It’s 4am on the 12th April. I am sat in Phuket airport and I’ve been staring at the same spot on the floor for two hours, desperately trying to make sense of what has just happened to me.
Today, I was convinced I was going to die.
At 3:30 pm on the 11th April 2012, a huge earthquake struck off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia. Right now, that’s the only information I have.
At the time, I was on a boat back to Phuket after an amazing week spent in Koh Yao Noi. I was happily sunbathing on the ferry, working on my tan when about half-way through the journey I felt a large bump. Several of them as the boat swayed slightly from side to side. Being the paranoid, anxiety-filled individual that I am, my head was immediately filled with irrational fears – What was that? Did we just hit something? What if it made a hole in the boat? Are we going to sink? Maybe we hit a shark? Are there sharks out here?!
Little did I know, for the first time in my life, the reality was far worse than my paranoia.
Unaware that anything had happened, we arrived at Phuket where a very nervous taxi driver was waiting for us.
“You feel earthquake? Earthquake 30 minutes before you arrive. Very big one. Very scary.”
Dave and I shrugged and told her that we’d been on the water and hadn’t felt anything. However, I couldn’t help but start to feel a little worried. I’d experienced an earthquake for the first time while in Taiwan and at a magnitude of just 4.5, it was enough to have me freaked out for days afterwards.
All I could think about was getting to the airport and getting out of Phuket before the aftershocks started to hit.
Arriving at the airport, I noticed an unusual amount of people crowding around outside. Our driver asked the security guard if the airport was still open. It was. Phuket airport has bag scanners located at the entrance to the building and I had just taken off my backpack to get it scanned when suddenly,
The air filled with gasps and screams and as I raised my eyes in confusion I saw every single person in the airport simultaneously stampeding towards me wearing the same look of terror on their faces.
I instantly reached for Dave. “Dave! What’s happening? What’s going on?! What do we do? What’s–“
…And then I realised.
There’s a bomb.
I stopped talking, dropped everything and launched myself towards the exit, running faster than I ever have before. I tripped, I stumbled, I almost fell to the ground on several occasions but nothing could stop me getting out of there.
With the pain in my side increasing until it felt like I was being ripped in half, I barely even noticed the growing ache in my chest, the trembling of my legs and the pins and needles in my face.
After reaching what felt like a much safer distance I immediately tried to find out what was happening.
“There has been very big earthquake. Big aftershocks. Tsunami is coming. Like last time.”
I stood motionless for a minute, unable to move, unable to think, unable to process what was happening. As I came to my senses, all I knew was that I had to find Dave.
We had become separated at some point, and so I did exactly what you aren’t supposed to do in situations like these. I turned around and started running back towards the airport.
I fought my way through the hoards of frantic people – Everybody was either running, screaming or crying. It was like a scene from a disaster movie. Parents were launching their children into songthaews and yelling at the drivers to take them to higher ground, children were near hysterical with fear and I was being pushed and shoved from every direction as everybody fought to save themselves.
I raced back, desperately scanning every petrified face, searching for a glimpse of familiarity, but nothing. My heart sank. I reached the airport, walked inside and it was like a ghost town – just a few people were left now.
And then I saw our bags.
I don’t know what was going through my mind, but I knew I had to bring them with me. I pulled my three bags onto my back and front, and then dragged Dave’s one off the conveyor belt.
I found a luggage trolley, lifted Dave’s bag onto it with a superhuman strength that I wasn’t aware I possessed and began to run like my life depended on it. Because, well, at that moment, it did.
I usually struggle to carry my bags for more than 100 metres at a time, so trying to run with three bags while pushing another uphill was like trying to solve a maths equation with a poem.
Within seconds, my clothes were drenched with sweat, my face was burning up, and I felt like I was going to vomit. My back felt like it was about to break and my legs threatened to give way at any second.
Running parallel to the runway, I spent half my time colliding with people, cars and scooters, and the other half frantically looking behind me, expecting to see a tidal wave engulfing the airport.
Over and over, I considered ditching the bags by the side of the road. I didn’t want to die because I’d tried to rescue all of my belongings. But how can I just leave everything here to be stolen?
I could feel the fatigue setting in and I was growing weaker and weaker with each passing step. As the road started to get steeper, I could hear myself bursting into tears and pleading for help with my trolley. Not a single person even acknowledged my existence.
Fortunately, after a few minutes of begging, somebody finally took pity on me and helped to push my trolley uphill. I thanked him over and over and over, before quietening down to just whimpering about how scared I am.
“We’re all scared, love” was his grim reply.
After what felt like hours, we finally reached the evacuation point: An area of ground raised not much more than 2 metres above the road.
This isn’t high enough. We’re not high enough. I need to get higher.
Looking around, my knees began to buckle and tears welled in my eyes, causing the horrific scene to writhe before me. As I watched frantic people climbing on top of walls, trees and buildings, a woman collapsed on my shoulder in tears.
“We’re all going to die. My babies. I’ll never see my babies again. My family. Help me. Please, God.”
I held her tightly as we both cried hysterically. My only thought at that point was: I am going to die alone.
And then, an arm on my shoulder, a kiss on my cheek.
Dave had found me.
I couldn’t even speak as the tears streamed down my face. I clutched at him desperately, promising to myself to not let go until all of this is over.
My joy was short-lived as an official announcement was made over the loudspeakers: It has been confirmed. A tsunami is heading our way. It is thought to be four metres high and it is due to hit in twenty minutes.
I spent those minutes panicing, crying and murmuring complete and utter nonsense at Dave.
And suddenly, silence.
Every single person stopped speaking. The birds stopped singing and the breeze felt noticeably cooler.
As I looked around in confusion and unease, I could hear a faint hissing noise in the distance, increasing in volume with every passing minute. As I scanned the faces of the crowd I could see the sheer terror and panic on everybody’s face.
The tsunami was coming and it was at this point that I really lost it.
“No. NO! Dave. I love you. Oh my god. Don’t let me die. Please don’t let me die. I’m so scared. Dave. I can’t die. Oh my god. What’s happening? Please. Please. PLEASE.”
Squeezing his hand so tightly that I thought I might break his bones, I turned to face the runway and prepared to die.
I was going to die.
As the noise reached almost deafening levels, a large plane slowly came into view… The entire crowd breathed a loud sigh of relief and started to cheer and laugh.
I’d have felt embarrassed if I wasn’t bent over, dry-heaving in a bush.
My knees gave way and I collapsed on the floor amid a flood of tears. I was done. I couldn’t take any more. The adrenaline had gone, I had no energy left and no will to live.
I just wanted the nightmare to end.
There had been no further updates on the situation so all we could do was sit and speculate.
With a small amount of data left on Dave’s phone, we would check Twitter every 10 minutes to see if there were any updates. Everywhere has been evacuated. There have been two more aftershocks. The tsunami is due to hit within an hour. The wave is four metres high. The wave is one metre high. The wave isn’t going to reach us.
This was interspersed with information from the crowd, with some people stating how it had been the biggest earthquake in history, that the ocean in Phuket had receded over one kilometre, that everybody in hotels in Thailand would have to stay there for three days and that we were all going to die.
I didn’t know what to believe, but I couldn’t allow myself to believe that we were going to be ok.
There was another announcement: If nothing bad happens within two hours everybody will be free to go.
The slowest two hours of my entire life. And definitely not the calmest either.
The data on Dave’s phone had run out so we had no access to any information. We could just pace back and forth like everyone else, waiting to be told that we would all be ok.
As trucks of airline crews were transported to the evacuation area, the final announcement was made:
We were ok. The airport was going to reopen in half an hour and our flights would depart at some point after that.
I should have felt relieved, I should have felt happy, I should have joined in with the cheers and dancing of everybody else, but I just felt numb. I felt empty and spent the next few hours in a trance, barely speaking, just staring straight ahead with eyes glazed over.
The rest of the night flew by in a blur:
Slowly trudging back to the airport in the dark. Joining the queue to check in. Finding out that all flights have been cancelled and that all flights tomorrow are full up. Spending the night lying on the airport floor, unable to sleep. Every small noise waking me up and filling me with fear and dread.
And that’s where I am now.
Alive. But very much shaken up, emotionally scarred and desperate to get out of Phuket.
Afterword: After Dave started queueing at 4am to get us put on the standby list, we were fortunate enough to get on the first flight to Chiang Mai the next morning.
It was then that I discovered the “tsunami” was, in fact, 10 cm high. Five people died. Mostly due to shock and heart attacks. I’m surprised I wasn’t one of them…
And so, I guess this is now a ridiculously over-dramatic post about a 10 cm wave.
But it was, without a doubt, the scariest day of my entire life…
[Images via: Twicepix/Flickr, Mollivan_Jon/Flickr, timbodon/Flickr, astanhope/Flickr]
AMES, Iowa – “I didn’t breathe under water. I didn’t stop my prayers. And I didn’t give up hope…”
Six years ago, Onalie Ariyabandhu began writing those words about her family’s harrowing experience during the Sri Lanka tsunami in 2004. She recently was able to finish the story, which she submitted to an essay contest. And she won -- the 2012 International Student Voice magazine $2,500 scholarship sponsored by International Student Protection.
More than 700 international students studying abroad entered the competition with essays about an experience from their lives and how it influenced who they are today. Another Iowa State student -- Phylip Karei, a senior in mechanical engineering from Kenya -- was one of 10 finalists.
Ariyabandhu, her mother, sister and cousin were swept away in a van as the tsunami hit the town of Galle. Her father watched in horror from a nearby supermarket, jumping into the water after his family. Amazingly, Ariyabandhu’s family survived.
“It’s not only the cash reward,” she said about the competition. “It was a chance for me to express my feelings and everything I went through.”
Ariyabandhu was 14 at the time of the tsunami. She is now a triple major at Iowa State University studying economics, international studies and environmental studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. She plans to graduate from ISU in spring 2014 and then attend graduate school to study policy affairs or international policy.
Next summer, she will return to Sri Lanka to help host a new ISU study abroad program that she helped to establish. Part of the trip will include visiting Galle and the tree that Ariyabandhu said saved her life during the tsunami.
The experience made her more confident, she said. “I realized that if I could overcome that trauma, there can’t be anything I can’t come out of.”
Read her winning essay at http://www.isvmag.com/2012scholarshipwinner/.