Archive for Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Decision to go rock climbing rather than snorkeling likely saved lives

January 12, 2005

Editor's note: This is an e-mail that Pam and Tom Geyer sent after surviving the Dec. 26 tsunami while the family was vacationing in southern Thailand.

I can't leave the year 2004 behind without writing a little about the events of December 26.

You probably didn't know that we planned to vacation in Thailand for Christmas.

After several days in Bangkok we flew to Krabi, in southern Thailand. Our small hotel was on Ao Nang Beach in Krabi Province. On the morning of Dec. 26, we took a wooden longtail boat for about 15 minutes to the peninsula which hosts the beaches of Railei East, Railei West, and Pranang. Our plan was to rock climb for the morning.

Let me say right now that we suffered no injuries, felt no panic, and witnessed no horror in our tsunami experience. Our climbing group had set up ropes at the base of a cliff at the northern end of Railei East Beach. Many climbers were already stationed right on the sand, climbing cliffs that met the shore. It was pretty crowded, so we climbed up a hill about 15 feet around the corner from them and set up ropes at the base of a cliff a bit higher.

Below us was a shelter house and the north bit of the beach, but the rest of the coastline and the view out into the bay was blocked by trees and boulders.

At about 10:30 a.m., we heard people screaming and saw them run inland from the beach cliffs they had been climbing. Our guide said that they were saying that a "big wave" was coming. We were already standing far above the sea level, so we didn't go down to run further inland.

Our guide assured us that he could take us up higher, around the cliff, if necessary. So we held our ground and waited. It was at least a few minutes later when the largest wave hit, and it did not crash down, but rather sloshed in.

It filled the shelter house with water to about chest high, and then it slid right back out to sea.

Actually it didn't seem like a huge event to us, except that the guides were saying they had never seen anything like this in their lives. We were pretty sure this was the result of an earthquake, but we had no idea of the magnitude of the event.

After about an hour we went back to the main stretch of beach. The wave had obviously hit a little harder there, but, still, there was little real damage. We returned our climbing gear and, eventually walked up to a high point observation area in the center of the peninsula where we joined many who had been on all three of the beaches when the tsunami hit.

Some were scratched up; a few people had fractured legs. We waited on this highpoint for several hours, to avoid any danger from aftershocks. There was actually a bar there. Water and snacks were trucked up to us throughout the day as well. About 5 p.m., we left the hilltop. There were a few boats going back to Ao Nang, but, for several reasons, we decided to stay on Railei Beach overnight.

We found a vacant hotel room and were taken back to Ao Nang Beach the next morning. We found that Ao Nang Beach had also been spared. The beach was a bit torn up, but the beachfront shops, restaurants, and hotels, were all undamaged.

The only real evidence we saw of death was a pile up of about 40 of those wooden longtail boats. Evidently all of the boat operators on the sea at the time saw the wave coming and headed for an inlet for shelter. The wave pushed all of these boats up the inlet and smashed them into a bridge.

When we arrived in Ao Nang, the fire department was already there, washing the street, and within a few days all debris, including a big dive boat which had crashed on the shore, had been hauled away. The longtail boats in the bridge collision which were not completely destroyed were laid out on the beach by the time we left on Jan. 2 and were being rebuilt or repaired.

We stayed on afterwards. Obviously many tourists needed to leave, and we decided to stay out of this first wave of movement. Rescue operations were set up on the beach to search for missing people, and I was impressed with the efforts.

We felt a little useless, but businesses remained open and activities away from the sea continued to occur. The hospitals didn't need any more blood at the time, so there wasn't much we could do other than continue to spend our tourist dollars.

So we continued vacationing inland, exploring the jungles, caves, and rivers. On Jan. 1 we went rock climbing again on the peninsula. It was a while before we had the opportunity to study the news reports in English or watch the horrific images of the effects elsewhere which were broadcast on BBC and CNN. In some ways, the shock and the feelings of insignificance never set in until, like you, we were confronted with information about what was occurring elsewhere.

The irony of our situation is that, despite the minimal damage which occurred on the beaches where we stayed, this area was actually one of the hardest hit in terms of deaths.

I think that 1,000 people are still missing. These are primarily those who were snorkeling on offshore reefs, those in boats in shallow water, and those on Phi Phi Island.

I don't understand the physics of tsunamis well enough to figure out why our beaches weren't hit as hard. I do know that those on the beach had plenty of warning because they could see the wave coming from some distance. I think this has something to do with the fact that the waters are shallow; the ocean bottom slopes gently out to sea from these beaches, so the waves surfaced long before they reached the shores. This same feature is what made the conditions so devastating for the boats and snorkelers.

So, while our experience was not particularly frightening or shocking, we realize now that our survival was a whim of fate -- why did we decide to rock climb that day instead of snorkel?

And once again, we are reminded to appreciate each moment of our lives and all of the people whose paths have crossed ours.

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