Monday, December 27, 2004

SURVIVING THE TSUNAMI - Part 2 - The First Hour


I hope you all got the last emails about where I am - and the events of the last 36 hours.

Now - I will tell you a bit more of the last 36 hours as I have seen it.

I arrived on the plane yesterday shortly after 9:00 am. I was moaning to myself about having taken such an early flight - but did so because of the new discount airlines here in Asia. And it was the only thing I could get at short notice.

Phuket is an island off of the West coast of Thailand. Like all of the other beaches on the Indian Ocean - it has absolutely beautiful beaches - great sand - and warm water.

Upon arrival - I jumped in a taxi - and we headed south to Patong – the most famous - or infamous - beach of Phuket. It is the largest place where most toursits come. It is a hot spot for Europeans as evidenced by probably 75K to 100K tourists here - mostly from Europe. I am as likely to get schnitzel here as I am Thai curry.

As we drove - I worked on my computer - working on my annual "year in review" document. How odd now, to remember that I was thinking, "What in 2004 will be my most memerable event?" Little did I know it would happen in the last four days of the year.

The trip to Patong Beach is about 30-45 minutes. Since it was early - there was little traffic - and so we made good time.

I had toyed with the idea of taking a hotel room right on Patong Beach. And I wanted to be close to the action - giving me a choice to retreat or be out in it. But I decided I didn't want that much interaction. As I looked online for hotels, one was advertised as the hotel on the hill - close to Patong - but yet a little removed for privacy. It was a new boutique hotel - and so it appeal to me.

At the end of Patong Beach - there is a new road that climbs up the hill. Once you do - you come to a hotel that overlooks the beach area. It seemed like the perfect place to me - at least from the pictures – and rave reviews of the people who had stayed there before.

We pulled in to Patong Beach - and drove along. It seemed quiet – and peaceful - unsual for this place - but then again, it was 10:00 in the morning - the day after Christamas - and also - it was Boxing Day. This British holiday - to me - is a reason to recover from having a big party the night before - on Christmas Day eve. And it seemed that quite a few people had participated. But what is new. It is Phuket. And having fun is what most people come to do.

As we drove along the beach - I looked to my right as we slowly went along. I noticed two things:

1. People were staying up. There were hundreds of beach chairs – not all filled - but where there were people - all were standing up. I craned my neck to see what they were seeing. A whale? Nah - not here in the Indian ocean. Dolphins? Possible - but odd. What were they all looking at?

2. I notice that there was - well - no water. Now that is certainly odd. I thought it odd. And I remembered thinking - "was the tide pool that strong the last time I was there?"

My driver seemed to be puzzled as well - and was saying something in Thai - but I didn't pay much attention. I have developed this ability to sort of selectively choose what I hear these days when it involves another language.

We came to the end of the beach - and the vehicle climbed the steep road up the side of the hill - that wrapped around the bay. Up and up we went- and I remember thinking how high this would be - and that I definately would not be walking up and down this puppy.

The hotel itself is really high up from the beach - but perfectly overlooks the whole bay. It is a perfect vantage point to enjoy dinner - see then night liffe - but not have to be IN it.

I arrived - and went to the check in desk. They told me that they people in the room would not be leaving until noon and that the room would not be available until 1:00. Uggh. What would I do for the three hours. The offered coffee and I decided I would get some reading time in.

As I went to sit in the open air bar - overlooking the bay - I noticed that all of the staff of the hotels were crowding on the edge -also looking over the bay. This caused the guests to wonder as well - and we all came to the edge - looking to see what they were seeing.

I asked one of them, "what are you seeing?

"Water! The Water!" they said.

Hmmm. They also noticed that all of the water had gone away. Or at least - most had receded out of the bay. Boats were suddenly grounded. And people dotted the beach in perplexity.

(Fast forward for a moment. Here is an exerpt from an article I just saw on Yahoo - one I believe I have forwarded to you: "The earthquake's aftereffects came without warning. Witnesses said sea waters at first retreated far out into the ocean, only to return at a vicious pace. Some regions reported a crashing wall of water 20 feet high. "The water went back, back, back, so far away, and everyone wondered what it was — a full moon or what? Then we saw the wave come, and we ran," said Katri Seppanen, who was in Thailand, on Phuket island's popular
Patong beach.'")

That is exactly what we saw.

Suddenly - in front of our eyes - the bay begin to fill. Rapidly. As if someone had turned on giant faucets - and it just seemed to rush in. In about 10-15 minutes this entire HUGE bay filled in.

And then we saw the swell.

It was perplexing - because the day was nice and sunny - and we could not figure out - or actually believe what was happening in front of our lives.

But it did. The swell came - and we saw ir rushing over the wall. And it kept rising - and went higher than the palm trees along the edge. Local people started to cry - for the knew what it meant.

We all stood there, stunned.

People came running up the road - shreiking. "Water - the water" they were crying.

The water receeded slight - and then, again with a vengence. Rushed forward - rose again - and the 18 feet wall rolled over the front of the beach - the shops and everything in its path.

We stood there in disbelief - not understanding WHY - but realizing that one of the most awful things that could happen - just had.

But it wasn't over. It just keep coming and coming. It would receed - and then come again - rushing over the seawall.

We could see that people in the hotels were climbing as quickly as they could. The huddled on the roofs of all the hotels.

And down below - we could see boats and autos and everything smaller being thrased again and again against buildlings. It looked like a bathtup with lots of small toys - surreal - but real enough.

Four hours - it keep this up - battering the sea front. Yes the sun kept shining. A very deceptive paradise.

(more to come. but I am sending this in case power goes out again).


At 8:02 AM, Blogger sasisc1512 said...

wow, a very lucky account on your part to just barely miss the waves, I mean 5 minutes later and you would've been cought dead (if you know what i mean), and if that had happened, who knows if you would've even been able to write this e-mail.

At 11:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Rick - My fiance and I were also in Phuket, at a hotel just back from Kata beach. The waves didn't reach us, but we were evacuated up a hill for the day, where we decided to camp out overnight with some others. Stuck on the island for a few days after that. We were meant to go to Phi Phi the morning of the Tsunami, but changed our ferry ticket the night before to an afternoon trip - to enjoy our hotel's free breakfast - a choice that possibly saved our lives!
All the best... Kingsley Gray

At 11:23 PM, Anonymous Frank Caberno said...

wow rick, thats an amazing version of the tradgedy that happened. your in depth analysis of what goes on in the day is quite intriguing. It is indeed quite ironic you were writing your year in review just earlier that day. Anyways i look forward to reading the rest and i thank you for these great details


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