Asian Tsunami Heros

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Warning from man who knew saved lives

January 8, 2005 The Age

As Bill O'Leary sees it, a little knowledge would have gone a long way to saving lives.
The expatriate Australian sailor and his young employee in Phuket were among the few people who knew a tsunami when they saw it brewing - knowledge that gave them enough time to clear beaches and get dozens of people to safety.
Mr O'Leary, who has lived in Thailand for 18 years, runs a luxury boating business from the upmarket Amanpuri resort. Amanpuri has a caviar clientele, but the man who runs the boats is all salt and pepper.
Affable and down to earth, the professional mariner knows this ocean so well that after the disaster his wife credited him with a sixth sense: he had told her that morning that he felt uneasy as he prepared for the day on the water.
It was Richie Neustfisten, Mr O'Leary's young Australian charge, who first raised the alarm, alerting his boss from the beach that the ocean was in retreat.
"At first I said, 'don't worry about it, it's just a full moon', and then he said it had gone out a couple of hundred metres. So I said, 'Get everyone off the beach now'. I said he had to be violent if he needed to be to get them off."
Mr O'Leary knew instantly what it meant, and that they had mere minutes to save lives. He had never experienced a tsunami before but had researched them well, an awareness that saved many guests and staff from the curiosity that was drawing them closer to the sea. That curiosity claimed many lives across the region - "it's the trick of the tsunami" - but not in this part of Phuket.
He says the nature of the beast at that moment also bought them time because the ocean dropped before it rose; at other places it hit high and hard before anyone had time to think.
"They have a peak and a trough. If you get a trough, you get a warning and we were lucky we got the warning. At Phi Phi they got a peak and were wiped out."
Mr O'Leary and Mr Neustfisten managed not only to get their guests to safer ground but to alert friends at other points on the coast to race to safety. Many lives were saved; many were lost in places nearby where no one knew what was coming.
Lack of education is to blame, says the Australian skipper, as well as split-second decisions that meant the difference between life and death. "People who climbed up coconut trees lived. People who jumped in their car and tried to drive away got killed."

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