A Tsunami Survivor in Phuket Tells her Story

January 5, 2005

By the grace of greater spirits, we are safe and sound in Hanoi. We made it off the island of Phuket, Thailand on the 27th. Phuket, as you know by now, is one of the hard hit islands in southern Thailand. If you look at a map, you will see it in the south. We were staying at one of the quieter beaches in the southern part of the island. It is called Kata Noi.

We were definitely terrified for our lives, and trapped for 24 hours without any water or electricity. We were supposed to have left the morning of the tsunami. But two hours before it hit, my back snapped into painful spasms. So I was resting on the bed between 8 and 10 a.m. to see if my back got better. We were hoping that it would get better before 10:30, which is when we would've been standing in the lobby or riding in a taxi to the airport...right at the moment the tsunami struck around 10 a.m. That area downstairs area was completely demolished by the waves. Everything was washed out to sea.

Jan had gone downstairs before 9 to get our passports, get money out of the safe, and have breakfast. I waited upstairs in our bungalow on the hill. He was going to bring me breakfast to fill my stomach so I could take a muscle relaxant pill. Fortunately, he was back in the room around 9 a.m., we think...just waiting to see if my back got better, and if we should leave as planned.

FORTUNATELY, my back did NOT get better. So we were staying put in our bungalow on the hill. Later, one of the hotel staff--a Thai young man--came running to our bungalow screaming, "Look! Look!" I hobbled to the balcony with Jan, only to see this tsunami crashing on the shore, and watching the restaurant furniture, etc. all washing out to sea before our very eyes.

The tsunami surged out of nowhere. In a matter of seconds, the once serene beachfront restaurant where Jan had eaten breakfast 30 minutes earlier, was submerged under 15 feet of water. Then the waters began to recede in an ever-quickening pace. Tons of moving water swept away everything in its path: a canoe, a blue freezer, pots and pans, wooden and plastic tables, deck chairs and pads, beach umbrellas, Styrofoam coolers, logs, cocoanuts and life vests. In the middle of the bay, the receding waters were then met by newer and stronger swells emanating from the epicenter. These clashing waves created gigantic whirlpoolsbefore the oncoming waves could reach the shore. At their highest point, the waves reached the rooftop of the beachfront restaurant. Although we seemed safely perched nearly three stories above the water, I feared that the next few waves might actually reach us.

Our hotel lost everything on the first level...mainly, their restaurant. People were screaming. I could hear people hollering the names of their loved ones. Staff and tourists were running up the stairs, and fleeing to higher ground.

Fortunately, our hotel HAD higher ground. Other beaches that were more level were harder hit on the shore...and inside the rooms. People lost their possessions and luggage, passports, IDs, money. Fortunately, many are able to be evacuated w/o paperwork to Bangkok--and then home.

One guest at our hotel thought her husband had been swept out to sea. She was trembling in fear, and crying. When the Tsunami struck, they were on the beach. He pushed his wife and child up on the rocks. They were safe. But they were separated. Fortunately, he survived and returned to the hotel..into her shaking embrace. Our hotel (only 20+ rooms) suffered no life casualties---only injuries to those who were swept up by the wave, hit by travelling debris while clinging onto a tree or pole, or anything they could grab.

We didn't come down from our bungalow because everyone expected a second tsunami to hit again. But we didn't know when. We were at the mercy of Mother Nature, and simply had to surrender and pray that a second wave didn't occur, especially if and when one decided to head downstairs. With tsunamis, there is no visible indication it's coming. As one reporter described, it's like being cracked with a bullwhip that comes out of nowhere.

People on the beach said they thought it strange that the tide had receded so far. This is one indication. But you see no wave approaching, as tsunamis are a series of waves that eventually compress at once on the shore.

The Thai staff was incredible. They brought us some pork/rice plates, water and cluster of 5 bananas for lunch. They also brought us candles at night, and re-assured us at night that they didn't expect a second hit.

Thank God we had cell phones. Some were able to reach us by text message or directly/ We know others tried to reach us, too. But we were unable to receive them. But we knew people cared and were worried...especially those that knew we were in Phuket.

From our bungalow, we did shoot some photos with Jan's small digital Canon, and some video clips. We figured that if we survived, we should document this calamity.

During the evening, we lit our candles and watched a DVD on Jan's laptop. It helped to calm us down. Another British guest was very reassuring, as they seemed to understand what was happening. This woman could sense I was terrifed, so she asked, "Are you OK?" She was very thoughful and perceptive. People did reach out to eachother.

Our hotel has been in the familiy for three generatons. Although they lost everything downstairs, including paperwork, people promised to pay on the honor system. As Nong, the owner said, "The restaurant can be rebuilt. The most important thing are the lives." No one at our hotel died, but came too close to danger.

Two days ago, their staff called us a taxi. They even waited on the road until it arrived. We were among thousands at the airport. But we did catch our flight. Once we landed in Bangkok...we went to get a shortwave radio. In the course of talking to a Thai salesgirl, whom we already knew from previous trips, she urged us to submit out video clips and eyewitness report to ITV. So we did.

The other night, we were both interviewed on ITV, which feeds clips, etc. to Reuters and other news services. We gave our eyewitness report via TV, with Jan's video clips. Many of the Thais want to know what happened. We expressed our sadness at this tragedy, and shared how wonderful the Thai people were toward the foreigners.

In Thailand, the tragedy is very personal also in that the King's beloved 21-year-old grandson perished after jetskiing on Phang Nga island---where we had gone snorkerling earlier that week.

Please let those who ask know that we are thankful for their calls, prayers and e-mails. We are truly thankful to all spirits for surviving this ongoing tragedy, and pray for the safety, recovery and healing of all others impacted in Asia.

In peace and compassion,

Brenda Sunoo, (a Korean American journalist currently
living in Vietnam).




May I condense this A Tsunami Story in Phuket? for my forthcoming book on earthquake prediction?C
May I condense this A Tsunami Story in Phuket? for my forthcoming book on earthquake prediction? COrey39184 [at] aol.comC