Accessibility links

Scuba Diving Instructor Tells of Tsunami Horror on Thai Beach

The tsunami that struck South and Southeast Asia spawned stories of horror. Even many who lived through it say they could not comprehend what was happening. VOA correspondent Gary Thomas talked to one American who was caught in the tsunami on a beach in Thailand, and found some newfound skills put to good use.

Paul Landgraver loves the water. But, as he found out on December 26, the feeling was not mutual. On that day, December 26, the 33-year-old American scuba diving instructor found himself desperately struggling to stay on the surface of rushing water rather swimming underneath it.

"I swam for it. I couldn't swim forward or backward because the water was moving way too fast. I swam side to side to avoid buildings, trees, cars that were floating by, things like that. And I ended up more than a kilometer inland," he says.

Khao Lak, a small village north of the more popular resort of Phuket, and its surrounding area were popular among international scuba divers. A community of some 300 expatriate dive instructors - most of them from Scandinavian countries - set up shops in the area to cater to tourists.

Mr. Landgraver, who had been in Thailand for about three years, was one of the hundreds of Western scuba diving instructors who had migrated to Thailand for its pristine diving conditions. He and his girlfriend Karin Sudelius were relaxing the day after Christmas in their bungalow only some 100 meters off the water's edge in Khao Lak when he noticed a trickle of water edging in. In a matter of minutes, the trickle was a flood, and the pair fled to the apparent safety of the second floor.

"And we realized how bad things were, so we tried to throw a mattress out the window. By the time we even got there, the water was coming through our second floor and knocked down the wall of our second floor. And we jumped. We jumped into the water. And at this point, the water was at least [three meters] deep and still rising. We got separated at that point," he says.

He lost everything, including the clothes on his back, but was relatively unscathed except for some lacerations. But there were many he saw that were far, far worse.

"I literally saw someone impaled on this debris, trying to wiggle and get off, kind of like a moth. I saw someone decapitated by the debris. Afterwards, when we were pulling people out of the water - out of the still water when it was done, the pools and ponds that remained - I probably saw 50 people in an hour who were trapped in the debris, wrapped around trees, and all of them drowned and dead," he says.

Some 5,000 people are estimated to have perished from the tsunami in the Khao Lak area. Mr. Landgraver says one of his Thai dive shop employees subsequently committed suicide because he lost his mother, father, wife, and five children.

Fortunately for some survivors, scuba diving instructors are required to be certified in first aid. Mr. Landgraver had passed his medical certification only one month before the tsunami, and found himself putting his newfound skills to work. Most of the divers with just basic first aid were dealing with drownings and massive traumas and death. And these are all people who - we're just divers.

"We just love being in the water and doing what we do. And here we are, stuck in a situation where there's nothing to do but try our best," he says.

It was at one of the makeshift first aid stations set up in a dive shop that Mr Landgraver found his girlfriend alive. She had survived by clinging to a palm tree.

Cut off from the world, several of the divers elected to try to make the 800-kilometer journey from Khao Lak to Bangkok by car to try to get home. When they got to the Thai capital, the Scandinavian and German citizens got food, clothes, and flights home. The U.S. Embassy, he says, was not so welcoming.

"When I arrived at the American Embassy, I got a brand-new passport and a paperback novel, but no assistance of any kind. And I had absolutely nothing in the world. I had a pair of shorts and a T-shirt I had borrowed," he says.

Mr. Landgraver says he went to the Bangkok airport and basically begged and pleaded with airlines for help. Sympathetic employees of Japanese Air Lines gave him a ticket home.

Since his return to Berkeley, California, Mr. Landgraver says he has been trying to make some sense out of what happened to him.

"I'm not sure what to make of all this. To come out of it like I am, even relatively sane and sound, is the hand of something much, much bigger than me. To have just taken all the medical training I had that was designed almost for a situation exactly like this one month before was a miracle. It's just flabbergasting to think of it. There are no coincidences in this," he says.

But one thing is certain, he says - he will get back to diving as soon as he can. Paul Landgraver's one-sided love affair with the water is undiminished.