SURVIVOR: Vernon OlsonTsunami survivor finds pain, hope
Retiree returns to Thai island
By Jason Schwartz, Globe Correspondent
December 29, 2005
Among Vernon Olson's final assignments to his sixth-grade class at the Fessenden School in Newton was an article on the warning signs of a tsunami.
As he embarked on a three-month retirement trip to Southeast Asia last year, he could not have known how prophetic that lesson would be.
Olson, who lives in Lexington, was in Patong on Thailand's Phuket Island on Dec. 26, 2004, when the tsunami smashed into the resort town. Despite being knocked over and swallowed up by the waves, the 66-year-old escaped without serious injury.
This month, he returned to the same beach where he almost died. He has spent the past several weeks relaxing and surveying the mostly rebuilt town.
But despite the fresh appearance of the market where he buys his daily newspaper, he said he cannot forget that more than 40 people drowned in that spot a year ago.
Other areas, such as around his old hotel, are still strewn with debris.
It was there on a terrace that Olson's tsunami ordeal began. He was sipping his morning coffee, anticipating another beautiful day on the beach, when the hotel's night manager hurried by with a camera. The sea had risen higher than he had ever seen it, so the manager wanted to snap a picture. A half-dozen other guests stood with Olson, transfixed by the spectacle.
There was one problem, though: The water was rushing toward them. It was a tsunami, and there had been no warning signs.
''With no time to think or to try to understand what was happening, I ran into a small alleyway next to the building," Olson recalled.
When the water caught up with him, he was trapped between a small building and a three-story hotel.
Lifted up by the current, he clung to a beam beneath a second-story balcony until a wave ripped him from his ''umbilical line to life."
Thinking he was all but dead, Olson attempted to tread water, but was quickly pulled under. Then the lights went out.
Ten or 15 minutes later -- he has no way of knowing for sure -- he found himself on a field about 100 yards away from where he had lost consciousness.
Olson came to slowly, sitting for several minutes in ''numbed disbelief." His body was covered in bruises, but other than some aches, he felt fine.
Taking stock, he heard what sounded like soft crying a short distance off. Olson looked over to see a small boy with his arm cut open, bone and muscle exposed. Off in another direction, a couple huddled together in shock.
Olson managed to get up and help the boy, wrapping his wound in a small red undershirt he had found. Carrying the boy back to the hotel, Olson trudged past body after body. He recalls being surprised by how quickly the authorities had covered them up.
Olson gave the boy, whom he would never see again, to a hotel staff member and then departed for the journey inland.
Looking back, Olson said that he never panicked; rather, he thought of the irony that he used to own a beachfront house in Cotuit, yet in his 15 years there had never ventured into the ocean.
''I don't put myself in vulnerable situations in terms of the ocean, yet the ocean [was] getting me," he said.
Though he now looks at the sea with more caution, he refuses to let worries of another disaster spoil his vacation.
''Every future day of my life is a gift," he said. ''I should not have been alive after that happened. The person standing next to me in the stairs was killed."
Olson has always loved adventure. In 1977, he took a trip around the world, and just as the Gulf War was breaking in 1990, he decided to take a year off from Fessenden and spend it teaching in Egypt.
His family consists of just a younger brother, leaving him free to travel alone without a set agenda. A Minnesota native and longtime Massachusetts resident, Olson wants to be somewhere warm for wintertime.
''I just kind of bounce around from place to place, depending on the rainy season somewhat," he said.
Still, Patong was his first destination on this current trip, even though it is the rainy season. Olson reports that the town is again teeming with tourists, but the tsunami remains a constant presence. For example, the local paper a few weeks ago had a story about the discovery of a skeleton, presumed -- based on its size and characteristics -- to be European.
Olson said that he's been encouraged by small encounters. During his trip last year, he had noticed an old woman offering massages to beachgoers. A few weeks ago, he was heartened to see her again, walking the beach as though nothing had ever happened.