The Random Writings of Rachel: December 26, 2004

December 26, 2004

I've written different versions of my memories of this day over the years, but this is my first time telling the whole story here. Many of you probably remember the news reports of the tsunami that took place on December 26, 2004, which is still considered the deadliest tsunami in history.






{Scenes of the aftermath and the clean-up process in my neighborhood}
It was nine years ago, but  that day is one of the most vivid memories I possess. At the time, I was 13 years old and I'd never even heard the word tsunami before. My family had gone to church and then out to lunch. My mom had declared naptime for everyone that afternoon, but most of us kids had plans to cut naptime short and play with the Christmas presents we'd received just the day before.

Those little plans didn't happen. We weren't even done eating lunch when restaurant workers shouted at us to run, and we did, though we didn't know why. Mom grabbed the baby, and I grabbed one of my sisters' hands and ran as fast as I could in the black velvet high heels that my oh-so-stylin' 13 year old self had decided to wear to church that day. As I ran out of the restaurant and up onto the main road, I could see gray water flooding the entire restaurant. My whole family and all of the workers stood on the sidewalk near the road, staring at the flooded restaurant, and wondering what had happened. The back wall of the restaurant meant that we couldn't see the beach, but the restaurant was just a little off the shore. People were shouting that there had been a big wave.

In the rush, funny details stick out. It was very important for my Dad to pay the restaurant for our meal, and because the water hadn't reached as high as the table tops, they insisted on wading through the murky water to pack up our uneaten food in brown wax paper and bring it to us to take home.

We quickly walked the 5 minute distance back to our neighborhood, and were greeted by most of our neighbors standing on the street, staring blankly at the ocean. The homes closest to the ocean had already been flooded.

We rushed indoors, changed into play clothes at my mom's orders, and rushed back outside to wait with our neighbors. We stood huddled in little groups around the gate of my house. No one really knew what was going on, but a few minutes later, shouts and screams from those who had ventured a little closer to the beach told us that another wave was coming. I grabbed my sister Anna's hand and turned to run up the hill to the main road, but she started screaming, "Where's Rebekah?!" I stopped a moment to look for her and I saw that she was already running up the hill with another of our siblings. I yanked Anna along with me, but as I ran I turned for one last look, and it's a sight I'll never forget.

The most terrifying thing I've ever seen: The wave rose taller than a house, and as it rushed in, it caved in the walls and lifted the roof of one of my neighbors' houses. I stopped looking then, and just ran. When my family and neighbors stopped running, at the top of the hill, we saw that the wave came in just far enough to spill into the gate and yard of my home, and then it receded.

The rest of that day, and the days afterward, are a blur of work and dirt and grease and heartbreak and love and resilience and tragedy and miracles. When the tsunami happened, no one knew what was going on, but the news of what had really happened trickled in over the next few days. I remember scenes:

Auntie pulling apart sticky, sand-encrusted and water-smeared baby photos of her children and laying them in the sun to dry, pointing out which babies were which.

A friend, who had been at work when the tsunami hit, crumpling to the ground in shock at the first sight of her home.

Children and teens finding out that their Christmas presents just opened the day before--I remember photo albums and a Spiderman backpack--were irretrievably damaged.

The rising death toll on the front page of each day's newspaper.

Colorful saris hanging from our 2nd story balcony to dry after being washed by hand in buckets--forever stained with spots of black oil from the ocean.

Mountains of broken and water-spoiled furniture and appliances in the middle of the road, waiting to be picked up by the dump trucks.

A friend taking all the children who lived in our neighborhood out to McDonald's to cheer us up; I remember seeing fishing boats that had landed in neighborhoods on the wrong side of the main road because the water had come so high in certain areas.

The days passed without laughter or smiles, we were preoccupied with fear of further bad news that might come; after some time had gone by, we were finally able to make jokes with our friends over how many telephones we found in the rubble we were cleaning up, or get into waterfights with neighbors while trying to rinse ourselves off with the hose in my yard after a long day of dirty work.

I won't forget that day. I, and almost everyone who I knew who was there, had tsunami nightmares for months afterwards. Before that day, us kids often spent time on the beach, digging for shells and building sandcastles. After the 26th, it was a long time before we felt safe spending time on the beach again. I know that for the rest of my life I'll be celebrating Christmas while remembering the day that came after. It was a day of tragedy for so many families, cities and neighborhoods. My neighborhood was blessed. More than 10 houses were completely destroyed or severely damaged in my immediate neighborhood, but no lives were lost, and that is a miracle. I've told you about my Auntie before--she lost nearly everything she owned in that wave. It's hard to come to terms with knowing someone that you love has lost everything: both the practical necessities for daily life and the priceless, memory-filled mementos that accrue over a lifetime. And yet, so many people lost much more than just everything they owned. They lost entire families or entire villages all at once. That was December 26, 2004.

30 comments:

  1. Oh wow, I remember watching about that from the safety of my own home when this happened - that sounds like a terrifying experience! Thanks for sharing your experience and I'm glad you didn't lose anybody in your family or neighborhood!

    Corinne x
    www.skinnedcartree.com

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  2. Wow, I had chills while reading this. I had no idea you had experienced this. Every time I hear or see anything about this or other tsunamis it just seems like such a horrifying experience. I'm glad that no one was lost in your neighborhood.

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  3. My goodness. I think I remember you mentioning you had been there, but I had no idea that you were actually THERE when it happened. I'd always just envisioned that you had been miles and miles away. It was terrifying reading your account of that terrible day. I'm so happy your family was unharmed. What a scary experience to live through.

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  4. i'm sitting here in tears with my heart aching for you and your family. what an experience. i can only imagine the kind of strength and compassion that you must possess after going through something like this. also, on a more shallow note, i'm thinking something like this should be inside The New Yorker. such beauty and transcendence in your words.

    "The rest of that day, and the days afterward, are a blur of work and dirt and grease and heartbreak and love and resilience and tragedy and miracles."

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  5. This gave me goosebumps. You're so brave for sharing this with everyone... I can't even begin to imagine how hard it must be to have to relive a nightmare like that. I'm so incredibly glad that you and your family survived and thrived.

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  6. wow, I never knew anyone who really experienced it. my cousin was in thailand, but not near the beach. I remember where I was when I heard the news of the tsunami as well, but thank you for sharing your experience of actually being there.

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  7. I think you mentioned that you were there during the Tsunami before, but it's so kind of you to share your experience of it... I remember seeing footage and it was horrible!

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  8. wow Rachel. What an incredibly, and truly difficult memory.I can't even imagine.

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  9. Such a difficult memory. I can only imagine what it must have felt like.
    Maria

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  10. Thank you for sharing this story, it is always different if someone tells you a story like this from his memories than "just" watching these horrifying pictures on TV.

    It is easier to feel with people who experienced something like this when you hear someone's personal story.

    I am glad that noone you knew got hurt.

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  11. wow so so scary that you lived through this but also amazing that no one was killed in your neighborhood. it's so crazy how fast things like this can happen!
    -- jackie @ jade and oak

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  12. Oh wow. I never knew this happened where you lived! I was 17 in 2004. This is a chilling tale and I'm glad your family and village were safe. I can't imagine what I would do in this situation. I remember seeing the footage from Japan's resent tsunami and crying because it was so horrible. Hugs!

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  13. Oh my word. I have never faced tragedy like this before and I cannot imagine doing so at thirteen and younger like you and your siblings. What a heartbreaking part of your childhood- but you seem to grown from that experience and gained strength from it, nonetheless. Thank you sharing!

    (By the way, this is Joanna from MMF- just too lazy to switch google accounts. :)

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  14. wow! how scary and tragic. thank you for sharing!

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  15. Wow - how frightening! Thank you for sharing the story of that day. I'm sure it has to be tough to go back to that time, even mentally.

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  16. Oh my goodness. This brought tears to my eyes. I am so glad nobody in your neighborhood lost their lives. What a memory to have of the day after Christmas. I am stopping now to say a prayer for all those affected by the tsunami!

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  17. WOW!!! This story is heart-rending, glad you shared this experience! I am sorry for what happened, and your memories of this!

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  18. What a difficult memory Rachel. I can't even imagine what it must have felt like.

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  19. I cannot even imagine. Thank you for sharing. A tragedy like that takes on a whole different meaning when you hear about it first hand.
    Debbie
    www.fashionfairydust.blogspot.com

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  20. Wow. What a miracle that you experienced this and no one in your neighborhood lost their lives. I can't even imagine!

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  21. Oh my goodness. I've never heard a firsthand account of it like this. I'm so glad you were all ok.

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  22. Wow. I have chills right now. I can't even imagine going through that, and you have such vivid memories. What an experience, and my heart goes out to all tsunami victims!

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  23. The part about the baby photos drying in the sun really gets me. All your memories here do, but that one really sticks out. Thank you for writing this.

    Emeralds and Stripes

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  24. This is such an amazing story Rachel - so fortunate that you and your family were unharmed during that tsunami. Hopefully you can find peace with these memories and that your family and you have a great Christmas in spite of those memories. Have a great New Year Rachel! -Iva

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  25. Seems like so many of these large-scale tragedies are happening lately. I've never been in one (thank God!) but I find it hard to imagine having whole neighborhoods devastated. I think it must be a very helpless feeling, especially in poor areas where they have so few resources to fall back on. I can't imagine going from a fairly comfortable life to suddenly not knowing if your family is going to have enough food or a safe place to sleep. My son spent a week working with a church group in Joplin after their tornado and he was surprised at how many people who said they felt "lucky" because even though they had lost everything, they were still alive, while many of their friends and neighbors had been killed. That's a great way to look at something like that.

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  26. i've never heard a first-person account (aside from a movie i watched). such a tragedy and important that you tell this story. thank you.

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  27. That is absolutely insane. I can't believe you lived through that tsunami. I got goosebumps when you wrote what you saw when you looked back.. How haunting. I'm glad you didn't lose anyone.

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  28. Oh Rachel, I have tears running down my cheeks reading this. I remember the news as it came in and continued for days and days, the inconceivable nature of so, so many lost lives. I'm so pleased to hear, however, that no-one in your community lost their life...and I imagine that everyone rallied around to help as much as they could, to replace things where necessary for the people who were hardest hit. Your note about the friend who took the children to McDonalds really rang with me: it's those little moments of kindness that can turn even the darkest situations around. Thanks for sharing. An important post. Helen xx

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  29. What a horrifying experience. I'm grateful that no one in your family was injured. Truly a life defining moment for everyone that lived through it I'm sure.

    bisous
    Suzanne

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  30. I'm so glad you drew attention to this post (and I can't believe it's been so long)! I'm glad to hear an eye-witness account of what that day was like.

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