SURVIVOR: Gene Kim and Faye Wachs - Divers in Koh Phi PhiNATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO AMERICAN MORNING interviews survivors Gene Kim and his wife Faye Wachs. They were scuba diving off the shores of Koh Phi Phi Islands in Thailand. Suddenly, while diving, they dropped 40 meters. The interview describes what happened. (Originally aired on Aired December 30, 2004 - 08:00 ET. THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.)
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RICK SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Utter devastation. Ahead, the first look at the hardest hit areas shows the tsunami almost left nothing behind. The coastline itself washed away. Bogged down -- the money and trained relief workers are available. Ahead, the U.N. point man on what's holding them up. And trapped beneath the tsunami. Ahead, a tale of divers pulled deeper and deeper into the water, now safe and back home on this AMERICAN MORNING.
ANNOUNCER: From the CNN broadcast center in New York, this is AMERICAN MORNING with Soledad O'Brien and Bill Hemmer.
SANCHEZ: And we welcome you back.
Bill and Soledad are off today.
I'm Rick Sanchez.
HEIDI COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Heidi Collins.
It is day five of the tsunami disaster and the extent of the death and destruction continues to grow. One official says there are so many bodies, they've stopped counting. And the spread of disease may become an even greater danger for survivors.
Here is what we now know. The total death toll stands at more than 80,000. The U.N. says one in four people are dead in parts of the Indonesian city of Aceh. U.N. rescue workers arrived in Aceh Province on Wednesday to begin their efforts.
The U.S. State Department says it is receiving 400 calls an hour from people looking for loved ones.
And Indian authorities have issued a tsunami warning for coastal areas. But scientists say there is no new major seismologic activity.
SANCHEZ: As the extent of the destruction grows, more pictures are coming in from this devastation set forth by this tsunami. These pictures that we've been showing from Malaysia show a family at the beach as they and their car are suddenly caught in the waves. Take a look. The children quickly are rushed to shore and held onto a fence for safety.
The United Nations is saying 65 people are dead in Malaysia from this disaster. Malaysia is among 11 countries that have been hit by the tsunami. And we're now getting an idea of how the tsunamis have changed the landscape of some of these affected areas, especially the ones very close to where the actual earthquake was. For example, Indonesia's west coast. Huge fields of mud have replaced entire villages. Washed out roads are all that remain in towns that have virtually disappeared.
The man who got some of this video is Mike Griffiths.
He's a conversationist who saw this devastation for himself in Indonesia.
And he's joining us now from Banda Aceh to bring us up to date.
Mike, thanks so much for joining us.
MIKE GRIFFITHS, LEUSER INTERNATIONAL FOUNDATION: Thank you, Rick.
SANCHEZ: What was your reaction when you first started looking, either with your own eye or through the lens of the camera, at these pictures?
GRIFFITHS: Well, I was stunned, actually. I never suspected that the devastation should be so complete. And I didn't believe that a tsunami itself could go so far inland. Some of the damage was complete right into about one and a half, two kilometers inland from the coast.
SANCHEZ: We're looking at this now, but it's hard for us to understand what we're looking at, because we don't know what was there before. So what we're looking at now are pictures of what looks to be remote little islands and peninsulas surrounded by water.
But what was there before what we're looking at now?
GRIFFITHS: What you had before was land and rice fields and coconut groves extending right to the coast. And it was really an emerald green kind of environment, very beautiful. And the infrastructure, of course, was complete. You had clearly defined roads and bridges and so on.
Now what you're left with are the pictures that you described to me, which I took two days ago.
SANCHEZ: Who lived there and what happened to them?
GRIFFITHS: Well, most of the people that lived near the coast, and that's, of course, the majority of people in this part of Aceh, as Indonesia, most people are either fishermen or rice planters. And these people were just completely, they have completely vanished. Literally, there are about four or five towns on the west coast with populations of at least 10,000 people, they have been eradicated. They have been literally wasted and they no longer exist, the villages and the people that lived there. SANCHEZ: By the way, we should mention to our viewers, that's the morning prayers that we're hearing in the background. That's being picked up by your microphone.
We were talking to Mike Chinoy earlier and he was saying it could be a 60 to 70 mile swathe of land along that coastline.
Is it that large?
GRIFFITHS: Oh, easily that large, yes. In fact, I'm working in kilometers. About 200 kilometers of coastline have been literally devastated. There's no buildings of any value left. And some of it wasn't just ordinary villages with nice, you know, stilts and thatched roofs. These were solid concrete structures which have been totally leveled. And all that you've got left are the...
SANCHEZ: I don't imagine...
GRIFFITHS: ... the foundations, and sometimes not even the foundations.
SANCHEZ: I don't imagine you've ever seen anything like this before, have you? Or even near it?
GRIFFITHS: No, nothing. No. I mean -- no. No, I've seen plane crashes, I've seen all sorts of problems and big floods. We had a flood a couple of years ago in Sumatra, which killed 300 people, but the scale of this is something which I don't think has ever been surpassed.
SANCHEZ: Conversationist -- conservationist Mike Griffiths joining us to bring us up to date on that.
Mike, we certainly thank you for taking time -- Heidi.
COLLINS: CNN has just learned the death toll in the tsunami disaster now stands at at least 115,000, nearly 80,000 of those just in Indonesia.
One California couple was scuba diving off Phuket, Thailand as the tsunami passed right over them.
Miguel Marquez spoke to them about their harrowing tale of survival at sea.
(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)
MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): How to survive a tsunami -- for one lucky couple it was scuba diving directly in its path.
FAYE LINDA WACHS, TSUNAMI SURVIVOR: We were sucked down to 40 meters very quickly, which is deeper than you want to be diving with an open water certification.
MARQUEZ: Faye Linda Wachs and her husband Gene Kim were exploring a shipwreck about seven miles off Thailand's Phi Phi Islands when the tsunami swept past them.
GENE KIM, TSUNAMI SURVIVOR: I consider myself a novice to intermediate diver. This is the first time I had to do an emergency ascent...
KIM: ... under unusual and harsh circumstances. So it was terrifying.
MARQUEZ: They attempted to surface by inflating their life vests, but the massive current of water racing toward Thailand's shore pulled them into deeper water.
KIM: I was getting tossed around. I bumped up a couple times against the wreck itself and swam up as hard as I could, looked at my gauge and I was still dropping.
MARQUEZ: They had just survived a tsunami. Only hours later, when they headed for their hotel, did they realize it.
WACHS: The island is essentially gone. We left paradise. It was a beautiful island. And we came back to just hell.
MARQUEZ: They helped rescue and care for the injured. With all their belongings swept out to sea, they returned home wearing only swimsuits, still counting themselves as lucky.
Miguel Marquez, CNN, Los Angeles.
COLLINS: And to tell us more about their dramatic survival story, Faye and Gene are joining us now from our studios in Los Angeles.
And, first of all, guys, I'd just like to say welcome back to the U.S.
KIM: Thank you.
COLLINS: Faye, why don't you begin.
How are you guys doing?
WACHS: Well, we're very happy to be home, but we're also very, very tired.
COLLINS: I can imagine this ordeal, and I have heard your story and still just absolutely cannot believe it.
Gene, you were scuba diving off the shores of Koh Phi Phi Islands in Thailand. Suddenly you dropped 40 meters.
What sort of alarm bells went off in your head? KIM: The first was when the current was so strong that I got separated from my wife and the dive master. Things got totally whited out, meaning I couldn't -- I had no visibility, zero visibility. And I could feel myself kind of being tossed around. I looked down at my gauge as I was making my ascent and noticed that I was still dropping. So it was very, very scary.
We -- when we reunited back on the boat, we kind of talked about just how crazy things were down in the water and we ended up doing another dive and it wasn't until later in the afternoon when we returned to the harbor that we realized the tsunami had passed through the ocean where we were diving.
COLLINS: Faye, what was that like? I mean, you know, when you hear this, it's just unbelievable that you were actually out in the water and had no idea what had happened.
WACHS: Well, as we came into shore and we began to see the wreckage and we received a text message from one of the other divers' wives, who had just happened to climb to the topmost point of the island at that moment, saying catastrophe, it was a very surreal experience to be coming in and just seeing television sets, dressers, chairs floating by, just wreckage, entire platters of food that looked like they had just been set out in the restaurant and then eventually bodies floating by in the water.
It was unbelievable to go and see the island that we had just left that had been, I mean, truly, we had been going out on the boat saying this is such a beautiful place, what a beautiful day, and coming back and seeing it just completely destroyed and realizing just how truly lucky we had been.
COLLINS: Yes, and your hotel completely destroyed, I understand, as well.
WACHS: Yes, our room was flattened.
Do you think, is it fair to say that by staying underwater where you were, that may have saved your life, Gene?
KIM: It's really, you know, I've thought about that a lot. It's tough to speculate on that, I think, with any certainty. All I'll say is that we were extremely lucky and it was just an incredibly eerie feeling knowing that something that terrible had passed over us and we were completely unscathed.
COLLINS: You haven't done a whole lot of diving, really, either. I mean I think I heard you say earlier that you're kind of a novice diver.
KIM: Yes. We started diving in 2000 and every year we like to go on, you know, at least one or two dives. And so going down to Thailand was real special for us, because it was an opportunity for us to kind of catch up on a lot of diving that we'd been missing. COLLINS: Will the both of you dive again?
WACHS: Oh, absolutely.
KIM: We'd like to go back to Thailand and revisit the island.
WACHS: We'd like to see the island rebuilt.
And quickly tell me before we let you go, how did you contact your family? I mean how were you able to let everybody know that you were OK?
WACHS: Well, people on the island were great. Anyone who had a cell phone tried to help us call out. But unfortunately none of the signals were going through at that point. And it was probably almost 30, 36 hours before we were able to get to a phone. But once we -- because we were helping people, we were on the island a while. But when we got to land, the Thai government had set up an emigration point and they were providing free long distance phone calls to everyone. So we were able to then, at that point, call my parents -- we were able to get through to my parents and my best friend at that point. And she said that she was just going to call Gene's parents and all of our friends and let them know we were all right.
COLLINS: I can't imagine the relief that they must have felt when they heard the news.
COLLINS: To the two of you, we're so thankful that you're all right and appreciate you sharing your story with us.
KIM: Thank you, Heidi.
COLLINS: Faye Wachs and Gene Kim.
Thanks again, guys.
SANCHEZ: The story of people really brings this thing to bear, doesn't it? The stories like those.
COSTELLO: And talk about the kindness of the people of Thailand, you know, providing long distance phone calls for free.
COLLINS: Right. Yes, after everything they'd been through.
COSTELLO: You just hear story after story about how wonderful people are in that area of the world.
COLLINS: You sure do.
COSTELLO: That's an amazing story.
I have other news to tell, though. COLLINS: OK.
COSTELLO: All right.
Now in the news -- good morning, everyone.
The Coast Guard is announcing plans to use dozens of buoys off U.S. coastlines to extend its security system. The Weather Service is agreeing to let the Coast Guard add transmitters to dozens of buoys sending signals from all large ships heading in and out of major U.S. ports. The program could be tested as early as next year, probably off of Florida's Gulf Coast.
State and local officials apparently know much more about al Qaeda surveillance activities here in the United States. The FBI and Department of Homeland Security have released a new bulletin on what information the terror organization has been gathering and how. But federal officials say there is no evidence an attack is imminent.
The U.S. Army is waging a new battle, this one on the love front. The military is spending almost $2 million to save war torn marriages. The money being spent on a variety of programs, including counseling and vouchers for romantic getaways. Studies show divorce rates are higher than 20 percent among couples where one spouse has been sent off to war.
To the forecast center now and Chad -- and it's understandable, because they're away from each other for such a long period of time.
CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Sure. Of course. You grow apart anyway.
Good morning, Carol.
SANCHEZ: It's been a week of agony for people all over the globe as we bring you their stories. The search for people caught in the catastrophe seems endless. For a man in Iowa, though, that means tracking down at least 50 relatives, 50. His story is ahead.
COLLINS: Also, health officials say disposing of the dead should not be a priority. So why isn't the word getting out? We'll talk about that next on AMERICAN MORNING.
SANCHEZ: Welcome back to AMERICAN MORNING.
I'm Rick Sanchez.
This just in to CNN.
The new death toll from the tsunami, more than 115,000 people, with nearly 80,000 in Indonesia alone now, the newest numbers coming in just moments ago. And a new terror is gripping those who are trying to survive the after effects of this tsunami. Medical personnel are bracing against the massive outbreak of deadly disease certain to follow in the coming weeks.
Joining us from the CNN Center to try and shed some light on the medical response is Dr. Phyllis Kozarsky.
She is of Emory University's division of infectious diseases.
Doctor, thanks for joining us.
DR. PHYLLIS KOZARSKY, EMORY UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF MEDICINE: Thank you.
SANCHEZ: Let's talk about that first, the possible diseases and what people can get sick from.
First on the list would be food and water, right?
KOZARSKY: Absolutely. I think one of the major concerns is that there is poor sanitation in areas where there was probably poor infrastructure to begin with. And then with damage to sewers and pipelines, there is unclean water and inavailability, unavailability of clean food.
So that will lead to a variety of illnesses.
SANCHEZ: This one I have experience with firsthand. When I was covering the contra war many years ago, I contracted malaria because of the Anopheles mosquito, the female version, of course. And I imagine this could happen there, as well, because of all the running water, right? More mosquitoes means more mosquito bites, possibly malaria.
KOZARSKY: Absolutely. We have areas that are endemic as it is for illnesses such as malaria and dengue fever, which are transmitted by mosquitoes. And their chances, because of the stagnant water, which are breeding grounds for mosquitoes, that they, the area will widen where there is malaria and it will become much more intense.
SANCHEZ: There's also diseases associated with other animals other than mosquitoes.
From rodents, for example, right?
KOZARSKY: Absolutely. Illnesses such as plague can break out. Illnesses related to domestic animals such as rabies, as well, is a concern.
SANCHEZ: And there's -- one of the things that I think sometimes people overlook is just simple injuries, the scratches and abrasions that people have from being tossed about in the water, simple now, but can become aggravated.
KOZARSKY: Absolutely. Simple injuries can lead to dreadful infections with bacteria such as staph and wounds can lead to tetanus, particularly in areas where the underlying population may not be immunized against illnesses such as tetanus.
SANCHEZ: So all these things, as we talk about them, sound, you know, alarming, serious.
What do we need to do to make sure we avert at least the majority of them? People will always get sick, but what can we do immediately?
KOZARSKY: I'm not sure that we can avert the majority of these illnesses that may unfold over the next few weeks. I think the key element is the provision of shelter and clean food and water.
SANCHEZ: One other thing that we need to ask you about, because it certainly has been getting an awful lot of ink in recent days, and that is the removal of the bodies, of all these cadavers, as we've seen, unfortunately, as a result of this.
SANCHEZ: It seems to be a priority.
Should it be? And why?
KOZARSKY: I'm not sure that it shouldn't be a priority. Certainly bodies can release bacteria and toxins. However, I think the message needs to be that the provision of safe food and water and shelter for those survivors is absolutely key. And then the management of the dead.
SANCHEZ: In other words, it's important but not as important as making sure that those who survived have the essentials they need?
SANCHEZ: We thank you so much, Doctor Phyllis Kozarsky of Emory University, for sharing your insight and knowledge with us.
KOZARSKY: Thank you.
SANCHEZ: Well, those who have survived the devastation in Southeast Asia now relate stories both tragic and inspiring. One family had prepared for the worst, but now they're telling the story of relief that they felt on hearing of a loved one who is among the survivors.
CNN talked with Pat and Bert Van Strander, whose son Nick was able to make it out alive.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PAT VAN STRANDER: We start calling and trying to find out where we like register his name. I actually was looking to register his name in case his body was recovered. That was honestly my first thought. And I just wanted to recover his body and bring him home, because we had started to hear that the islands were losing, first it was 300 people. It jumped to 3,000. Now it's 5,000 to 7,000. It was just -- how do you hope your son will survive something like that? (END VIDEO CLIP)
SANCHEZ: Nick Van Strander also managed to escape the World Trade Center back on 9/11 -- Heidi.
COLLINS: The tsunami disaster happened half a world away, but could the same thing happen here? One expert sounds the alarm about a potential disaster. So why isn't anyone listening?
Ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.
COLLINS: Could it happen here? An unavoidable question for anyone who's seen the shocking images of death and devastation coming out of Southeast Asia.
As CNN's Alina Cho found out, it's a concern that may have special meaning for people in New York City.
(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)
ALINA CHO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): 125th Street, heart of Harlem, home to the Apollo Theater, office of former President Clinton and a fault line, seismologists say, is one to watch.
(on camera): To the people who say, listen, this is not going to happen here, you say what?
LEONARDO SEEBER, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY SEISMOLOGIST: I say this is wrong. It is sooner or later going to happen.
CHO: You believe that?
SEEBER: The issue is how probable is it and how big it's going to be.
CHO (voice-over): Leonardo Seeber, senior seismologist at Columbia University, says as recently as a month ago, there were small tremors near the 125th Street fault. Seeber says these events warrant more study.
SEEBER: Is Manhattan receiving, or Manhattan and New York City receiving appropriate or a balanced attention, scientific attention, relative to other places around the world such as California?
CHO (on camera): And what's the answer to that question?
SEEBER: And the answer to that is no, because as I said before, there is risk, there's considerable risk in Manhattan.
CHRIS SNEE, ENGINEERING GEOLOGIST: Very low risk.
CHO (voice-over): Geologist Chris Snee likens the 125th Street fault to scar tissue, a relative ancient seismic activity that is now dormant. SNEE: You need several ingredients for a major earthquake. It's not enough to say that there is a fault.
CHO: Yet residents in this Harlem neighborhood who are closely watching the devastation in Asia wonder if something similar could happen here.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're surrounded around water and anything could happen.
CHO: Movie makers have fantasized about such an event and there are theories. Some argue if the volcano in the Canary Islands near Africa suddenly erupted and collapsed into the Atlantic, it could trigger a tsunami that could reach the East Coast. Seismologists like Seeber say the risk is minimal but, like the potential for earthquakes in the area, should not be ignored.
Alina Cho, CNN, New York.
(END VIDEO TAPE)
COLLINS: New York's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, is siding with those who say the risk of an earthquake or tsunami hitting the Big Apple is minimal. The mayor's missing to New Yorkers -- "We are relatively safe."
SANCHEZ: This is the opportunity for you to involve yourselves in our newscast.
And Toure' is here with the Question of the Day to do just that.
And Toure' asks...
TOURE', CNN POP CULTURE CORRESPONDENT, "ROLLING STONE" MAGAZINE: I want to know what you think we should do next year as the year draws to a close. There's an apocalyptic feel in the air because there are so many serious problems in the world. Iraq remains chaotic and moving unsteadily toward elections, shepherded by soldiers who lack sufficient armor. Terrorism remains a worldwide problem. Osama bin Laden continues to taunt us through the media. And our homeland security systems remain porous.
The question is, what should America's new year's resolution be in 2005?
Rich Young in Rochester, New York: "What Americans need to resolve for 2005 is to quit whining with every decision they disagree with and calling it a mistake."
Emer has a much shorter answer. "The answer is simple," he says, "America should listen."
Jason from Hartsdale, New York says: "What I think should be the focus is the 48 percent of voting Americans who did not vote for the president. Continue to organize and mobilize. We're a huge group. We need to continue to work and grow and we will win eventually."
And Jordana from Ontario says: "The U.S. should allow generic, less expensive medications to be purchased from Canada by U.S. citizens."
I wonder what's the personal gain for the average Canadian there.
COLLINS: I keep waiting, though, for somebody to write in and say we should lose weight, you know, because it's always about losing weight, right?
TOURE': Oh, we got one like that in the next block.
TOURE': Don't you worry.
SANCHEZ: All forthcoming, huh, Toure'?
COLLINS: Thanks, Toure'.
Hundreds of millions of dollars have been committed and relief workers are available. But how do you get the aid to the needy when there are no roads to get it there? We'll ask the U.N.'s relief coordinator here on AMERICAN MORNING.
COLLINS: Welcome back to AMERICAN MORNING, everybody.
Just about half past the hour now.
I'm Heidi Collins in for Soledad today.
SANCHEZ: And I'm Rick Sanchez sitting in for Bill Hemmer on this day.
And here is what we now know on the tsunami disaster that we at CNN have been diligently covering for you. The number of dead has dramatically increased now, to 115,000. That's 115,000 people; almost 80,000 in Indonesia alone. That is where we've seen the big jump in the last 24 hours. The Indonesian island of Sumatra, closest to the epicenter of Sunday's earthquake, has been widely devastated.
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