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Tsunami-generated debris greeted those returning to Phi Phi. Photo by Audrey Desiderato.

"I Was One of the Lucky Ones. I Lost Nothing."

UCLA senior Audrey Desiderato survived the December 26 tsunami while scuba-diving off a Thai island. Here she reflects on the experience and on the immense losses suffered by others.

Audrey Desiderato Email AudreyDesiderato

Since coming back to Los Angeles, I have told my “tsunami story” often. My account has become habitual and I have found it difficult to experience the same emotions with each telling.  People are fascinated that I experienced and survived this natural disaster.  My friends said they watched the news non-stop for a whole week in astonishment at the massive destruction and loss of human life caused by this earthquake.  I am not so much fascinated by my survival as I am trying to comprehend my incredible good fortune.

I was one of the lucky ones.  I lost nothing.  I left Phi Phi Island wearing my bathing suit and sarong with my mum, dad, little sister, best friend, and a small wound on my ankle.  I have since returned to UCLA and continue to work toward graduation in June.  This world of normalcy is in sharp contrast to the world of looting, killing, and suffering that is worsening in Aceh, an area especially hard hit.  I do not want to lose sight of the needs of the people I left behind or forget that the result of this disaster will be felt in the areas hardest hit for years to come.

On the morning of December 26th, our group departed Phi Phi Island at 9:15 am taking a diving boat out to a nearby island a half hour away.  I was to complete my diving certification near this island.  We clocked our dive at 10:06 am and knelt on the ocean floor performing our mask removal drill.  We started to drift from side to side while visibility worsened.  A progressive force pushed us backwards knocking us into some rocks.  We hung on as much as we could, but the current was too strong and flung us into the murky water behind us.  We were drifting fast, unable to control our direction and unable to see much except sea urchins and pieces of coral flying past us.  Other divers were getting carried by this same force above us. My biggest fear was that we would crash into some rocks at this speed.  The only thing I could do was force myself to take deep calming breaths to accommodate this overwhelming adrenaline rush and kick upwards in order to counter the downward pull.  My dive master, my best friend and I were somehow thrown together.  We clung to each other and slowly made our way to the surprisingly calm surface.  We put up our emergency buoy and waited for the boat to pick us up. Eventually, we found everyone else in our party.  The boat captain said he had not felt a thing.  All of us were clueless as to the resulting disaster made by the force that we had just experienced. 

The rest of that day and the few days following seemed surreal.  As we approached Phi Phi Island, the devastation and tragedy became known to us.  We were absorbed in our silence and attempted to comprehend our incredible luck. We had left the island just one hour before the wave hit.  We were underwater when the wave hit.  We had been drifting out at sea not knowing what happened while chaos, death and trauma replaced the paradise we had left.

The entire island had been flattened and debris polluted the shoreline. All the boats were loading passengers trying to figure out where to go. They seemed to be heading east. Local fishermen were collecting the bodies they could find.  A helicopter kept hovering back and forth. We stayed near Phi Phi Island until 10 pm trying to figure out what had happened.  We waited in the boat while some dive masters returned to the island and searched for the dive shop’s owner, Heinz, and his family and collected survivors.  Their eyewitness accounts are intimately burned into my mind. We didn’t find Heinz and his daughters.  His wife came onboard with her son completely shattered. I cannot imagine helplessly seeing a wave taking away the lives of your loved ones. 

Exhausted, we arrived at a nearby island called Prunei where the local inhabitants took us into their homes collecting blankets, food and tea for us.  These people were incredibly kind and assertively told us to eat their food although we had no appetite and did not want to deprive them of food.  I don’t think anyone slept that night.  We traveled to Phuket on the 27th where we spent the day at the emergency crisis center getting fingerprinted, photographed and identified by the French embassy.  Although the center was chaotic due to the lack of information and experience by the volunteers, I cannot over-exaggerate the effort, kindness, and sincerity of the Thai people.  The center was mostly filled with tourists and we began to recognize other people from Phi Phi Island.  Many were wounded and traumatized.  Many were separated from their families and were hoping to be reunited at the center or through their respective embassies and most were unable to do so at this point.  There was a list for all those patients at the nearby hospital, and there was a wall with pictures of victims waiting to be identified.  We left for Bangkok the next day where we received our temporary passports, and then returned to my parents’ home in Kuala Lumpur on December 30th. 

What a relief it was to return to comfort and certainty.  I hardly watched the news for a couple of days and then, there it was: Aceh.  I had one week of break left and I wondered if I should go there and volunteer since I spoke a little bahasa as my mother is Indonesian. I felt that a monetary donation wasn’t enough. Because I was lucky enough to be alive, I wanted to go and help those who could not return home and were grieving over their lost ones. I then realized that I had been sheltered from many of the devastating effects of the tsunami.  Phuket had been in relatively good shape due to the density of tourists, media, and subsequent aid flocking in. In reality, there was no way I could have entered Aceh, and even if I could, there was no way I would have been prepared to face what I would have seen. I can’t imagine the hell that has taken over there.

I do explicitly remember around 9 pm on the day of the tsunami.  We were the last boat near Phi Phi Island’s shores and had just finished collecting some survivors.  It was completely dark and we still did not know where to go because we could not communicate with the Thai navy.  At this point, the possibility that another wave could come crashing in caused panic among some in the boat.  The survivors had been absolutely traumatized by what they had seen, felt, and fought all day.  One of them informed us that we were sitting in a death trap and that we needed to get as far away from the island as possible.  My family and I sat on the roof of the boat in order to escape the frightening energy that was building up.  I thought, I have no control over my life right now, but I promise if I survive, I will use my energy to help others. 

 The media sent shocking images all over the world and as a result aid poured in. I fear that when other events take over the headlines, and the images stop coming; will America slowly forget about the victims?  Those who survived still don’t have homes, clean water, food, security or health care and the result will be more people dying. We cannot forget about these fundamental human necessities just because the immediate effects of the tsunami have passed.  Denial of these rights is embedded in politics and we must keep pressuring our governments for continuing help. We cannot turn our backs on this situation until conditions are in place for reconstruction, which will take many years.  It is imperative that aid continues to flow in and that aid goes to the right places and reaches those that most need it.  Please don’t forget that the suffering continues and we belong to the privileged population of the world with the economic and political means to help.

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