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January 11, 2005

Tsunami Suvivor Story.

From an email. Seems to me God went to a lot of trouble to kill tens of thousands of Muslims in order to kill and scare a couple thousand Christians. I personally think God does a better cost-benefit analysis than that.

The survivors are Department of Defense Dependent Schools (DoDDS) teachers. Back when I was attending these schools, they were regional - I'm an alum of USDSEA, United States Dependent Schools, European Area. Paris Elementary, Boeblingen Elementary, Augsburg Elementary (7th grade, HS was 8-12, there was no junior high/middle school), and Frankfurt Junior High. My sister is an alum of all those and a graduate of Frankfurt High School.

Hat tip to Rich B.

Dear Joan,

Here's a true story I thought you'd be interested in: There were 120 teachers from DoDDS Pacific on vacation in Southeast Asia during the holidays. All got back safely. Three families from Osan were in Phuket, one in Khao Lak, one in Ko Simue (near Bangkok, on the other side of the Malay Peninsula). The three that were in Phuket were in hotels that were on high ground. The one in Khao Lak was scuba diving near some islands 30 miles from the mainland when the tsunami hit. They were on a 4-day live-aboard trip on a dive boat with 5 other divers (from Sweden, Germany, England, and America), a divemaster and the crew. Here's the story:

After spending half the night getting to their destination and after being briefed by the divemaster, Sherrie and Kirk M. and the group dove to a depth of 95 feet. I spoke with Sherrie (media center specialist at the High School) for 45 minutes yesterday about this, but didn't get the info on why they dove to that depth, whether it was to see a sunken ship, some special corals, or what. Anyway, at 8:41 am they had started their staged ascent (stopping every 30 feet or so, so that nitrogen bubbles in the blood could dissipate). They were at a safe-stop place 30 feet below the surface when the first tsunami hit.

Kirk was about 10 feet from Sherrie, and they were checking their watches, waiting to continue their ascent. Suddenly Kirk was pulled down about 20 feet, and then pulled horizontally away from Sherrie in a very strong current. Sherrie was pulled horizontally in the opposite direction. They figure that the current was moving at between 20-30 mph. Then the current stopped. She couldn't see Kirk, but knew she had to stay at 30 feet for a few more minutes. It wasn't safe to go topside and look for him. About that time another current pushed her back in the direction she came from. She saw Kirk, and they grabbed hands. Their dive watches still said they had some minutes to wait. So not knowing what the hell was going on with the weird currents (all the other divers had disappeared) they just waited. Then another turbulence came and brought tornados of sand from the bottom, and they experienced a "sand-out" (like a white-out in a snowstorm). They could see nothing. It tumbled them over and over but finally they were able to grab hands again, and swam to the surface. As they approached the surface, it seemed like the sea was boiling; huge bubbles were coming up from all around them, and the sea was disturbed and sloshing around, like a washing machine. (Sherrie has 35 dives under her belt, and Kirk has 99; only one more and he qualifies for Divemaster.) So these were not novice divers. They were scared, but didn't start hyperventilating or anything like that. They also had only about 20 more minutes of air, so that was another concern.

The rest is in the Flash Traffic (extended post).

But when they surfaced there was no boat, and no other divers were to be seen. The Similan Islands are uninhabited, but they had been pushed near one, so they swam over to it, threw themselves down on the sand and essentially said, "What the hell was that all about?" And waited. Within a couple hours the boat showed up. They were the last to be picked up. The crew had tried to call the mainland, but no answer. Finally someone got an answer which said Phuket had had an earthquake, and not to come in.

So with 4 days worth of food, they decided to stay at sea for a couple of days. But the crew were worried about their families, so after a full day out (no more diving), they asked the divers if it was okay if they went in. Of course they said yes. About that time a Thai Navy boat came by and suggested they take them all in to Phuket so they could get to the airport. The divers said no because their passports, money and clothes were on Khao Lak (both Phuket and Khao Lak are islands). Then the Navy told everybody that Khao Lak was gone, there were essentially no buildings left that the whole area had suffered from a tsunami. I believe they stayed out another half day, slowly motoring toward shore, trying to figure out what to do, and trying to reach people on land.

Families of the crew were on Khao Lack, so they decided to go on back. On the way in (at about 5 miles from land) they began to see doors, roofs, wooden beams, styrofoam, all kinds of debris, then they saw their first body, a woman. They were so shocked they didn't know what to do, so they circled the body trying to figure out how to get her into the boat. They saw an orange color in the water some distance away and thought it was a life jacket, but it was another body, clad in an orange swim suit. By this time they were really spooked, but didn't want to leave the bodies. Then another Thai Navy boat slowly approached; it had bodies stacked on the deck like cordwood, and others tied alongside, with men trying to get the bodies into the dinghies, so they could be brought aboard. They shouted to the Navy crew that they had found two more bodies, pointed them out, and headed on in to shore.

The devastation on Khao Lak was complete. Their little hotel bungalows were gone, and there were huge piles of debris everywhere. This was on the 3rd day after the tsunami, so the place was beginning to smell from the decomposing bodies under the debris. Now here's the amazing thing: the hotel had stored their bags in the building next door for the 4 days they'd be out in the boat. That building was still standing, but only because the whole first floor consisted of only concrete pillars, holding up the 2nd and 3rd floors, no walls. Their luggage was on the 3rd floor, dry as a bone. The crew and divers then went to a warehouse owned by the hotel, where they were gathering survivors and feeding them. They had tearful reunions with the other people who had survived. Not all of the guests made it.

It seems that when the first tsunami arrived, of course it sucked all the water in the bay out to sea. People were amazed and started walking out to see some beautiful rocks out there that had always been submerged. But an old Thai man was on top of the 3-story building repairing the roof. He was high enough to see farther than the others, and he saw the giant swell, which was beginning to turn into a wave, and he knew what it was, and began to yell, "Tsunami, Run, Run!"

The guests ran back but by the time they got to the building, the wave hit. Some people held onto the concrete pillars, others ran into the jungle behind the hotel. The people who held onto the pillars were saved, even though the check-in desk and all furniture was swept out of the open first floor into the jungle behind. But the people who ran into the jungle were killed, virtually beat to death by the debris that the wave had picked up, and then of course, it receeded, and sucked an amazing amount of stuff out to sea: cars, buses, roofs, huge pieces of wood, all the smashed up bungalows, and of course people. Two more big waves came and did the same, before the whole thing was over.

As they sat on benches in the warehouse, listening to each other's stories and crying, some of the crew left to find their families. Sherrie and Kirk never did find out what happened to the crew's families. They just know that the Thai people were gentle and kind and concerned for them right up until the moment they found a van to take them to the docks to go back to the mainland. When they got there, they saw more horrific devastation up close because the taxi was only able to go about 5 miles an hour through the wreckage to the airport.

They were able to get two seats on a plane to Bangkok, and when they got there, they called home. A TV station in Denver had announced that they were missing, and then after 3 days, dead. Sherrie's mother heard all this on TV. Her father was in Arizona, and said he saw Sherrie on TV and for everybody not to worry. But he has macular degeneration and can't see anything, so nobody believed him. Kirk and Sherrie emailed the whole story to her mom from Bangkok and someone put it on the Internet. A diving magazine saw it and contacted her mom. Now they're writing up their experience for the magazine. It will be interesting because their dive computers have all the info about how deep they were, how long they stayed at each depth, etc. So it will be fascinating information, as it will be a blow-by-blow account of what their experiences were, underwater.

Because of my experiences diving for the five years we lived on Guam I could relate to what they went through, and the terror it would cause....being pulled this way and that, having literally no control of where you were going, being fearful of being pulled way down and then pushed way up, without time to decompress, not knowing what rocks or sharp coral you would be thrown against, etc. They were lucky in everything they did, every decision they made. If they'd been in the hotel they'd have been killed. If they'd been diving nearer the mainland they'd have been thrown against the coral and sliced to ribbons. If they'd been walking on the beach, as they did every morning before going on the live-aboard trip, they'd have been caught like all the others.

Friday I did lessons on plate tectonics, the causes of earthquakes along a subduction fault, how tsunami warning systems work, etc., for the 4th, 5th and 6th grade classes here. I have a giant plate tectonic map that I've been dragging around the world for years. It sure comes in handy sometimes.

When I think of all the years on Guam that we spent in the water, so complacent about our safety, and in all that time there was only one tsunami warning...from an earthquake in Alaska I think it was. That was a 9.2 and generated waves 60 feet high in Alaska and about 5 inches high in Guam. This earthquake moved the whole island of Sumatra, which is 1000 miles long and 300 miles wide, a hundred feet to the southwest. And apparently it moved a lot of other things too. Ships are finding that shipping channels, like the Straits of Malacca, which were 4000 feet deep before the earthquake, are now only 100 feet deep, not enough depth for a big ship. Navigational buoys have been moved way off course, so ships plying the Bay of Bengal and the areas around Malaysia and Indonesia are going to have to get some new navigational info pretty quick. Maybe satellites will be able to help. I don't know. We can see what the tsunami did to the land above water, but we can't see what the earthquake did to the sea bed, not yet. The US is sending two sonar mapping ships to the area so they can begin remapping the area around Sumatra and the coast of Myanmar and Thailand. They estimate that 25% of all fishing ships in the entire area from India to Thailand and Indonesia are destroyed. Also, aid agencies will need to feed over a million people for approximately six months, till they somehow are able begin to put their lives back together.

There were some interesting amateur video shots of the tsunami as it hit Thailand, but nothing as instructive as one I saw on the BBC website taken by a man at a wedding party on the second floor of a building in Banda Aceh, Sumatra. The water going by looked like the Colorado River. It extended across the town as far as you could see, it was moving fast, and it just kept coming. Every once in awhile you could see a roof twist, dip into the water and join the flood, but as long as he was shooting, it continued at about 10-15 feet deep, looking like it had been flowing like that forever. When the wedding party first saw it, they shouted and screamed, but soon the background sounds changed into chanted prayers. No other video told me as much about what really happened as that one clip. I am amazed, frankly, that anyone survived it.

And yet last week a man was rescued from the branches of a giant tree about 100 miles from Sumatra. He'd been floating for 10 days, subsisting on coconut milk (when he could find a floating coconut) and a bit of rainwater. A cargo ship picked him up. He was barely able to speak. I'm sure there are a million stories, and books will be written about all of it. I wish I could talk firsthand to others like Sherrie and Kirk. I'd like to put it all together as a timeline, incorporating the geology of the quake and the physics of the tsunami, including what people were doing in different countries at the same moment, like the man did who wrote the book Krakatoa.

Just thought you'd be interested in the story of what it was like to be diving when the tsunami hit. Take care. We'll all count our blessings. June