On the brink

Dec. 26, 2004, was one of the most significant days in the history of natural disasters. The Asian tsunami struck nine countries surrounding the Indian Ocean and reached as far as Africa. The death toll was pushed to more than 180,000 Tuesday, as rescuers are still working to recover bodies two weeks after this devastating incident. My wife Jenna and I were in the small resort town of Krabi, Thailand when the Tsunami hit.

That morning, we were on our way to Railay Bay, a world-famous climbing area where climbers can scale up the rock along the Andaman Sea. We boarded a longtail just after 11 a.m. and were heading toward the high seas when our boatmen spotted a strange white line across the horizon. This white line turned out to be one of the waves that flooded the resort islands of Phuket and Phi Phi. As we continued our path directly toward the killer wave, I made a comment to one of the 11 passengers of our little boat that we could probably surf the wave, if we had some surfboards.

The closer we came to the wave, the more we saw other boats returning with passengers. As we passed one of the last boats, the two drivers began to yell across at each other. Later we found out that in 27 years, neither one of them had ever seen anything like it. The boat driver turned the longtail around and headed back to Krabi Town.

“If a boatman is anxious in southern Thailand, you can rest well assured that we should have even greater reason to be terrified,” my wife Jenna said in an e-mail to our friends and family.

Arriving back in Krabi, Jenna and I had to figure out what to do next. Since we skipped breakfast, we thought we should sit down and eat before we made any decisions. We sat casually when the news reports began pouring in. At first the wave was 6 meters high (about 20 feet). Then we heard that when it hit the islands of Phuket and Phi Phi it was 10 meters high (about 35 feet). The last thing we heard was the owner of the restaurant receiving a call that his home, further east down the coast, was flooded and destroyed. After receiving this news, the owner began closing his restaurant and urged his patrons to head to higher ground.

Upon hearing this, Jenna, the level-headed one, headed uphill. I, with camera in hand, headed back toward water. The eerie thing was that I was not the only one. At the pier there were hundreds of tourists doing what Jenna and I were doing, trying to figure out what to do next.

The news we were getting was obscure at best. None of the tourists knew the scope of devastation that unfolded as days passed. Although we did not see any great damage, initial reports were eventually confirmed.

As tourists sat and waited to see what would happen next, locals began moving away from the water. People were gathering on any available hill so they could watch in safety. Still thinking that there was nothing to be concerned about, I continued east along the shore to see if I could get any good pictures. I witnessed, first hand, attempts to rescue villagers of a small Muslim village across the river from Krabi. After this I began to appreciate the severity of the situation and headed back to where Jenna was anxiously waiting for my return.

Jenna was at a travel office filled with tourists trying to get out of the area. We listened to the story of a German woman that had just come from Ao Nang beach, a little farther out than Railay. She said the waves came into her hut on the beach and as the waves went back out, they left muddy sand up to her waist. The woman, whose name I didn’t get, was crying and still shaking from the experience she had just gone through.

The more stories we listened to, the more scared we became. A restaurant just down the street from the travel office had a television and we watched in horror as the news of an earthquake and the following tsunami took up the headlines. Our major concern at the time was the threat of aftershocks. This news solidified our decision to get out of the area as soon as possible and we hopped a bus that carried us out of town.

The farther away we got from the disaster, the more Jenna and I began to comprehend from what we had actually gotten away. We heard personal stories of people losing their homes, ferryboats bringing victims to safety and then returning to threatened areas to pick up more. We met some arriving from hard-hit areas and could see the terror in their faces as they relayed their experiences.

This disaster has truly been a life- changing experience for all involved. As the numbers of confirmed dead continue to rise, my wife Jenna and I ask that you help support those who have been hit the hardest and have lost loved ones.

Tsunami Aid

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