I Survived The Boxing Day Tsunami!

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It still freaks me out…I’ll never forget the “logic defying” sound of everything around me being destroyed by stupendously huge volumes of black sea water, in the space of ten sickening minutes. It was the biggest sound I’ve ever heard…and not one I ever want to hear again.

Dec 26, 2004…I was on my honeymoon with Nina. We had been travelling for 5 months around India and had just settled into the gorgeous South Coast of Sri Lanka, in a little place called Mirissa Beach, for our final few weeks. The adventure in India had been enormous, and so taxing on our energy that we had decided to spend four weeks lying on the beaches of Sri Lanka to recover and rejuvenate ourselves before heading back home to Australia to start our lives as a married couple. We booked a bungalow in a lovely, peaceful, garden fringed retreat called “Mothers House”.

We’d been there for 4 days and were just starting to get into the swing of things.  On Christmas Night we went out for dinner at a beachfront restaurant.  The evening was pleasant and relaxing…the most relaxed we’d felt in months.

The next morning we both slept in. (Nina would usually have arisen at 8am and headed to the beach to do her yoga practice).  I was awoken, with a jolt, when the manager knocked loudly on the door and then immediately came bursting into our room shouting, with a strong Sri Lankan accent, “COME AND SEE, COME AND SEE, COME AND SEE!!!” He was indicating furiously with his hands that we should follow him.

Nina & I looked at each other with concern and then jumped up and headed outside to see what he was so excited about…We could hear a strange sound in the background…it was a gentle kind of hissing, bubbly, trickley sort of sound…

As we arrived outside the bungalow a cluster of dreadful realisations dawned on us all at the same time:

  • The manager was terrified, not excited…
  • He was saying “SEA IS COMING!” not “Come and see!”
  • That was not the sound of garlands of flowers being dragged by Elephants down the road in some kind of Christmas procession…
  • There was water running down the streets, low and fast.
  • People were running away from something.
  • There was some kind of unidentified phenomena unfolding and
  • We only had seconds to respond.

Nina turned to me and said “I’m getting our passports” and headed back into the bungalow.  As she entered the bungalow I saw something that made the hair stand up on the back of my neck….

In the distance (maybe 150 – 200 metres away) I saw trees suddenly start swaying violently and then fall over, buildings moved and then disappearing…clouds of dust rose alarmingly…then a wall of water swelled up over the walls and fences separating the properties in front of us. The water was filled with debris of broken buildings, cars, trees and all manner of stuff…The sound was terrifying! Screams filled the air. Metal shrieked as it ripped apart. Timber cracked and thundered as it snapped. Glass shattered and exploded. Large objects thudded and popped as they crashed together on a chaotic path of destruction. The wave had become a bulldozer blade and it was unstoppable!

2004-tsunami photo

I ran into the bungalow to get Nina, screaming “RUN! We’ve got to RUN!” She was standing there with her passport in hand saying “I can’t find yours!” (It’s funny what we think of in those moments.) I quickly grabbed mine and shouted at her “Just FUCKING RUN!”

As we ran out the door the black putrid water that was pouring in from the ocean finally made it all the way up the street to our accommodation and burst through the gates into the gardens. At this point it rapidly fanned out, to fill the large open space, so we were lucky it only hit us low down in the legs and we were able withstand the flow enough to keep running/wading with it towards the front gates of “Mother’s House”. We had the vague notion that we would eventually climb into the surrounding hills, where it seemed everyone else was heading.

Unfortunately when we reached the front gates we were met by another torrent of water flowing at a 90 degree angle to the one we were in, and blocking our escape. Where the main street had once been there was now a deep, black, no. 5 rapid, racing through town.  We found ourselves standing in an eddy. A place where the water gently circled around, trapped by the two opposing forces. For the moment we were relatively safe.

A large Sri Lankan man next to us, holding the hand of a small girl, (his daughter I assume) decided to brave the flow and try to make it across to the other side of the main street so they could climb up to higher ground in the hills beyond town.  He stepped out into the raging, watery chaos and braced against the pressure, the terrified girl screaming. They made a few large steps out into the torrent before a large object (a wooden crate, I think) came sweeping down the street, struck the brave man in the legs and took them both under and away down the street. We never saw them again…though I still hold out the hope that they somehow survived.

Seeing this, Nina and I quickly had a discussion about what our options were. We could stay where we were, but the water was getting deeper and we had no idea what was happening or how long before the conditions could change for the worse. The only safe option we could think of, was to back-track, against the current, about 50 metres to the main building of “Mother’s House”. It looked strong and had a second story that was above the water line at this point.

We also realised that we needed to get our shoes from the bungalow, as we were in barefeet and could not see through the black water to where we were placing our feet. The risk of cutting them was extremely high, as was the risk of infection that would follow quickly in these conditions.  We started back against the current with the water getting deeper by the second and the horror of what we’d just witnessed urging us onwards.  That 50 metres seemed like kilometres to me.

About half way back to the building, we came across a dog enclosure that contained two, beautiful, long haired German Shepherds who were in a frenzy, unable to escape but fully aware of their impending doom. I made a quick attempt to open the cage door but quickly realised that they were bound shut with wire, looped through the two door handles two or three times.  In a split second of adrenaline pumped fury I ripped the doors apart, broke the wires in several places and almost tore the doors from their hinges in the process… I’ve heard about the super human strength of people in emergency situations before but this was first hand, and I remember looking down at my hands and thinking “…WOW!…” before pushing on.

We reached the bottom of the stairs leading up to safety and as we had agreed, I headed into the bungalow, which happened to be the very first one, next to the stairs, and Nina started to climb up to the relative safety of the second floor of the main building.

As I entered the bungalow I had the strangest sensation. I stood there in that room, as water poured in through the windows and under the door causing a whirlpool, and thought to myself,

“I could die here today.  Right here in this room.”

The shoes I was looking for were tied to our backpacks, floating around in the whirlpool that was once our peaceful bedroom sanctuary. I quickly grabbed the packs and started to try to undo the knots holding the shoes on. My fingers were shaking uncontrollably so after a few anxious seconds I stopped and took a moment to compose myself. I called on a simple mindfulness meditation that I’d been practicing every day for months:

“Centre…This just IS…No cravings…no aversions…This too shall pass.”  

10 seconds was all it took to calm myself down.  When I went back to untying those laces they just seemed to fall apart and I had the shoes in my hands and was heading back out the door in about 20 seconds.

The room was very quickly filling up with water so by the time I got to the door again the water was almost chest deep and hard to move through. The door was heavy with the pressure of water outside and inside, but I managed to heave it open and started wading to the stairs, only a few steps away.  As I exited the door my acoustic guitar, came floating out with me, so I grabbed it and swung it over my shoulder. I remember the distinct thought

“People are sure gonna need entertaining after THIS!”

tim refugee show

…and they did. (But we’ll get to that later.)

When I saw Nina waiting at the top of the stairs I was incredibly relieved. She had her clean laundry slung over her shoulder and her own incredible story to tell, of how she had calmed herself.

On her way up the stairs she had glanced over through the unfolding disaster scene and noticed her lovely clean clothes hanging on a washing line, just above the disgusting flood waters. In a moment of insane clarity, she had waded over to them and quickly unpegged them before heading back to the stairs. In that simple everyday action of unpegging the laundry, while the world fell apart around her, she had found her centre, calmed herself and by the time we reconvened at the top of the stairs, we were the clearest thinking people in the whole place.  Everyone else seemed to be in complete hysteria…understandably.

All of this had happened in the space of a few minutes!

For the next few minutes we watched the destruction continue from our vantage point. The ocean just kept coming and coming, slowly filling up the town and though the depth never completely swallowed the buildings the force of the water damaged a large percentage of them, especially those within the first 200 metres from the shore or near any river inlets or channels. Most of those were completely flattened.

Then it stopped…for a minute or so everything went still and quiet, then the water started to flow back out to sea…with a gathering speed that ended up being almost as powerful as the initial wave, but in reverse. Then the second wave came…Then the third…

In between the ebb and flow of these tidal waves, we started to see a bloody and saddening parade of people dragging themselves up the street from the direction of the beach. These were the ones who had survived the first waves and were trying to get to safety. Many of them were hideously injured. Some had been sitting at breakfast in the restaurant at the beach, a building made almost entirely of glass. The wave had smashed through the windows and turned the place into a slashing machine.

We ran down to the street and started to help people up to the second floor of the building. It soon became a makeshift hospital of terrified, hysterical and shocked victims.  At one point I ran down to the bungalow again and removed the top sheet from the bed, as the mattress had graciously floated during the event and the sheet was still dry on top. We torn it into strips and started to tourniquet the most seriously injured, to stop them bleeding to death. We had no clean water to bathe their wounds so ended up tipping laundry detergent powder into the cleanest water we could find and did the best we could in the circumstances. It worked well enough, because nobody we treated got an infection.

That white tiled floor was eventually completely covered in blood, and resembled something from a horror movie.

We eventually were brave enough to wander out from the retreat, looking for survivors and calling the names of missing family members of the injured. It was on one of these missions that we met a kind local man, Mr DeSilva who later that day opened his home to us and four other pairs of foreigners. We didn’t feel safe at “Mother’s House” anymore as we were unsure whether more waves would come.

Tsunami aftermath

The next three days were spent rummaging through the rubble searching for food, water, anything useful to survive. The electricity, gas, water and roads had all been cut off by the Tsunami. We had no way out and no-one could get in to help us either. We cooked on a fire on a piece of roofing iron in the middle of Mr DeSilva’s kitchen floor.

As we listened to Mr DeSilva’s battery operated radio, we began to hear reports of the size of the Tsunami, the countries affected and the ever rising, staggering death toll. It was then that we started to go into shock and disbelief of what we had just been involved in.

On the third day we were rescued by a wealthy family who owned a large tyre factory in the local area.  I was standing out on the main road, as a trickle of traffic had started to make it’s way through the carnage and rubble strewn highway that day. (Mostly four wheel drives)  I had drawn up a sign with the name of the closest large town “Matara” on it.  We had heard there were helicopters flying tourists out of there.  After about 30 minutes I saw a flash looking Jeep with tinted windows and mag wheels picking its way along the road and I waved the sign at it.  To my surprise it immediately pulled up along side me and the powered window on the passenger side whirred down. In the driver’s seat was a beautiful dark haired woman, who smiled at me and said:

“I’m sorry…I can’t take you to Matara…But I can take you to Colombo.”

Colombo is the capital city of Sri Lanka…and where the airport is. Woohoo!

(On the map below, the purple pin is where Mirrisa Beach is. Matara just to the left of the Southern-most tip of the island. Colombo is about the middle of the left hand side.)

Southern Sri Lanka - Mirrisa Beach

Within a two days we were on a plane back to Australia. It was surreal to be leaving Sri Lanka behind.  We wrangled with a roller coaster of emotions.  Relief, exhaustion, depression, elation…and severe “survivor guilt”.  45,000 people had died in Sri Lanka alone…Almost 300,000 in total. Why were we still alive?

Once home we took four months to recover enough from the Post Traumatic Stress (PTS) before we were able return to Sri Lanka to do aid work and help rebuild what we could of a decimated country.  It was an enormous task that had not really been properly started, even by the time we returned in April.

We lived there for 4 months in 2005, working on various projects that we were able to set up using the little bit of money we had managed to raise through a fundraising concert in Melbourne. One of those projects; “Ayubowan Bags“, was started with French business partner Solene Delahouse, and we were very proud of the fact that it continued for three years after we left, and was responsible for putting 67 families into new homes!

We were fortunate enough to be able to work with several orphanages in that time too, facilitating Music and Art Therapy programs that we had designed to help the kids deal with the loss of family and community.  We had amazing connections with some of those kids, and seriously considered adopting one of them.

K.G. photo

Facing our mortality and witnessing the completely random extinction of so many lives and so much infrastructure served to give Nina and I a new perspective on our lives and our purpose being here.

EVERY DAY IS A BONUS…LIVE IT TO THE FULL!

Music was an integral part of my personal healing journey but it also became an important tool in helping others find a little joy in amongst inconceivable tragedy, and aided in creating genuine connections across language and cultural barriers. We provided welcome entertainment in Tsunami refugee camps (as pictured earlier) and music became a vehicle for cross cultural connection and understanding.

It’s funny you know…I haven’t written any songs directly about the actual Tsunami experience.  I know some emotional influence has seeped through into a few of the songs, little hints at a life changing experience, the odd lyric that refers to it cryptically…but I’ve never tried to tell that whole story through a song.  Maybe it’s just too hard for me to do that…to relive it every single time I sing it.  Maybe it’s just too sad. Or maybe it’s just because the song would need to be about an hour long!

I wrote “The Singing Tree” album as a way recovering after the Tsunami, and the gardening job I had for a while to help calm my nerves inspired the song “Dead Man’s Garden” and “Beautiful View” is about watching Nina grow from those huge experiences we had together.

I’m glad I’ve written this much down for you.  The story is obviously a whole lot bigger than I’ve been able to articulate here…But I’m going to stop now before I write a novel.

Please feel free to leave a comment or ask a question.

 

3 Comments

  • yvonne shaw says:

    oh my god.! so unbelievable, what you two have gone through. such an amazing and terrifying experience. something we could never fully comprehend. i’m glad you have written your story which gives us more understanding on it and hopefully some therapeutic healing for yourselves. the help you gave is so inspirational and compassionate. THANk
    YOU xxxxxx

    • Tim Hulsman says:

      Thanks for reading Yvonne. I really appreciate your comments. It’s taken me 13 years to be able to write about it. Xx

  • Tony Bishop says:

    What an amazing thing to have survived. Both of you . Your collective strength and intelligence at a time of severe trauma for most was your raft. I do hope that one day you make it a book. Your description of what you were going through here is awe inspiring. Both of you. Thank you for sharing your story.

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