Localteachers experience power of tsunami

Published on Thu, Jan 6, 2005 by atrick Green

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Local teachers experience power of tsunami

By Patrick Green

(Editor note: Patrick Green and Becky Johnson are former Blaine teachers currently living and teaching in Singapore. The following is Green’s eyewitness account of their experiences while on vacation in Phuket, Thailand.)

It was the last day of our Christmas trip to Phuket, Thailand. We woke up at 8 a.m. to small vibrations that we shrugged off as “a little earthquake” (in actuality it was the world’s fourth largest on record).
We walked down the beach to Starbucks, had breakfast, went back to the hotel, and packed our bags. At 10, with our bags packed, we figured we could get one more hour of sun before we needed to get a taxi to the airport, so we headed off to the beach. Becky, in her bikini, and me in my shorts and shirt, entered the elevator on the third floor and headed down – but then the elevator stopped.

In the time it took for me to hit a couple buttons, the lights went off, then two seconds later, the lights came back on, which was a relief to the two other elevator passengers until I pointed out the water that was seeping in through the bottom of the elevator. Their shouts and curses were only silenced by the inhuman, indescribable shrieks and screams that penetrated the elevator from outside. A million explanations ran simultaneously through my confused brain when suddenly the elevator thrust downward and the doors burst open – more confusion.

Becky stood, arms outstretched in the doorway, holding us all back from what seemed like a raging river running right through the middle of our hotel. I honestly can’t remember if we chose to jump out into the nearly waist high water, or were pushed out by the people behind us, but nothing that happened afterwards was nearly as scary as the 10 seconds in the elevator hearing the screams and seeing water slowly fill in the bottom.

We were immediately moving swiftly inland. With a quick look around we saw people, chairs, tables, cars, trees, and all sorts of debris crashing and thrashing through the steady stream. I saw a jungle-gym in the children’s area and hollered to Becky to swim in that direction.
Unbelievably, we were able to swim perpendicular to the current and climb up the structure. As we gathered our wits, the current slowed.

We were able to pull two or three other people aboard. In the next 10 minutes, as the water began to recede, the men we helped began fishing money, fake Louis Vuitton bags and t-shirts from the water.

We pulled a Thai man wearing a motorcycle helmet onto the platform. Becky asked him, “What is going on?” He searched his limited vocabulary for the right words, “Big wave!” he said, before he swam off again. A day later we would joke that he was more informative than the Thai government proved to be.

The destruction was unbelievable, but worse were the continued cries from a naked mother clutching her baby, as she waded through the debris looking for her missing five-year-old. Then Becky noticed another wave coming.

I convinced the woman to climb up the jungle-gym as Becky struggled to pull up a crazed Thai woman who seemed more intent on pulling Becky down than getting herself up. In the end, with the woman’s fingernails firmly entrenched in Becky’s biceps, Becky was infused with supernatural strength and reached down and grabbed the clawing lady by her belt buckle, yanking her up and in. Then we braced for the wave.

Our platform was about six feet in the air, the water level was at about five feet, the oncoming wave was at least another five feet above the current water level. It hit us hard, but we held on, as it was not over our heads.

The woman with child pleaded for our help, explaining that she lost her five-year-old. There were people looking out their hotel windows; they told us to swim for the stairs at the front of the hotel. We didn’t.
Becky spotted another wave, and it was the biggest one yet. It was going to be way over our heads. We all grabbed on tight and leaned in, bracing for the wave. The wave came so fast. I remember seeing it way out there, and it seems that simultaneously it hit us. At the exact moment that it struck, a palm leaf roof from a tiki-hut bar, which had been caught against the jungle gym, snapped upright and deflected the wave from hitting any of us.

The wave rushed by on both sides, and over our heads by at least six feet. I guess there are two ways you can look at it. You can believe, I suppose, that palm leaves woven together that normally can’t hold back rain water can, in fact, hold back an (at least) 18-foot wave. Or, like me, you can believe in God, and that for some reason, even though it was undeserved at least on my part, he miraculously spared our lives.

At this point we all realized that there had to be safer places than that jungle-gym, so we planned to swim 150 yards for the hotel entrance. I thought I would have to pry the (one and half year old) baby from the mother, but as I moved towards her, she gladly surrendered him. We grabbed nearby floating lawn-chair mattresses and with Becky leading the way, started swimming for the main lobby. It was not too difficult at first, as the current was still moving inland. But then the water shifted and began moving back towards the ocean.

I ditched the mattress as it was now working against me. The debris was thick, and I had to stop a number of times to remove the planks of wood and other garbage that collected in front of my body. At first I had the boy in my right arm, but soon the debris was coming faster and to protect the baby I had to move him to my back. I carried him like a sack of laundry, and at one point was sure that I broke his arm over my shoulder (he never cried, and in the end turned out to be just fine. Five hours later the five-year-old was reunited with his mother).

Becky led us to the lobby, which was piled high with everything from furniture to motorcycles. She found the stairs, and we delivered the boy into the waiting arms of his father (the mother was not far behind). We then marched to our third floor room and began packing a “survival” bag.

The next six hours or so were spent on the 100 degree roof after we were told another wave was on its way. No more waves came, but when people start to panic it is hard to stop. We attempted to go back to our room a number of times, but halfway down the stairs some one would get freaked out and start screaming and then everyone would run back up.

Finally, at about eight in the evening we went back to our rooms and made some phone calls. Becky wanted to get out of the hotel even though the government was suggesting we stay. She finally convinced me when I realized that I was never going to be able to sleep anyway with a view that looked out over the menacing ocean.

We headed to the street to flag down a taxi. A tuk-tuk stopped and asked where we wanted to go. I said “airport.” The driver laughed and started to drive away. Becky grabbed the door and said, “Name your price.” He deliberated and then gave us a number (2,000 Baht) that was probably half his yearly salary. I said, “No, 2,500, and you come up to our room and help carry our bags down.” He doubted our sincerity at first, but his faith grew as Becky pulled him out of the tuk-tuk. We tried to make small talk on the way to the room, but he was a bit distracted by the fact that in about an hour he was going to be able to retire and buy himself a whole fleet of tuk-tuks.

After carrying, then loading our bags into the vehicle, the driver sped towards the airport. Speeding along at 50 miles an hour in a tuk-tuk that has fewer safety features than a tin can on horrible roads that were recently made worse by a tsunami is a bit dangerous and certainly not something I would normally undertake, but under the circumstances seemed advisable.

Becky was able to switch our tickets to the earliest flight in the morning, so now we just had to figure out how to spend the next nine hours. Becky watched CNN while I attempted to sleep. In the end hers was the wiser decision as I startled awake every 10 minutes to “another wave!” which usually turned out to be someone pushing their luggage down the hallway.

We boarded our plane in the morning, had a great flight to Singapore, rushed home, showered and headed to the doctor in case we needed any shots. Becky slept for 14 hours straight, and so would have I had our dear friend Sherie Vekved not woken me up at 5:45 a.m. with a couple of phone calls (that I of course thought were sirens and “another wave.”)

There are a million more smaller sidelight stories that neither of us will forget, but at this point I am too tired to write about. Also, I realize that after three and a half pages, the only one still reading this is my mom.
I left out the gory details, and honestly don’t really want to go into them. Yes, there were dead people, yes, there was blood all over, and yes I resorted to some of the behavior one resorts to when there is no running water, electricity or proper waste disposal mechanisms. It was ugly and awful. There are some images I will never forget, and some that I might never acknowledge again. I am left with an immense respect for the power of nature, and even more for the power of God.

Tsunami: Where to donate

World Relief
7 East Baltimore St
Baltimore MD 21202
443/451-1900
www.wr.org

American Red Cross
International Response
Fund

P.O. Box 37243
Washington, D.C. 20013
800/435-7669
www.redcross.org/

AmeriCares
88 Hamilton Ave.
Stamford, CT 06902
800/486-4357
www.americares.org

CARE
151 Ellis St. NE
Atlanta, GA 30303
800/521-CARE
www.care.org

Catholic Relief Services
209 West Fayette St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
800/HELP-CRS
www.catholicrelief.org

Doctors Without Borders
P.O. Box 1856
Merrifield, VA 22116-8056
www.doctorswithoutborders-usa.org/donate

International Rescue
Committee
PO Box 5058
Hagerstown, MD 21741
9874
877-REFUGEE (733-8433)
www.theIRC.org

Oxfam America
Asian Earthquake Fund

PO Box 1211
Albert Lea, MN 56007-1211
800-77-OXFAM
www.oxfamamerica.org

Project HOPE
Asia Tsunami Response

255 Carter Hall Lane
Millwood, VA 22646
800-544-4673
www.projecthope.org

SAWSO (Salvation Army
World Service Office)
South Asia Relief Fund

615 Slaters Lane
Alexandria, VA, 22313
800-SAL-ARMY
www.salvationarmyusa.org

Save the Children USA
54 Wilton Road
Westport, CT 06880
800/728-3843
www.savethechildren.org

US Fund for UNICEF
General Emergency Fund

333 E. 38th St.
New York, NY 10016
800-4-UNICEF
www.unicefusa.org

World Vision
P.O. Box 70288
Tacoma, WA 98481-0288
888-56-CHILD
www.worldvision.org

Giving wisely

While citizens are encouraged to consider giving generously to tsunami-relief efforts, the Washington state attorney general’s office has advised doing some research to make sure the relief money is going to organizations that will use the donations effectively.
The best advice is to give to well-established organizations with proven track records of assisting in foreign countries following major disasters.

Under Washington law, charities and commercial fundraisers working on behalf of those charities must be registered with the Secretary of State’s office before they can solicit Washington residents.

The attorney general’s office suggests these tips for wise giving:
• Never send money to phone solicitors representing charities that are unknown to you.
• Watch out for sound-alike names of charities - sounds familiar, but not legitimate.
• Avoid giving credit-card information to phone or door-to-door solicitors.
• Beware of charities that offer to immediately send a courier to collect your donation.
• If you are not familiar with an organization but are considering donating money to them, check with the Washington Secretary of State’s office, www.secstate.wa. gov/charities  to see if the charity is registered and to obtain the organization's financial information. Registration does not mean endorsement. The state does not endorse any specific charity.

To further research charities, also check with www.networkforgood.org and www.give.org, which is affiliated with the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance.