IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

‘A miracle’ amid scramble for survivors

Water washes through houses Sunday at Maddampegama, about 38 miles south of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Massive waves triggered by earthquakes crashed into villages along a wide stretch of Sri Lankan coastline on Sunday, killing thousands. Gemunu Amarasinghe / AP
/ Source: news services

Foreign survivors who were swept up in the torrential waters triggered by the 9.0 earthquake that struck southern Asia desperately sought missing relatives on Tuesday — particularly in Thailand, where bodies littered the once crowded beach resorts.

A blond 2-year-old Swedish boy, Hannes Bergstroem, found sitting alone on a road in Thailand and taken to a hospital was reunited with his uncle, who saw the boy’s picture on the hospital’s Web site.

“This is a miracle, the biggest thing that could happen,” said the uncle, who identified himself as Jim.

Survivors of the epic tsunamis said they had only seconds to react as immense waves raced ashore and then hammered all obstacles in their path.

“Our paradise turned into hell,” said American tourist Moira Lee, 28, who was having coffee on Phuket’s Patong Beach — lined with hotels, shops and bars — when one of the tsunamis swept through.

A dash for higher ground
“We saw a massive wave coming toward us, and our waitress freaked out. She told us to run for our lives. So we just turned and ran for about a mile up the hill,” Lee said.

“We waited there for eight hours before coming back down to the beach. We heard another wave was coming and raced back up the hill. We spent the night sleeping by the road.”

So far, more than 80 Westerners have been confirmed dead across the region — including 11 Americans. But a British consulate official in Thailand warned that hundreds more foreign tourists were likely killed in the country’s resorts.

Soldiers used bulldozers Tuesday to push into a strip of Thai luxury resorts destroyed by the tidal waves, and picked the bodies of European tourists from ruined gardens and suites. Officials there said at least 700 foreigners had died.

Nineteen embassies from Europe, the United States, Australia and elsewhere sent officials to set up makeshift consular offices to help replace passports and other necessary papers washed out to sea by the receding tidal waves after the monster earthquake to the south.

In a babble of languages — Italian, Swedish, French, English and Thai — appeals rang out for blood donors. There was free food and drink. Local officials parceled out hotel rooms at an inland town, one of the few settlements not ravaged to near nothing by the waves.

Dragged out to sea
John Krueger, 34, of Winter Park, Colo., waited to speak with a U.S. Embassy official. He and his wife, 26-year-old Romina Canton, an Argentine, had survived — just barely.

They were in their beach bungalow north of Phuket when sea rushed in and blew it apart.

“The water rushed under the bungalow, brought our floor up and raised us to the ceiling,” he said. “The water blew out our doors, our windows and the back concrete wall. My wife was swept away with the wall, and I had to bust my way through the roof.”

Krueger was sucked nearly 10 feet underwater, and Canton was dragged out to sea where she struggled to live for more than an hour before the sea tossed her back ashore with a broken nose, fractured foot and scrapes over most of her body.

“It was like white water rafting. ... She was naked on the beach (when he found her) because she had just gotten out of the shower. It was like being in a washing machine,” Krueger said.

Czech supermodel injuredAmong the injured was Czech supermodel Petra Nemcova, who appeared on the cover of 2003 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Her photographer boyfriend was missing after the pair were caught up in the tsunami, a spokeswoman for the boyfriend said Tuesday.

Nemcova and British photographer Simon Atlee had been vacationing in the resort of Phuket when the waves swept over them on Sunday, said Atlee’s agent, Eve Stoner.

“She is in hospital and he is missing. We don’t have any further information than that at the moment,” Stoner said.

Near the devastated Similan Beach and Spa Resort, where mostly German tourists were staying, a naked corpse hung suspended from a tree Tuesday as if crucified.

At the nearby Sofitel, executive Ofwald Tichler declined to say how many of the hotel’s guests had died as waves smashed into the 319-room resort. The first floors of the three-story, Thai-style building were destroyed, and thick mud caked the once beautifully landscaped area between the lobby and beach, a distance of some 300 yards.

‘No time to run’“I lost my girlfriend. We saw the wave coming. It was so huge we had no time to run,” said Karl Kalteka of Munich, Germany, who was at the beach in front of the Sofitel when the first wave struck. “I saw many kids perish. I saw parents trying to hold them but it was impossible. It was hell.”

Kalteka, who suffered numerous broken limbs and other injuries, spoke at Phuket airport where he lay in a stretcher. He still had hope his girlfriend was alive and they would be reunited in Bangkok.

The search operation around the Sofitel was temporarily suspended over fears that a nearby weapons arsenal at the Phang Nga Navy Base might explode, but Navy Rear Admiral Apiwat Sriwanna later said there was no danger of an explosion.

However, a bomb expert said that missiles and mortar shells from the depot were swept out to sea when the base, at Thap Lamu village, was hit by waves.

'The room exploded'
On Koh Phi Phi island, made famous by the 2000 movie “The Beach” starring Leonardo DiCaprio, honeymooning California golf professional William Robins reckoned he came within “0.1 seconds” of never again seeing his new bride, Amanda.

“We saw a whole bunch of people screaming and jumping off boats. We thought it was a terrorist bomb, so we jumped over a hotel fence and hid in a storage room,” Robins, 26, told Reuters from his hospital bed in Phuket.

“We held hands and crouched in the corner. Then we heard a rumbling explosion that didn’t end,” he said after being evacuated from Koh Phi Phi by the navy along with hundreds of other foreigners and Thais.

“The room exploded and a concrete wall collapsed. We were pushed through two layers of concrete and forced to let go of each other’s hands,” said Amanda, 27, who suffered a broken pelvis.

The two were pulled underwater and then suddenly shot to the surface. They were 150 yards out to sea, surrounded by debris and the smell of gasoline. A hotel employee came toward them in a longtail boat, looking for his family.

“We were screaming. We said, if we don’t get on this boat, we’re dead,” said Robins, whose collarbone was broken and who had one ear torn almost off.

'Scene from the apocalypse'
Other devastated survivors described watching the three-story high tsunamis rip through streets in Phuket, tear up buildings on Koh Phi Phi and wash away hotels on the mainland.

Survivors among the 7,000 injured were cut, slashed, stabbed and battered by debris from buildings torn apart by the tsunamis, generated by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake off the northern tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

For thousands of young travelers from Sydney to Stockholm, this was the perfect tropical island, a palm-swaying dreamscape rising gently out of an emerald sea.

But tourists on Phi Phi had their paradise turned upside down on Sunday.

“It was like a scene from the apocalypse. There was litter everywhere — motorcycles, cars and dead bodies. I saw many dead babies on the beach,” said Pascale Panuel, a French woman living in Tokyo.

As helicopters hovered overhead and large ferries and small speedboats arrived to evacuate stunned tourists and villagers, rescuers combed through the rubble of what were once bungalows, bars, Internet cafes and dive shops.

‘Lots of people were instantly dead’
“Nobody was prepared. There was no warning. Lots of people were instantly dead,” said Daniel Friberg, a 24-year-old from Stockholm, Sweden, who had spent two months on the island as a bartender.

The devastation came as suddenly in Sri Lanka, where Brenda Castle of Great Britain said she was in a beachside hotel when the waves of hit.

“The first thing I heard was a loud noise,” Castle, 61, told reporters at London’s Heathrow Airport as she departed a flight. “I turned to look through the glass door and just saw a massive amount of swirling muddy water heading for me. I thought I was going to die.”

Briton Babette Morgan, 70, was lounging by a swimming pool with her sister in Sri Lanka.

“I looked out across the sea and shouted ‘tidal wave!’,” she said after being carried off her return flight to London on a wheelchair. “We just ran for our lives.”