Asian Tsunami Heros

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Tsunami hero honoured by exchange host institution

Four years ago when I left Thailand as a one-year Rotary
Youth Exchange Student I dreamed of one day returning to
this beautiful country that I had grown to love. This past
Christmas I was given the golden opportunity to return the
"Land of Smiles" because I realized that studying at my
current University in Japan provided a convenient
opportunity due to its geographical location.

On the morning of December 26, 2005 I was spending a
gorgeous hot summer morning basking in the sun lying in the
pure white sandy beaches of Surin Island located on the
West Coast of Southern Thailand. Surin Island, at the
moment, was my little peace of paradise as a friend and I
decided to kayak its crystal blue waters.

As we kayaked we could not help but notice the thundering
roar of a wave approaching the Island at an astonishing
pace. We quickly kayaked to a near by beach, about half an
hour walk from the resort area, so that we could land the
kayak and play in the wave properly, not at all realizing
what we were getting ourselves into.

The wave seemed to approached forever as its thunderous
roar became louder and louder and the wave continued to
grow like it was out of a comic book. Tracy and I scurried
into the water and waited for the wave. BAAAMM, the wave
hit us with the force of a freight train and picked us up
right off of our feet, as the water rose over 12ft. in
seconds, and sent us flying into the jungle and pinned us
up against some trees about 300ft. from our original
position. It was at this moment our Paradise Island turned
upside down and quickly turned into a watery hell as we
played Survivor but not the romanticized version you watch
on TV.

It took us a few seconds to even realize where we were as
the force of the wave put us into a state of dazed
confusion not really knowing how we were suddenly pressed
up against some trees fighting to keep our heads above
water. We quickly realized that we were in a grim situation
but because of the fear it was difficult to think straight.
I took a moment to make sure that both of us were okay with
no broken bones or serious gashes as we hugged separate
trees for dear life trying to fight the strong waters. I
noticed that our kayak was thrown up against some near by
rocks were it was continuously being cradled back and forth
forcefully smashing into the rocks. I ordered Tracy to swim
to the rocks and hold onto the kayak and wait for me there.
When we both reached the kayak I jumped onto the rocks and
pulled the kayak as Tracy pushed. Eventually we managed to
pull our beaten kayak up onto the rocks about 15ft. above
the water level. Here we rested for a little while catching
our breath and talking about what just happened.

However, little did we know that it was not over as we both
heard the most awful ear piercing cry’s for help ever.
About 50ft. away from the jungle line where the water now
pushed against there was a Swiss man holding onto a
capsized kayak with one hand and holding onto a two year
old baby with the other. Leaving him with no free limbs to
swim as he and his child were being sucked away by the
powerful waters at an incredibly rapid pace. With little or
no hesitation, as my adrenaline was at boiling point, I
dove into the water and swam to the man and child grabbing
the kayak and pulling them back into the jungle where water
was now chest high. The water was moving so quickly that we
were about 150ft. from where I last left Tracy. We slowly
made out way back as we fought the current and led our way
with vines.

The Swiss man quickly asked Tracy to hold onto his baby as
he ran closer to the water and perched himself out on rock
and started yelling in French. He rushed back to me and
asked me to jump back into the water and get his wife,
daughter and mother-in-law. I looked at him owl eyed and
told him that he was crazy and that there was no way in
hell I was going back into that water. The man was almost
in tears begging me to go help his family. As the other
kayak got closer we could hear his little daughter cry to
her dad for help. This was enough to make me jump in again.
This time I got a running start and jumped off the rocks
into the water almost landing on their kayak. This time the
boat was much heavier as there were three people in the
kayak plus I was exhausted from all the other previous
happenings.
Eventually I pulled the boat back to where the other three
where and received a helping hand from the Swiss father.
Once everybody was safe the Swiss family thanked me a
million times as they introduced themselves with a round of
hugs.

By this time most of the water had sucked back out into the
Ocean and the entire Bay was almost dry as the beached
stretched for a couple hundred feet displaying its
beautiful coral. The water slowly began to move back in as
the Bay began to take shape once again. Before anything
else of real interest could transpire the mother of the
Swiss family saw a boat coming our way. With babies in hand
the father and I run out onto the beach with Tracy
following only a few feet back. We begin to yell and scream
for help as we wave our arms back and forth. Then Tracy
pointed out that she did not think that anyone was in the
boat. As the boat drew nearer it began to go into an awful
twist as it spiraled in circles then when it got into plain
view it was confirmed that it was an empty boat. We all
questioned why a boat of such large mass would be floating
by unmanned but this was just the beginning of a sick
realization. Things were much worse then he had originally
thought them to be because as far as we knew we were the
only seven people who were hit by this thunderous wave.

The water level and its powerful current started to pick up
again. Once the boat floated by we could begin to see many
other objects of debris passing us by. Objects such as,
tents, bags, life jackets, trees, tables, chairs, pieces of
bungalows and many more. Then BAAMMMM, the second wave hit
us with double the force and unlike the first wave this one
hit with absolutely no warning as it came from around the
peer where we originally found refuge. Now we were back to
square one as Tracy, the two babies, the father and I all
found ourselves back in the dangerous waters. The father
and I swam back to the rocks and handed the babies over to
the mother and the grandmother. Tracy was left out in the
water perched on a rock clinging for dear life. I will
never forget the fear in her eyes as the wave’s crashed
over her head giving the illusion that the water was
consuming her body. I yelled to Tracy and made the
agreement that if she could build up the courage to let go
of the rock I would meet her half way out. With another
forceful crashing of a wave she let go and used the wave to
help her swim towards me. I, once again, tightly grasped
onto some vines reached for Tracy as she grabbed onto me as
we met at about the halfway point and safely made our way
back to the high ground.

We had a short meeting and we decided that Tracy and I
would walk back to the main part of the Island to see if we
could get some help for the remaining family of five. There
was only one small problem. Our shoes had been swept away
by the forceful crashing of the waves and we were faced
with the daunting task of walking a dangerous half an hour
through the jungle bare foot.

A short while later Tracy and I made it back to the resort
area of the Island. We went from being scared to painfully
paralyzed from the scene that lye before us. For a second
we doubted that we returned to the correct area of the
Island with the possibility that we got turned around
somewhere in the jungle. Nothing looked recognizable as
almost everything was in ruins. Hundreds of tents were
swept away leaving bare ground and bungalows and many other
small structures were smashed to the ground. Then a few
familiar faces approached us asking if we were okay. The
eerie feeling of destruction, chaos and death lurked among
us as people ran around screaming and yelling in frenzy
panic with no order or rationality among their actions.
People were walking around in a daze with blood dripping
from all parts of their bodies. Little kids, parents,
people of all ages were screaming for their missing family
members and friends. Dead bodies had washed up onto shore
and a couple of them still had on their snorkeling gear
probably not even knowing what had killed them. Tracy and I
clenched hands and reported to where abbot’s of the Swiss
family to the main office.
We were ordered to run up the side of a Mountain, which
once was the picture perfect backdrop to the Island but was
now our deemed place of safety. We scurried up the face of
the mountain and hid in the jungle with a multitude of
other foreigners and Thai people. We were all pressed
tightly together as everyone shared the same fear of not
knowing for sure if we were even safe hidden away in the
jungle. In the depths of the jungle we could still hear he
mayhem below as people started to yell "RUN another one is
coming, RUN!" Much like the first wave the third had a
thunderous crash with the sound of cracking foundations and
falling structures behind it.

We waited up in the jungle for just over six hours before
we came down. Parts of me still wish that I never left the
mountainside. What destruction followed the third wave is
beyond the description of words. Not one single thing on
our small remote Island of Surin was left standing. The
Island no longer exists. Debris stretched as far as the eye
could see and the panic of people looking for medical aid
and lost ones continued.

Navy ships and a Cruise were sent to our aid. The Navy
Ships were in sight but turned away slowly as they were
ordered to head to the Island of Phuket. Eventually we were
rescued by the Thai Cruise Ship called the Ocean Princess,
where on the Internet you can find mine and Tracy’s names
on their survivor’s list.

The next two days are spent with sympathetic Thai cruise
workers as we are treated like gods with free meals and
beds to sleep in as we head to the Island of Phuket. The
second I hit the pillow I was out from the exhaustion and
the incredibly painful headache received when trying to
understand what just happened. The next morning the
hallways of the ship reeked of burning incense as people
left rooms weeping as they paid respect to their lost loved
ones wrapped in orange body bags. The next day and half are
spent giving passport information and details on exactly
what luggage money or people we are missing. People work
round the clock to help us find ways back to our homes.
During my stay on the Ocean Princess I ran into the Swiss
family on numerous occasions and was unable to avoid a
million thanks over and over again showing there
appreciation to me for what I did.

As we approach Phuket we can see the destruction that it
has caused as large pieces of debris ranging from hiking
bags, tables and place mat’s stretch about two miles out
into the Sea. A few hours later we arrive in Phuket to
witness the horrific mayhem that people went through. Our
ship was greeted by hundreds of people, ambulance, police
and News Crews as they all clapped for us as we exited the
Ocean Princess.

Needless to say I am just happy to be alive, on solid
grown, wearing dry clothes and having warm bed to sleep in.
I just thank God that I am still alive to be writing to you
about this. I have already attended one funeral for some
one that I knew who perished during these unforeseen
events. I have friends in Indonesia who I study with whom I
have not been able to get into contact with since the event
has occurred. I just pray that are alive and yell. I
pray that anyone who reads this has not been affected on
the same level that I have and if you have then my thoughts
and prayers are with you. Thank you to all who have taken
the time to read this and thank you to the Windsor Star for
printing this. Please, may your thoughts and prayer’s be
with the people who are continuing to deal with the
stresses of this event.

Sincerely,

Joshua Sutherland

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