The 2004 Tsunami: Our Story

Since the tsunami struck Japan on March 11th, people have been asking me about what it was like back in the Indian Ocean Tsunami 2004. Sonja and I wrote about the experience a few days after it happened. Here it is again:

We arrived in Arugam Bay, Sri Lanka on December 22. It had been an epic journey from Kandy to Boticaloa and then south along the coast of Ampara. Sam (from Toronto) and Liz (from Utah) were already there and had found an idyllic spot not far from the lagoon, near the center of the bay. Our Swedish friends, Erik and Jonas, showed up at our 2 bungalows on the beach a day later. Sonja and I had been travelling for 2 months through Thailand and Sri Lanka and we were looking forward to a rest and some time in the surf.

December 26, 2004

The day started like any other. The morning was already hot and sticky but a strong wind from the ocean kept us cool. Unfortunately it also rustled the palm leaves so much we heard nothing from the beach. The group of us, except for Jonas who was packing his stuff next door, were sitting inside the bungalow, chatting about what we should do for the next part of our journey.

If we had been paying attention we might have noticed the water rushing out from the beach dragging everything with it but a few stranded fish; we might have heard the yells of the fishermen as they ran for higher ground; we might have seen the wall of water coming toward us, a boiling white line that crashed over the receding water as it charged for the shore. But we heard only the wind.


RIK: The first thing I remember was the sound of a wave crashing just outside our yard. But this wasn’t possible, we were at least 2 metres above the high tide mark. I jumped from the couch to look out the front door in time to see a foamy spray splash over the cactus fence that separated our yard from the beach. I stopped stunned. The beach was gone! The whole ocean had risen ten feet, and was coming up incredibly fast, threatening to wash over us. Waves crested our fence and brackish water rushed through the gate until it was ankle deep. It was only a second before I saw the real danger – a hill of water was swelling up and coming straight for us. “It’s a wave!” I yelled. “Hang on!”

The road behind our bungalow

The tsunami engulfed our bungalow and then dragged it off its foundation as we clamoured for air. But the water pushed us against walls and ceiling. The next surge brought the roof down on top of us and everything went black.

SONJA: As the water flooded through our porch gate I lunged for the front door. I wanted to run fast and far away from the oncoming water; I didn’t want to be trapped inside. But the water burst through the front door, the only door, and we were trapped. Liz grabbed me and ran to the back of the bungalow, where we climbed onto the bed. “What’s going on?” I yelled. I kept expecting the water to stop but it never did. As it rose up past my waist I started to climb the bedroom wall. I could hear the sound of rushing water, wood snapping and Sam’s calm voice, “it’ll be alright”. The bungalow buckled under the ocean’s surge. Water filled in all around, and I pushed my hands up against the ceiling. I took a deep breath as the roof collapsed, forcing my head underwater. I felt alone in the dark water, clawing at the thatch roof trying to break free, but I was trapped. I was in disbelief, how could my life end so suddenly, without any warning? I thought of my mother and felt a sudden sadness for the pain that my death would bring. It was a calm moment when I realized that this could actually be my last.

RIK: I pulled and tore at the ceiling, trying to get free. And then another crash – a big wave broke on the roof and tore a small hole. I could see light. It was a small hole, but I tore at it until I could scramble through and onto the roof.

I looked around frantically for Sonja. The water was everywhere. The ocean had risen 20 feet and had engulfed buildings, tearing down everything but trees and concrete walls. The water was brackish and littered with furniture, clothing, a fridge, all kinds of debris… and…. people! I saw Sam come up a few metres away; and then Sonja, Liz, Jonas and Erik. We were all alive!

SONJA: I don’t know whether the waves or my own determination ripped the roof open but sunlight began to stream through. I reached for the light and pulled up through the broken roof to get out. The water was still boiling and full of debris. I had to kick and pull to free myself from the nest of broken wood. The ocean lifted me again and I swam towards Jonas who was standing in a palm tree. I wrapped my arms and legs around the tree and started to climb up.

A look at the beach after the wave hit us
A look at the beach after the tsunami

RIK: A Sri Lankan man with a thin grey beard called out to us from another floating piece of wreckage. Please help him find his parents! He pointed to a roof jutting from the water. “Over there!” Sam and I jumped in and swam over to the floating roof and climbed on.

We ripped and pulled at the thatch until we had made a hole. I reached into the murky water, grasping for something. And then I felt… a leg! “I’ve got someone” I yelled to Sam. He reached in and helped me pull the body up, feet first, through the hole.

It was the old man who had been staying with his children and grandchildren in the bungalow behind us. He looked dead. Blood leaked from his nose and his eyes were rolled back into his head. I started mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. I breathed in, tilted him on his side and waited for the air to come out. My own breath gurgled back out with a little bit of water, but he wasn’t breathing. I tried it again, and again. More water came out with each breath, but he was still not breathing. And then with a moan, he gasped inward and vomited. He was still unconscious, but he was alive.

SONJA: I didn’t see Rik or Sam, but I could hear that they had found a body. Was it safe for me to come down? I could see clothing floating in the water below. I climbed down from the tree and began to swim through scattered wreckage, looking for more trapped people. “Hello, hello!” I called out and listened for a reply.

As suddenly as it came in, though, the water started to retreat, rushing back out to sea. We yelled at each other to grab something solid and hold on! I swept past a concrete bungalow, grabbed a post and held on for my life.

RIK: Stranded on our makeshift raft, we floated toward the open ocean. Only one tree lay ahead, our only hope. Jonas, Liz and I grabbed its trunk and branches and held on, fighting the current, holding the pieces from ripping apart while Sam held on to the old man.

SONJA: And then the water was gone. We were on firm ground again. I rushed over to the others as they gathered around the old man. He was moaning and looked hurt, but he was alive. The man with the thin grey beard yelled at us again, pointing at another pile of wreckage, a big chunk of roof and huge splinters of a wall. Someone else was trapped.

We tore into the pile of broken bamboo and thatch. Erik and Wayne (an Australian who had been staying in a neighboring bungalow) lifted the roof while Sam, Jonas and Rik dug into the rubble. Almost immediately, they found her: an older woman, sitting in a chair, tipped onto her back, legs in the air. She was dead or unconscious, we couldn’t tell. We grabbed her legs and pulled her out and Rik began artificial respiration.

RIK: It was like before. I breathed into her mouth, tilted her on her side until water came out, and then I breathed again, five more times, until she let out a gurgle and spit, and then started coughing. She was still unconscious, but she alive and breathing on her own. The man with the gray beard was terrified that another wave might come. We needed to get to higher ground. Threading our way barefoot through terrible wreckage, we carried the bodies up a laneway to the road behind the yard.

As we made it to the road, I could hear wailing – anguished calls to Allah. It was horrible. People had no idea what had happened. Their families and their homes were gone. Many people had been trapped under wreckage but many more had washed out to sea. I saw one man was just standing there, almost serenely, staring towards the ocean, and another woman on her knees crying to Allah as she buried her face in her hands. Most people were running somewhere, towards the beach to find someone or away from it, screaming about another wave.


SONJA: I sat on the road and rested the woman’s unconscious head on my thigh. I wanted to comfort her, but she was unconscious, her breathing still rough. I tilted her head to let more water clear from her lungs. Many people passed us by, but they didn’t help. They had their own problems, but they also seemed afraid that she was dead and even her own family didn’t want to touch her. I traded posts with Liz to check on the old man as he lay on the other side of the road. He was paralyzed on his left side. It was a miracle he survived.

Suddenly there was a crowd of people running from the lagoon towards us. ‘Oh shit’, I thought, ‘another wave’! I panicked and joined the herd until I heard Liz shouting, “Sonja, why are you running?” It was a false alarm. My legs stopped but my heart was still racing. I desperately wanted us to move to higher ground.

RIK: 15 minutes later, the second set of waves hit, but we were already moving higher. For the first time in days I saw other travelers – white faces battered and lost, many still crying. We quickly set up an infirmary at a house along the road. Everyone was at least cut. Many bones were broken. A French man with a dislocated arm grabbed me. He was terrified of fainting and being swept back out to sea. I led him into to the infirmary where Sonja, Liz and I reset his arm. He thanked us before rushing off to help others.

SONJA: On the walk to higher ground I met Nate from Chicago. He had been in bed when the wave hit. He and his boyfriend, Fernando, were pulled out into the ocean. Fernando was still missing; Nate was in shock. Liz began compiling a list of our names and of foreigners that were missing. Rik told me that he was going back down to the beach to help Erik, Jonas and Sam. I pleaded for him to stay. We were so lucky. All of us had escaped; why push our luck further? My anxiety escalated at the thought of Rik being swept away by a larger wave. He breathed with me to help me relax and then he left. I couldn’t bear the thought of going back to the beach. Don’t waves come in larger sets? Weren’t there more to come? I was terrified. We had reached the highest point in Arugam Bay. I wasn’t convinced that it was high enough. Water had started to breach a rice paddy below our hill and it was rising even higher. Was this just the beginning? Had the ocean just cleared the way for a really BIG wave yet to come?

RIK: Sam had come back up to the infirmary to report what was happening. He, Jonas and Erik had been down near the water when the second wave hit, but they had been able to stay above it. After it receded, they had run out to find people, but there was no one alive. They had managed to carry one body, a middle aged white man, to higher ground.

As we got near the beach, we found Erik and Jonas sitting on an overturned fridge amidst the wreckage of our former bungalows. They were exhausted, but, nevertheless, drinking beer they had rescued from the fridge. They smiled sheepishly, ‘did we want one’? ‘No thanks’, I replied, concerned about dehydration and heat stroke from the blazing sun. We need to find some water soon.

Sifting through the rubble, I found another body, face down, wrapped around pieces of a wall. She was maybe 14 years old, a Sri Lankan girl bloated with water and stiff with rigor mortis. Her hair was splayed out around her head like a dark halo, tangled in seaweed and debris. Jonas and I unwrapped her from the wreckage while Erik found a board to carry her. Sam wrapped her in a sheet as we lifted her onto the board. Together, we carried her up to the road.

We found water, blankets, and some food and carried them all back to the infirmary. Most of the surviving village was there by now, and the wailing was intense, no one seemed to have been spared. We realized, once again, how lucky we had been.

SONJA: I have never heard so much suffering. I can’t recall a moment without the sound of someone mourning. So many dead, so many missing, everything lost. I sat next to a Sri Lankan woman and her husband who had lost their baby. She was so weak. She toppled from side to side as she wept. Her husband was just as distraught; the ocean had plucked their child right out of his arms. Michael, a German tourist, sat solemnly with his face hidden under a veil of fabric. He had just identified his wife’s body. No longer missing, Katrin was dead.

RIK: It was mid-afternoon, 6 hours after the first wave when the first helicopter circled to land. A mob of people rushed it, many carrying children and the wounded, desperate for help. The helicopter took off with some of the most seriously injured and then came back a few hours later for more. A small army unit had also arrived by this time to help with evacuation and security. For the next 36 hours, we shuttled between the beach and the infirmary bringing water and supplies to people who needed it. Most people were too hurt or too afraid to leave the security of the small hill, but a Dutch friend, Andre, had found an abandoned house not far away. The rumour was that a government minister and his family had been staying there but were evacuated on the first helicopter. They had left in a hurry; their breakfast half eaten. We gathered as many people as we could to come and join us there for the night.

SONJA: It was a restless night. I couldn’t sleep inside the house. I couldn’t bear the thought of being trapped again. I needed to be outside and I preferred to be up high. The water tower beside the house was the best perch I could find and it provided easy access to a roof that could accommodate at least a hundred people. Throughout the day I had been assessing the strength of the houses on the hill looking for the best roof to cling to, if a bigger wave hit. I realized that my fear was out of proportion to the risk, but I wanted to be prepared. Come hell or high water, I would hold onto a roof and survive. Rik set up a hammock in the water tower and later brought up a mattress and pillows so that we could sleep.

RIK: The next morning the helicopters started arriving to shuttle people out of the area. Sam and Liz were the second last to go and had to fly with 3 dead tourists, poorly wrapped and beginning to smell. Sonja and I flew on the last helicopter with Andre and we could finally see the extent of the devastation from the air. A bridge, the only link between Arugam Bay and the outside world was gone. The nearby town of Potuvil looked swamped with sand, water and wreckage. The death and destruction was unlike anything I had ever seen or imagined.

SONJA: It was my first ride in an air force helicopter. I sat next to an open door guarded by a man armed with a machine gun. It was a strangely exhilarating ride over the most incredible wilderness I have ever seen. The gunner pointed out some wild elephants running below us.

RIK: We landed at the army base outside the town of Ampara. We were shuttled into town, spent the night there and the next morning we caught a bus back to Colombo, the capital city of Sri Lanka.

The relief effort is now in full swing. Our visas have expired and the government is encouraging people to leave. Our plan is to catch the next flight to Bangkok and then fly back to Vancouver.

We lost everything. Camera, passports, clothes, packs, laptops. And yet, except for a few scratches, we’re ok.

Very few people in Sri Lanka know how to swim and it took some strength to keep from being pulled out to sea. As a result, most of the victims were children and the elderly.

SONJA: We were so lucky. We lost our gear, but we really haven’t lost anything. We have our health, we have each other and we have a greater appreciation for the people in our lives that care for us so deeply. Our families are quite anxious to see us and I need some time to regain my energy. I want to go home.

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