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One Family's Experience With the Tsunami

JANUARY 1, 2005

My family and I managed to get to Colombo on Tuesday night (Dec. 28), and spent a few days recuperating and buying some clothes for the trip home. I'd made a trip back to the house we'd rented on Sunday afternoon to retrieve our passports and tickets from the safe, but most everything else in the house had been scattered by the floodwaters and the first wave of looters. Although I grabbed a few scraps of clothing, which had been caught in trees or on rubble, there was little time, still a lot of water, and one was never far from some poor unfortunate pinned underwater, hanging in a tree, or floating facedown. Thereafter, bands of machete-wielding looters made the situation far too dangerous, and time on the ground was also extremely hazardous due to the shocking number of bodies strewn everywhere, the stifling heat, the wretched smell, and the lack of water, fuel, and power.

So many people have been extremely kind and generous in aiding my family and me, both during and after this disaster. Nikki Harrison, the wonderful British owner (and Sri Lanka veteran of 21 years) of Apa Villa in Illuketia (94-914/381-411) near Galle sheltered and fed successive waves of Europeans. She was also pooling intelligence on British people in the Galle area and was in contact with the owners of hotels in the area. The last I heard, Nikki Harrison was becoming a safe staging point for journalists and groups going south to assess the situation for relief aid.

The very bighearted staff at the Hilton JAIC Tower was absolutely magnificent and treated us with such care and compassion that we had tears of gratitude. They gave us the last room they had, and made a camera crew sleep in the ballroom instead. In an instant, they filled our room with mattresses, linens, pillows, dozens of towels, toothbrushes, razors, and bathrobes so that 12 people could manage for a few nights. We sat around watching the pictures on TV for hours in stunned silence. But we've all spent days talking about our lucky escapes and the horrors we witnessed-even the children have joined in the conversation. So I believe we'll all be all right. A great many British and Australians I met and talked to survived because they were very lucky, but also, I believe, because they reacted very quickly and intelligently under pressure. Thank you so much, Vijay, a wonderful man who looked after us in our house and helped save both my sisters' lives but very sadly lost his own.

Thank you, Craig Andrews, an Australian living in China, whom we met on the road as we tried to get back to the coast. He gave us invaluable information about the situation and phoned Ann's mother. Amazingly, although all other phone and cell phone services were down, Craig's two fully-charged Nokia phones with their Chinese SIM cards worked flawlessly, and in the following days he telephoned or SMS messaged the relatives of more than 600 people he met as he waited to be evacuated from Koggala Airbase on a military transport.

Thank you, Air France, who treated my girlfriend and me with tenderness and flew us back to New York in business class despite our both being dressed in (washed and clean) Boxing Day clothes: yoga shorts, T-shirts, flip-flops, fresh bandages, and a carrier bag each. Fortunately, it wasn't too cold in New York.

I keep thinking of people to thank. Certainly, Ann, my girlfriend, who was very brave when for much of Sunday it appeared that my whole family had most certainly drowned.

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