I’m watching Channel 4’s Tsunami: Caught On Camera, tourist video footage of the Boxing Day disaster in 2004. When this actually happened I was in bed, drowning in my own lung fluid from a severe bout of bronchitis while the TV was on in the background. Somewhat delirious, I assumed I was hallucinating and putting the scenario together in my head. It was a shock when the blur between imagination and reality sharpened a few days later and I realised that was no fever dream.
What’s really scary is the way we behave in the face of danger. People are staring at the oncoming wave in the distance, admiring the fascinating beauty of this thin white line and not realising what’s coming at them until boats are overturned and it’s almost on top of them. Someone calls it “a perfect wave.” Despite the magnitude and speed of the advancing wall of sludge, people are rabbits in the headlights. The locals are just as vulnerable as they have no idea of the significance of the outflow of the sea and the bare sea bed. They’ve never seen its like before.
Everyone’s gawping. “Hey, what’s that? Do you think it’s anything to do with the tremors this morning?” “Nah!”
Yeah, that looks like fun. You want to yell at the telly, “RUN!” For those of us who saw the movie Krakatoa East of Java as kids we recognise the signs. Anyone who carried on reading about geological phenomena knows that, if the sea starts acting funny, head for the hills. Respect the ocean. Basic physics: a big trough means a big wave coming up behind it.
Someone finally utters the word you want to hear: “tsunami”. And then the spell is broken. For some.
A lot of the running is done seemingly in slomo. One tourist in red bathing trunks is on the beach staring out and then engulfed. An elderly couple stumble towards the hotel, survive the first wave and then sort of freeze. People practically crawl up the stairs.
I’m sitting here with my hand clasped across my face, willing them to run.
For there are more waves to come, each stronger than the last. One Briton tells us how the worst thing for him was being on top of a building and not knowing if this would be the last one. Would the next one collapse the building, overwhelm each man-made edifice? Even for those in the hills, rumours go round that another one 50 metres high is coming, and another after that 100 metres.
Every time you see someone in the water you know that’s a dead person in waiting. It is truly horrible.
Survivors tell of the massive power. It’s been described as like being churned around in a giant washing machine with big chunks of concrete. A man’s clavicle breaks. A woman feels something snap and then she can’t use her legs. Turns out she’s just heard her pelvis shattering. Another couple try to cling on to their little girl. The mother loses grip of her. The next time they see her she’s in a coffin.
Hotel manager Mark Heather phones his wife who’s in their bungalow within his eyesight, hears it ring, yells, “Move! Move!” before it goes dead. That’s probably when she died.
American Stu Breisch and his diving party are caught in the undersea whirlpool and emerge to a scene like World War Three. Thousands of dead bodies on the beach. There’ll be 300,000 in total. He assumes his two teenage kids are dead as the bungalow they were in is flattened and they have to dig through the rubble. It’s one of the tales with a happy outcome. Sort of. They find their son, Jay, in a hospital. But his sister Kali is dead. In one of the most distressing moments among many, a film crew captures the moment the family find the photo of her body posted on a wall with countless others.
Grim. Life. Don’t waste it.
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