Jason Heller’s Tsunami Report

Recount of Indonesia tsunami, by Jason Heller [www]:

I was at sea scuba diving in the uninhabited Similian Island chain, an 8 hour boat ride from the island of Phuket, when then first wave came through. What would follow are a series of events that changed the lives of so many people forever. As an up and coming underwater photographer, I had planned on spending the week taking pictures of the breathtaking beauty of the reefs and island scapes, however, I spent the last 2 days documenting the devastation, destruction and compassionate rescue efforts that not even images can properly portray. We have experienced the two extremes of paradise. The idyllic beauty and the sheer destructive power of the amazing planet that we inhabit.  

We were diving at a remote site in the open ocean called Richilieu Rock, a pinnacle in about 120 feet of water, which at high tide is exposed by about 10 feet, and during low tide is totally submerged. There was an abnormally strong current, as I literally had to pull myself across the bottom of the ocean floor, hand over hand, to keep from being washed into the current (which I would later learn was the actual wave passing through our relatively safe position in the open ocean). By the time I surfaced 34 minutes later, the sea was exhibiting extremely abnormal tides. The tide tables indicated high tide, yet Richilieu Rock was exposed by more than 15 feet. We checked again and it had disappeared under the sea. A whirpool started forming around us. Shouts in Thai rang out as our engines immediately roared and our mooring rope was cut to avoid being sucked into the whirlpool or hitting the rocks. Word came over the radio that some divers were missing at a nearby Surin Island and our crew set a course to go help. By the time we approached Surin Island 30 minutes later, we watched in horror as a huge cruise ship was battered against the rocks, unfortunately not able to maneuver fast enough the escape the waves. Through binoculars we watched the life rafts being deployed. More news began pouring in of swimmers being swept to sea from a 30 foot wave on Phuket, and that more waves were continuing north and heading right for us. Our boat crew conferred with other boats also stuck at sea, and it was decided that the safest course of action would be to head south (yes in the direction of the waves!) towards the Similians were we had what they thought was some level of protection. As we hopped from one island cove to another, we observed the abnormally low tide everywhere we stopped. The reefs were exposed in many areas, and the exposed islands looked more vulnerable than ever. It was like looking at a ring around a dirty bathtub. We made it to Similian Island #4, the only island that possessed a cell phone relay tower. However, it was nearly impossible to get a signal. Even when you could get a signal, you couldn't sustain it long enough to hold a conversation. SMS text messaging was the only means of communication. It reminded me of the hours post 9/11, when communication was nearly impossible. As sunset approached, there was an eerie calm all around us. We eventually moored our boat as recommended in water that was over 100 feet deep, but in my opinion, far too close to shore. At some point we even feel asleep. We woke to shouts of imminent demise, "get your life vests, it's coming in 10 minutes!". I expressed my frustration that we were too close to shore, but the crew did not do anything about it. So I spent over an hour watching our depth on sonar, as my rudimentary understanding of tidal waves told me that we would loose depth as the tsunami approaches. Every 10 or 20 minutes for the next 3 hours, we received frantic warnings of the eminent wave coming our way. Passengers were saying their last goodbyes, however prematurely it was. There was talk of Navy boats coming to rescue us, but it would be hours before they arrived. Boats can not outrun a tsunami. Thankfully the second sets of waves never made it in our direction. However, I have no doubt that if they did, we were too close to shore and would have been pounded against the rocks. In the morning, we set a course back to Phuket, an 8 hour trip. During the entire trip we observed everything imaginable floating in the ocean. As we approached the island, the quantity of debris increased. Lounge chairs, luggage, a refrigerator, trees and dead animals all floated past us. We even saw one of the Navy boats that was sent to pick up stranded divers, beached and helpless. After we docked is when we witnessed the true level of what had happened. I have never witnessed such levels of devastation. The tsunami destroyed in a matter of minutes, what a hurricane destroys over the course of a week. As we walked around Patong and Kamala beaches, which were hardest hit by the waves, the smell of decomposing bodies was everywhere. Rescue crews were trying to cope with the task at hand, including the logistical impossibility of accomplishing the recovery of bodies without the proper equipment. In some instances cars and buses were crushed like accordions and sent into the first and second floors of what used to be 4 and 5 star beach resorts. Images of European children with missing parents were heart breaking. For every local, there were two tourists killed or missing. The only way to try and locate missing friends and relatives was to look at boards of photos taken of the recovered dead bodies. It was eerily reticent of the streets of NYC after 9/11. Unfortunately the chances of finding your loved ones here at this point are just as grim.  

The last estimate was almost 100,000 dead and missing. But the world moves on. Hopefully a humbler and more compassionate place. We watched some tourists even going swimming in the beach, although just an hour earlier we saw a dead body randomly washing up on shore. Words and images can not paint a grim enough picture of what happened here and throughout the rest of the region that fringes the Indian Ocean. My thoughts go out to all who died or lost loved ones during this incredible natural disaster. My view of the world has changed forever. I have always appreciated the power of mother nature. "Mother" as in that which gives life, "Nature" as in the uncontrollable and unpredictable and unfortunately, what sometimes takes life. The images and feelings from the last 72 hours will never be erased from my memory

re: "jayzak" image...     

we spent the day in kaoh lak, the area hardest hit by the tsunamis. we were over 1 mile inland and roofs of 2 and 3 story structures had been torn off. it was more than words or even images can describe. in some instances the destruction and loss of life was more than our eyes and minds could absorb. the stench of decomposing bodies was everywhere. it was next to impossible to walk around without a face mask covered in scented oils. we visited the make shift morgues, which had coffins and body bags everywhere. the only way to identify the bodies was by numbered photos, which were displayed at all the police stations, hospitals and rescue stations. it was eerily reminiscent of the hours and days post 9/11, only on a much larger scale. local and foreign families alike were venturing from one hospital or police station to another clinging on to the waning hope that the lives of their loved ones may have been spared. the authorities have reported only 2,000 dead in thailand, however, we counted more than 2,000 coffins and body bags in kaoh lak alone. we fear the death toll will far surpass what has been release publicly. one can not fathom the force of the waves that struck so suddenly. if you were in their path, you had no chance of survival. all of the bodies were severely bruised from debris and had lacerations from the broken glass windows that were churning in the powerful wall of water as it passed by. sadly, many of the victims may never be recovered as they were washed out to sea when the waves receded, leaving behind only jewelry or bathing suits that may potentially be identified to help mourning families gain closure. the locals say that they can hear the souls of the victims still crying.  

re: "monkdivers" image...  

this monk's orange robe was the only splash of color highlighting a dim scene in kaoh lak, the hardest hit area in thailand, as scuba divers were surveying a lake where a bus full of foreign tourists had been washed into and buried alive days earlier. this lake was over a mile inland, across an embankment and a main road. the path of the tsunami had continued for at least another half mile past this point. a concerned local asked if i was there to recover my parents, as apparently many younger european tourists had inquired about the potential discovery of their missing parents and friends in this particular lake. i have never felt more fortunate to be alive than at that moment. the concern that locals have for the those displaced and affected by this fierce demonstration of the power of mother nature is amazing and heart warming. there is a word in thai that is loosely translated "out pouring of the heart", which describes the compassion and empathy of the thai people. with no formal emergency plan in place, the organized recovery efforts and support for victims is the flip side of such a tragedy, and is only possible due to the nature of the local people.  

re: "jaysouthseas" image...  

what once was an idyllic postcard-perfect beach is now a wasteland full of leveled structures and everything imaginable strewn about. boats, cars, motorcycles, luggage, clothes, and dead animals have become common sights for us as we walked through the rubble fields that once were the sprawling grounds of a 5 star resort. i am standing on what was once a sturdy concrete boardwalk, now reduced to it's original sandy state as the concrete was lifted right off the beach and scattered throughout the area. i can't help to think that this could have been us. we were at sea when the tsunamis came through and fate could have dealt us a different hand. but we were spared. the area affected is so vast that the army has now begun sending skydiving teams to parachute over large areas to take aerial photos and determine the extent of the damage and to locate isolated pockets of victims, some of which may not be discovered for weeks or months.   such an impactful experience is both frightening and humbling. it makes you think about the things that really matter in life - your family and friends and your own life. the night that we spent at sea, unsure of our future had brought together people from all walks of life. germans, french, singaporeans, thai and americans, all leaning on each other for the emotional and spiritual support to make it through the night. at some point my fiancé and i had to come to the realization that we may not live long enough to make it to our wedding or start a family of our own. but faced with this harsh reality, we remained positive and proved that together we could make it through any situation. we have always been drawn to the sea. we were engaged underwater (www.underwaterphotos.net/ourstory.htm), and we plan on returning to explore the exquisite coral reefs of remote parts of southeast asia for years to come.