience into words and sent them to family and some friends. i just came across what i wrote again and it’s all suddenly come back to me. the whole incredible, surreal ordeal. my heart still skips a beat when i’m reminded of the reality that i was there.
i was right there.
while i’m not exactly sure why i feel compelled to share the story here 10 years later, perhaps it’s got something to do with the fact that i’m grateful.
i’m grateful i’m here. grateful i have what i have. for my life, my friends. the incredible partners i work with. i’m grateful for my creativity and that i’m able to do what i do. i’m grateful for my (good) clients. for the places i love. for my city. my country. i’m grateful for my wife and child, my family and for food and laughter, a warm home and love, and i’m so very grateful to have so many of the things that i know others do not have.
2014 is almost behind us and it wasn’t an easy year for a lot of people. but 2015 is around the corner. i hope you’re in a good place wherever you are and that you have present and future peace and tranquility. i hope you’re able to keep close the things you cherish and love and that you’re able to lose the things that keep you down, whether it’s stuff around you on the outside, or the demons inside your head.
a safe and healthy present and future.
this is what i wish for you.
happy new year.
here’s my story.
” After staying with my dear friend Varin and his wonderful family in Bangkok, I flew south to Phuket on the morning of December 25th. It’s the largest island in Thailand, connected by bridge to the mainland and part of an archipelago of around 500 islands and reefs. My family and I were going to relax and spend a week sailing on a catamaran on the blue Andaman Sea. Arriving in Phuket, I cabbed it to the marina and met up with my Uncle Eli and Aunt Fiona from Israel, their three sons (who were all living in Shanghai), and my cousin and sister. There, our 48-foot catamaran Raew Raew awaited us, courtesy of our incredibly generous and loving uncle and aunt. After spending 20 minutes plotting a rough itinerary, our Thai captain, Guy, and his first mate, Pierre, helped us aboard. We donned suntan lotion and set sail under a hot sun and clear, clear sky.
Our first day was spent catching up, gazing at the water, and exploring little island caves and tiny beaches – you know, just getting used to paradise and relishing the happiness of being together. In the evening we experienced Pierre’s remarkable culinary skills. With a kitchen the size of a small closet, he prepared a feast for eight. (This extraordinary feat would repeat itself for the duration of our trip). Bedtime came for me soon after the sun went down, thanks to bad jetlag. My days would begin well before the moon dissolved into the sea – something I looked forward to witnessing every dawn, alone on the front deck, with the gentle sound of waves lapping at the hull.
December 26th was our first full day at sea. It started out typically enough, if you could call any day in paradise “typical.” A sea dotted with small islands greeted us in the morning. After a yummy breakfast, Guy set sail past Ko Raya Ring and on to Ko Hong, where, Guy assured us, there would be exceptional snorkeling in its southern bay. Just before we reached the bay, Guy told us he’d received a call on his cell and had heard that a large hotel in Phuket had collapsed. We understood from his broken English that over 100 hundred people had died.
Personally, my first thought was terrorism. We asked him if he needed to return – maybe he knew people and was worried. But he wasn’t and was happy to continue. We approached Ko Hong from the north, made our way around the island’s eastern side, and came up into the southern bay. I happened to be with Guy as we turned into it. From his expression, I could see something was very wrong. The water was filthy, filled with what appeared to be trash. But upon closer inspection, we saw it was debris, and as we completed our entry into the bay, we saw why: two medium-sized boats were fully submerged in the water. A few small dinghies and longboats were lifted out of the water and entangled in low bushes on the shore. Small boats were racing everywhere. There was a lot of commotion.
Our initial assumption was that there had been an accident, but Guy started signaling to us with his hands: big wave. And indeed, people in their boats called out to us that a 4-meter wave had done this an hour or so earlier. They yelled something about an earthquake, too, and more waves supposedly on the way. But they weren’t sure.
No one panicked, but we were certainly concerned. No one seemed to know exactly what was going on. We were watching the aftermath of a wave that had just hit a remote island. Were there really more on the way? Had there really been an earthquake? If so, where was its epicenter? We knew people must have been hurt where we were, but we couldn’t see anyone who looked injured, and the situation seemed under control.
I called Varin in Bangkok – since he’s a news anchor for a Thai TV station, I knew he’d have whatever facts were available. His immediate reaction was immense relief that we were alive and well. “Why?” I asked. “What the hell is going on?” He told me a tsunami had just devastated the coast of Phuket, killing thousands, and that Ko Phi Phi, which was part of our recent itinerary and where he and I had travelled together two years ago, was gone.
“What do you mean, gone?” I asked.
He replied, “Gone. All the bungalows on the main beach were swept into the sea, including where we stayed. More than 500 people are dead there, and hundreds more are missing.” I told him where we were and he said we had to get out of there, that other waves were on the way due to aftershocks. “Go where?” Where do you go when you’re out at sea and giant waves are coming in? He said to go to Phuket, but we were hearing that Phuket was in chaos, in ruins apparently, with a destroyed bridge, a closed airport and in a state of emergency. “Then go out to sea,” he told me. “They’re saying it’s safer the deeper you go.” “Who?” I asked. “Who’s saying that? Is it true? Are you sure?”
Go out to sea?!
In hindsight, the advice was good and made perfect sense, as the deeper you are, the less chance there is of a wave forming. But when you’re on a catamaran, clueless about tsunamis, and told to go deeper out to sea, you’re not exactly enthusiastic about it. I thanked Varin and filled the others in. We all called the people we loved at home to tell them we were safe. Then we all gathered together with Guy to figure out next steps. We went to a deeper spot away from the bay. And we just waited. We got all the life jackets out and discussed worst-case scenarios. If a wave came, where would be the safest place to stand to avoid a swinging beam or flying anchor? Bags were filled with bottles of drinking water in case the boat capsized. A cell phone was sealed in a plastic sandwich bag. Passports and money, too. Surreal stuff. But that’s what we did.
Varin had given me the number of the Thai Navy. After trying to get through for ages, someone finally picked up. The only person who spoke English seemed to be the general commander of the Andaman Sea. I informed him of our location and he told us to either stay in that area or go to Phuket. We offered our assistance, since we had our boat and a willing crew of ten. Could we help, could we do anything? Absolutely not, we were told. It was the question we would ask each time we got in touch with the navy over the following days, and it was the answer we would always receive. Suffice it to say, it sucked knowing what was happening and not being able to help.
We spent the night sheltered by islands to the north and south of us, close enough so that we felt protected by them. And we started trying to figure out what had happened. How had it missed us? We think (and we’re still not sure) that since the wave came from the south in our area, we must have been passing an island on the north coast when the wave came – the island must have shielded us. Had we been on its south side, we definitely would have been in the wave’s path. It’s either that, or we were in deep water, with the strong current passing directly under us before building to become a wave near the shore. We’ll never know. Had we been snorkeling in the bay an hour earlier, things could have been ugly for us. We found out days later that many snorkelers had died in our immediate area. It was simply a case of being in the right place at the right time while being in the wrong part of the world overall. Blind, blessed luck…for us, at least.
With the drama of that day behind us, we continued on. The rest of the trip was beautiful and sad. Wonderful and awful. Peaceful and tense. In paradise, but knowing hell had unfolded around us. It’s hard to describe simply because it was all too surreal. Of course, our whole itinerary changed. We were meant to go to Krabi on days three and four and to Ko Phi Phi on days five and six. (Originally, we had discussed being in Ko Phi Phi on the second day – the day of the tsunami – but luckily the idea never went anywhere.) But in Krabi, thousands were dead, and the Ko Phi Phi beach was wiped out, as were all the resorts located there.
So we went north on December 27th to Ko Pang Yi. There was a well-known Muslim fishing village there, and we figured we would see people, as it was a major tourist destination and it hadn’t been hit. Maybe we could figure out what to do and where to go. Speak to someone. Find something out. But when we got there, we were shocked. There were two small boats in the harbor, and the village was empty. It was, quite literally, a ghost town. All the villagers had fled into the mountains, and a place that should have been teeming with thousands was unnervingly quiet. Dead quiet. Spooky quiet.
For the next few days we would see, on average, two boats at sea a day. (On the first day we saw at least twenty.) Most seafarers had gone back to port out of understandable fear. We had talked about it, though, and decided to stay, simply because it sounded like Phuket was a scary place to be. We had heard rumors of rioting and looting, disease, and potential aftershocks. The sea seemed like the better of two bad choices. We informed the navy and Varin of our location each day, and we tried to make the best of a bad situation. We were in the midst of tragedy, but truthfully, it felt like a different world to us, isolated as we were on our small craft.
On the 28th, we found a small beach on a cluster of islands called Ko Phak Bia and, for the first time, met survivors who relayed stories that brought goosebumps. Many divers had perished near the beach where we stood. (Indeed, the beach’s entire shape had been reconfigured by the tsunami.) They also told us that a small resort on the island of Ko Yao Noi hadn’t been hit, and that’s where they were staying. We made our way there – we’d been on the boat for four days by this time, and we needed to get off for a few hours. When we got to the resort, we found fewer than thirty people, though there should have been hundreds. Some of them had been on another resort on the island that hadn’t been so lucky. It was badly hit, but at least nobody died. They had seen the wave coming, and, in their words, had run for their lives. Truly, it felt good to be there among other people. We had a meal, checked email, read the news, saw pictures of the disaster, and for the first time, it all started to sink in. We slept on a very choppy sea that night, and in the morning went back to the resort for breakfast.
The day was spent near Koh Nacha Yai. As sunset approached, we discovered a very flat beach, so we all disembarked. Out came a football, and the next hour was spent chasing it. It was a very spirited game, made much more amusing by Guy and Pierre’s giddy laughter as they chased the ball. (Pierre abruptly stopped laughing when the ball hit him in the crown jewels, which caused the rest of us to pick up where he left off.) It was the first time we all had a chance to release some pent-up energy and let go of the tension we had been living with. And it felt good (even though I was on the losing side). We found a northern bay, and Pierre, as usual, cooked a beautiful meal. Once it grew dark, our family played cards, my uncle won all our money, and we went to sleep.
On our last day, we sailed to Ko Khai Nook, the farthest south we had been up to that point. We deliberated for a few minutes because we were headed to an area that was kind of facing the wide-open sea. Needless to say, we still had concerns. But this was our final day, so we decided to just go with it. And we weren’t sorry we did. The beach on the island was picture perfect and virtually deserted. (Normally, there would be hundreds visiting.) We lay in the sun, headed a football back and forth, and fed banana bits by hand to brave fish. Some of us took the dinghy to a nearby island to snorkel.
When we returned to the boat later in the afternoon, we got a call from the marina: there had been an aftershock and another tsunami was headed towards us. Instantly, we decided to turn the boat around and head north to the marina as quickly as we could. We signaled to other people on the beach and passed along the news. As we got underway, I called Varin and told him what we had heard, but he told me that all was calm. The navy said the same thing, but we were taking no chances. The trip had officially ended, abruptly and clearly.
By the time we reached the marina a couple of hours later (having looked over our shoulders the entire way), we’d heard that a government official in Sri Lanka or India had panicked when the aftershock hit and had sent out a warning about another giant tsunami. The false rumor had made it all the way to us.
We had one final feast on the catamaran, a barbeque prepared by Pierre and another mate from the dock. A good night’s sleep followed, and in the morning we disembarked. We were sad to leave, and we didn’t know what awaited us at the airport, but it was time. When we got there, we saw the ongoing aftermath of the disaster: countless posters of missing people…body bags…helicopters, medical tents, and specialists tending to the injured and deceased…a Norwegian rescue team that was heading back to Bangkok because 500 missing couldn’t be accounted for…CNN coverage in the terminal broadcasting truly horrific images that we were seeing for the first time. We flew back to Bangkok, where we remained for a few days, enjoying each other’s company to the utmost before we all went our separate ways.
We now know that over 210,000 people and counting lost their lives in the tsunami. It’s still just sinking in that my family and I were right there when it happened, and that we managed to emerge from it unscathed. To say we were lucky is the understatement of the year. I guess when something fatal almost happens to you – but it’s almost – it takes a while to process it. I’m just thankful we all made it back and were able to be together through the experience. And that we can contribute one small story with a happy ending out of so many stories that ended so tragically. ”