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One Family's Experience With the Tsunami

DECEMBER 30, 2004

I have received many e-mails from concerned friends around the world and have had little time to reply, so I am sending this e-mail and hope that it includes everyone who has been worried and sent their good wishes.

My family and I were spending Christmas vacation at a beach house in Talpe, a small village seven miles southeast of Galle, on the southwest coast of Sri Lanka. All of us are okay–a collection of stunning miracles. Unfortunately, several of the people who helped save the lives of my sisters, nephews, and nieces were swept away to sea. One of our house's staff members lost his own life.

The enormous death and destruction all around us only leaves me in amazement that we all survived. Our house was right on the ocean, but the coral reef a hundred feet in front of it and the seawall probably bought my sisters and their children maybe 30 lifesaving seconds to flee. That morning, all the children were at the back of our neighbors' house, watching their elephants being washed, instead of playing on the beach. Their heroic staff managed to save the children from the initial wave and prevent them from being dragged out to sea or crushed by collapsing walls. Most of the kids were subsequently swept inland and miraculously placed on the roofs of small houses by locals although relatively few of the locals could swim, and sadly drowned), or they somehow managed to cling to trees, or were actually pulled from beneath the water by frantic parents or kind strangers. It took up to an hour for my sisters and their neighbors to locate all of their children–an unimaginably harrowing time.

Earlier that morning, my girlfriend Ann and I had headed down the coast in a minivan. It was the first morning in more than a week and a half that we'd decided not to go surfing, although I dropped off both my brothers-in-law (Gregoire and Frank) and one of my nephews (Hugo, 10) at Weligama, about 12 miles southeast of Talpe, at around 8:50 A.M. so that they could go surfing. Ann and I continued down the coast for another 12 miles en route to Tangalla, where we planned to have lunch at a lobster shack on the beach. We were passing through the coastal town of Matara shortly after 9 A.M. and briefly stopped to look at the small Dutch Star Fort there, although we quickly discovered it was closed for the Full Moon holiday, Poya. This one-minute delay most likely saved our lives. Had we not stopped, we'd probably have made it across the bridge and into Tangalla, which we later learned had enormous casualties. (The town was crowded because of the holiday and an elephant procession that was planned for later that morning.)

Our minivan was just crossing the bridge onto the main island of the town when people started running in complete panic toward us as though a bomb had just exploded. Our driver leaned out the window and managed to get a brief explanation: “Water coming.” We then saw some water in the street a few hundred feet ahead. It looked like a water main had burst, but people continued to flee and cars, tuk-tuks, buses, and motorbikes tried to turn on the already full bridge. Up ahead, two crowded buses slowly started to careen as if turning, moving sideways toward us before they jammed into each other and lodged against the sides of the street, forming a dam for several seconds. Water rushed beneath the buses as the traffic frantically fought to get off the bridge while the water in the estuary began to rise dramatically. Our driver managed to swing the van around without killing anyone and drive off the bridge as water suddenly exploded over the buses, pushing them down the streets in the wake of a wall of water about eight or nine feet high. At the same time, water also started to come over the sides of the bridge from the estuary.

Everything seemed measured in seconds as I shouted, “GOGOGOGOGO!!!!!!!!” to our driver, who sped off the bridge just as the island in the middle of Matara became engulfed in seawater. We tore along a side street, through a few gardens, the back of someone's house, and uphill on another side street before finding the main road into the hills. We drove north for an hour or so to Akressa, past surreally beautiful scenery of serene paddy fields with islands of palm trees and colonial houses set in their midst. People lined the streets of small villages desperately trying to get information from the survivors piled onto buses and motorbikes.

We finally managed to get far enough west to try to cut back down to the coast. All this time I had been trying to call the house in Talpe and the surf shop but the cell phones were down or jammed. I kept calculating the chances of anyone in my family surviving and fought to suppress my worst fears which, to be honest, seemed grimly realistic. Depending on whom my driver questioned, the tidal wave was eight feet or 24 feet.

Meanwhile, my brothers-in-law and nephew had noticed the choppy water but only realized that there was serious trouble when the surf shop on shore disappeared and they themselves were rapidly swept inland and into the undergrowth. At one point, Hugo's board became snagged on something; he was still attached to it by his leash and was dragged underwater before the plastic gave way and he popped up into Frank's arms. They clung to each other for what seemed like half an hour as they were swept farther inland before managing to climb onto the exposed stoup of a temple. Amazingly, Gregoire appeared a few moments later on a nearby roof. About an hour after that, as the water receded, they all climbed down and were led by a young Sri Lankan child to his uncle's rest house, where they were given food and water. Frank managed to find a bicycle and spent the next three hours riding past horrific scenes of death on a terrible scale.

We made it back to the coast at around 2 P.M., some five hours after the tidal wave hit. Large waves pummeling the shore sent our driver back to wait on higher ground as I ran the mile or so along the wreckage-strewn and almost completely impassable (even to someone on foot) coastal road to the house. The train tracks, which ran alongside the road about 200 yards inland, had been thrown about 50 feet in, and were twisted like noodles. I found out later that just a little farther along the line, more than 800 people had died in a train–just one more disaster in the midst of many.

Our house didn't really exist anymore. I didn't recognize it at first and ran right by before being waved down by one of the neighbor's security guards. He directed me to a temple about a mile inland, through a literally sunken lane. I reached the temple about half an hour later at the same time as Frank for a pretty unforgettable reunion.

Our minivan had meanwhile been directed to the temple and started to ferry my family and the neighbors to a nearby guest house about four miles inland, run by an amazing Englishwoman who clothed and fed us for several nights as we treated cuts as best we could and organized transport to Colombo, despite almost nonexistent phone service, no power, no running water, and a scarcity of fuel.

So here I am at the airport, waiting since 3 A.M. to fly to Paris en route to New York, typing as fast as I can. We all lost absolutely everything material when our house was destroyed, and there hasn't been the time or the emotional energy to shop for practical clothes. I managed to wash my shorts and T-shirt when I finally got to Colombo, and also picked up a new pair of flip-flops, but in the airport is a strange mix of shell-shocked Westerners with either the clothes they were wearing on Sunday morning and lots of bandages, or mismatched flip-flops and clothes donated by strangers.

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