Survivors: Students barely escape tsunami

While most of the GW community watched the events of the Southeast Asian tsunami unfold from the safety of their living rooms, three students spent Dec. 26 running from the giant wave.

Sophomores Zeke Williams, Laraine Hsu and Nat Kampanatsanyakorn were vacationing in Krabi, Thailand, during winter break when a 9.0 magnitude earthquake underneath the Indian Ocean sent a devastating tsunami spiraling over the water, eventually killing more than 150,000 people. It is unknown whether other students were in the parts of a half-dozen countries severely affected by the tsunami.

What was supposed to be a fun day of kayaking for Kampanatsanyakorn and rock climbing for Williams and his girlfriend, Hsu, turned into a dangerous experience that nearly claimed the three students’ lives.

Kampanatsanyakorn was kayaking on the waters of Tubkaek Beach with her family when the deadly wave hit southern Thailand. Before the oncoming devastation, the tide dragged her and her party out to sea.

“When me and my sister came out into the ocean we saw a wave across the ocean, but we didn’t know it was a tsunami from the distance,” said Kampanatsanyakorn, who is originally from Thailand.

She said the kayaking guide advised the family to grab onto branches of surrounding trees when they found themselves stranded in water near the shore facing the oncoming tsunami.

“I held onto the branch with one hand, and the other hand was holding onto the boat and my sister,” she said. When the first wave hit the shores, Kampanatsanyakorn was hit in the face with her kayak and forced under water.

“I was fighting for air all the time and it was the second that I needed air that I came out of the water when the wave had passed,” she said.

Kampanatsanyakorn climbed up a tree and managed to escape the second and third waves, but her mother was dragged across a creek when she lost her grip.

Originally separated for hours, Kampanatsanyakorn and her family reunited with only minor cuts and bruises. She said she never found out what happened to two of her fellow kayakers who were washed out to sea by the raging waters.

Kampanatsanyakorn and her family volunteered as English translators at the Krabi hospital a day after the deadly wave hit the nation to help injured tourists communicate with doctors and nurses. Williams and Hsu, who were also on vacation near Krabi, visited the hospital the day of the tsunami after running from the wave.

Williams, Hsu, and Hsu’s family were scaling the limestone cliffs of Railey Beach the Sunday morning when the deadly wave struck. The couple had their backs to the ocean as the wave approached the shore, but when a French boy starting screaming words they didn’t understand, Williams and Hsu turned toward the water to see the rising tsunami.

“We looked at the ocean and saw there were four to five boats racing towards us at about 40 miles per hour,” Hsu said. “When we saw there was a wave right behind the boats, my friend Rob screamed ‘tsunami’ and everyone started running.”

As the waters began flooding the island, Williams, Hsu and her family ran to higher ground in the center of the island and waited for hours until it was safe to return to the lowlands, Hsu said. The western face of Railey Beach was mostly destroyed, and Williams and Hsu said some of their belongings at their resort were looted. The couple said they, along with many others on the island, were not concerned with stolen items. They were just happy to be alive.

“It definitely opens your eyes to the power of nature and how we all have to take care of each other,” Hsu said. “It was really touching to see how people opened up and lent a hand to anybody.”

“I felt overwhelmed by the kindness people offered,” said Kampanatsanyakorn, whose family was sheltered by strangers for two hours after the tsunami hit.

She added that she feels an obligation to help other victims after her experience in Thailand, and as program director of GW’s Chinese American Student Association, she will be donating money raised at February’s annual Chinese New Year show to tsunami relief efforts.

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