Juneau survivors tell tale

High ground keeps Phuket beach visitors out of the waves' reach

Posted: Sunday, January 02, 2005

Juneau teacher Richard Steele was packing his bags in his room at the Peach Hill Hotel & Resort, 500 yards from Kata Beach on Phuket Island, Thailand, when he heard screaming.

He looked out his window and saw the water.

It was 9:30 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 26, and the first wave of the Asia tsunami - one of the worst natural disasters in modern history - had just struck Phuket. The initial crest had hit the shore about 30 feet above sea level. Those unlucky enough to be in its path were being swept on a wild ride inland.

As of Satursday, the tsunami death toll had climbed to at least 123,184 - 4,812 in Thailand. Phuket, a large island province of 1.6 million in south Thailand, was one of the hardest-hit areas.

Steele; his wife, Luann McVey; his two daughters, Lydia and Laura; his in-laws, Bob and Betty McVey; his sister-in-law, Jeanie Macaulay; and her son, Liam, all from Juneau, were in the hotel. They were a steep, 150-foot climb above sea level and away from danger.

A few miles away, Juneau-Douglas High School vocational teacher Craig Mapes and Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School art teacher Kathleen Wiest were uphill in the tiny town of Karon, also safe.

"It was just happenstance that we weren't at the beach," said Steele, speaking on his mobile phone Thursday from the city of Kanchanburi, near the River Kwai. "If you were on high ground you were OK. I think it's sinking in now that we had a close call."

Sunday morning began with breakfast at the hotel - perched atop Peach Hill between Karon and Kata Beach. It was the day after Christmas, and Steele was surrounded by family. He and Luann, teachers in the Juneau School District, are on leave and working at the Ruamrudee International School, a private college preparatory school in Bangkok. Their daughters are in Thailand with them. Their in-laws were visiting for the holidays.

At the breakfast table, Jeanie Macaulay asked the others if they had noticed an earthquake early that morning.

"She said she felt the walls moving, but none of us felt it except her," Steele said. "We told her she was crazy. It was probably the water truck coming down (Peach) hill."

It was a quake, a 9.0, the fourth-largest of the past century. The epicenter was six miles under the Indian Ocean seabed, 155 miles south-southeast of Banda Aceh, Indonesia, and 450 miles southwest of Phuket. The jolt was powerful enough to disrupt the Earth's rotation, and some scientists say it was comparable to the detonation of 1 million atomic bombs, according to The Economic Times.

But Thailand, like so many other countries, was oblivious. Steele and his family were watching television when the ocean dramatically receded, then swung back with the first giant wave. There was no broadcast warning.

Craig Mapes said "people told him that there were people wading in the ocean when the water receded and went dry," Steele said. "You could see the coral and the fish flipping around. There were Thais just standing there with their mouths wide open, and the white people all went down to look at the low water like idiots."

From his window, Steele saw the water surging up the road toward town. There were no authorities in sight, just panic. His television was still working and the electricity was still on. Some guests were still eating breakfast and didn't bother to look down the hill.

Steele decided to help. He ran down Peach Hill. The waves were still coming in and it was too dangerous to walk down to the beach. Twenty meters above sea level there was plenty to do.

Steele met a Swedish man who was looking for his 24-year-old son. They began pulling debris out of the surging, black water, looking for anyone. Survivors were streaming from the beach, badly cut and still fighting the waves.

The first wave had plucked two divers out of the ocean and left them dangling 18 feet above sea level in two gnarled, hardwood trees. Steele called to them, and they said they were fine.

The waves had turned the area between the hill and a Club Med into a swirling lagoon, filled with chunks of sewage from a nearby water treatment center.

"The water was just filthy, black, and there were people stuck in it and stuck in the bushes," Steele said. "There was stuff everywhere; you could find anything you wanted. We were looking for a piece of rope to throw to the people."

One man on a surfboard, tethered to the shore by a piece of rope, paddled into the torrent and saved a man from drowning. Another group unfurled a fire hose from Club Med and walked it into the torrent, fishing for survivors.

Steele peered into the darkness and saw a human hand reaching out of the muck. It was a drowning woman.

"I went into the black water and grabbed her by the shoulders," he said. "She was about 60 years old. I think she had a swimsuit bottom, but the water blew her clothes off."

Two other people came over to lift her feet. They pulled her out of the water and set her down on dry land, where other rescuers gave her aid. She was still breathing.

Steele saw another man trapped in the middle of the water, too far out to help.

"Two tall guys ran in for him, and then the next wave came and I don't know what happened to them," he said.

The waves were still crashing in, and the area around the lagoon was unstable. Every time a new surge swept in, crowds would yell a warning. Everyone would run up the hill to safety.

On the other end of Karon Beach, Mapes and Wiest spent part of the morning lounging near the water. At about 9 a.m. they were strolling through the tiny town of Karon. Suddenly, they heard yelling and saw motorcycles racing away from the beach.

"Craig thought it was a terrorist," Steele said. "He looked around and up came this wall of water up the street."

Back at Karon Whale Resort, Mapes, Wiest and the rest of at hotel's guests were evacuated to the top of a hill. Mapes grew tired of sitting in the hot sun and walked back down the hill. Inland, he rented a motorcycle and called Steele. Each was relieved to hear that the other was safe.

That afternoon there wasn't a cloud in the sky, just sunshine. Steele started to see the piles of dead bodies. A few hours removed from Christmas, the people of Phuket were just starting to realize the scope of the disaster.

"The beach was just littered with shoes," he said "For every one of those shoes, somebody was gone."

Steele and the Swedish man continued looking for the man's son. They went uphill to a makeshift police station, half a mile from the beach. Unidentified bodies were laid out and covered with tarps.

"It was hot sun in the afternoon, and pretty ugly for the man to have to look at bodies," Steele said.

The man found his son later that afternoon. He was on the other side of Kata Beach, uphill and away from danger.

Steele and his wife have a few teacher friends who were vacationing in Sri Lanka during the tsunami. That country was hit hard, with at least 28,729 dead by Saturday and at least a million more displaced. The teachers sent Steele an e-mail letting him know they survived.

Another couple they know was five kilometers inland. One more close friend, who loves to stay in beach bungalows, also escaped injury. But their school in Bangkok has dozens of teachers, many of whom often go to the beach for holidays.

"We're afraid that some of them got hurt," Steele said. "We're bouncing these e-mail messages around to see who's OK and who's not OK. We haven't heard of anybody missing that we know. We're lucky that we didn't even lose our stuff."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.

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