ON THE COVER North Coast Journal Weekly
Jan. 20, 2005


Terror in paradise: How one Eureka couple survived the tsunami

On the cover:
Top photo: Lagoon on Ko Phra Thong Island in the Indian ocean,
with the first two waves of the Dec. 26 tsunami visible in the distance.
Lower photos: On the island before and after the tsunami;
Tanya and Jason Telford of Eureka in middle.
Island photos by Tanya Telford. Photo of Telfords by Emily Gurnon.

ON DEC. 19, TANYA AND JASON TELFORD of Eureka arrived in Thailand for their honeymoon. Tanya, 31, a student teacher at Big Lagoon Charter School in Arcata, and Jason, 30, a buyer at Northern Mountain Supply in Eureka, had been married six months, but June was "not a good time to go to Thailand," what with the monsoons, they reasoned. So they put it off. After going from Bangkok to Khao Lak beach and the Similan Islands, they arrived Dec. 24 on Ko Phra Thong in the Indian Ocean, the picture-perfect island where they planned to just relax and enjoy the beach for a week. It didn't turn out that way. When the tsunami hit on the day after Christmas, all hell broke loose. This is their story, as told to Journal Editor Emily Gurnon.

TANYA: It was Christmas. It didn't seem like Christmas because it was Thailand but the staff there really made it feel like Christmas. There are three fishing villages in very close proximity to where the resort is; they put on a 20-children dance for us, and it was just absolutely amazing, especially with my interest in children. They came from all these fishing villages. The resort put on a big feast for us.

JASON: There were about 100 people at the resort, including Thai staff.

TANYA: There was a big employee living quarters, there was also a turtle conservancy there. It was a very eco-friendly resort, and that was one of the reasons why we chose to go there.

JASON: We were trying to go to a less touristy, populated spot. Our goal this trip was, we want to snorkel, we want to lie on the beach, we want to relax, we want to get away from crowds.

TANYA: It was paradise. It's absolutely beautiful, and what is it, seven miles of beach line to walk? I mean, you could just walk forever and ever.

JASON: The water's like 80, the air is like 95 or 100.

TANYA: You're swimming all the time, you're constantly on the beach, just because it's so hot. There are lots of things you can do around there, different tours where you could pay to go the fishing villages or to snorkel, fish, you could go out on a boat to another island. On Christmas we decided to orient ourselves to the island; we walked around to see where everything was.

[water surrounded by palm trees]  [three young dancing girls]
Above left: Lagoon on Ko Phra Thong island, before the tsunami.
Right and below: Thai children performers from nearby villages.
Bottom: a Thai worker serves Christmas dinner.

  [a group of young dancing girls]  [Thai serving food to guests]

First sign of trouble

TANYA: The next morning we saw a board shaking -- one board. Later on we figured it was the earthquake, but it was nothing like we felt on the North Coast just before our trip, when we had a 4.1 here. We were staying in a cottage.

JASON: It's elevated maybe 4 feet off the ground, it's got a hardwood teak floor, but then the walls are made of wicker, or rattan, like what you'd have on a beach mat that you go throw out on the sand and lie down on. Then it had shuttered windows that could close, like real glass. It was right on the beach. I was in the Northridge quake in '92, which was a giant -- I mean, huge damage all over my neighborhood. Being on a house on stilts built in the sand, it doesn't transmit motion like a wooden house does, or like other earthquakes I've been in. So we didn't think, "Oh, there was a big earthquake." It was barely noticeable, and a lot of people just slept through it.

So we went to breakfast. We were sitting with the aerodynamic engineer with Mercedes Benz, this German guy who had been pedaling his bicycle all over Thailand with another buddy. We said, "Did you feel the earthquake?," he said, "Yeah, I felt it." Then we ate breakfast very leisurely, then everyone kind of went their separate ways. We were making a list of what we were going to do the rest of our time on the island.

TANYA: We had our bathing suits on. We were putting on sunscreen; we were going to go to the beach. We were going to write postcards and lie on the beach and just kind of relax. Our hut had a little area where you could just hang out outside, a little deck with chairs.

That was when we saw the first wave. I looked at Jason and I said, "Look at that wave!" Usually the waves are very small, like in a lake. They are not anything like we see on the North Coast here.

JASON: They just lap up on the beach; they'll hit your ankle. Great for kids -- which is why there were so many families there.

[hut with thatched roof and wood stairs, plants surrounding]
The Telfords' hut, before the tsunami.

`If you value your life '

TANYA: We saw the first wave, and it was just huge -- a powerful wave, and it hadn't broken yet, so it was almost like a surfer's dream-looking wave. We noticed several people running over to the shore. It was almost mesmerizing. It was something we were all excited about.

And then we started noticing the Thai people coming up, and that's when we kind of started looking at each other, and -- knowing that they were alarmed, we started to get scared. The wave came right up to our toes as we stood on the beach, which was very unusual.

A British man on the beach said, "If you value your child's life, or you value your life, head to higher ground."

Jason and I kind of looked at each other. Thank goodness we were together at the time, because I think at that point if he wasn't with me I would have gone looking for him. I would have spent time doing that.

We decided to go back to our hut and get out of there. I grabbed my camera, because it was an expensive digital camera, had all our pictures in it.

JASON: I just grabbed a backpack that I had under the bed with our money and passports.

TANYA: And I grabbed a sarong as we walked out.

JASON: I took the time to hook another backpack around the bedpost. Thinking, "OK, if water comes in here, it'll hold on, it'll just get wet."

TANYA: We just thought the water would kind of go underneath or maybe get the floor wet. We had no idea really what was happening.

We really didn't know where to go. There was a bay where the waves were coming in, and the mountainous area inland. We started going around the hill, but we stood there for a little bit.

That's when we looked out over the bay and you could hear it. Just like a freight train. There were two waves together right in a row and the water had receded. This was about three or four minutes after the first wave had come. Then the wave came up over and you could see it hit that first part of the beach line. Jason said, "Hold on to this tree." He was right next to a tree and he just held on to it. But if we had stayed there seconds longer it would have gotten us. I was panicked, and I looked over to my right where there were a whole bunch of Thai people running closer to the mountain and around, and I thought, we have to follow the Thai people.

JASON: We think they were running to the fishing village to check on all their families.

[area devastated by tsunami]

What remains of the Telfords'hut after the tsunami.

Heading up

TANYA: We started running, and Jason fell in a hole. We were running through this very bumpy, grassy area, and I was yelling, "Jason, get up!" We just sprinted over to the hill. As the second and third waves broke, right on top of each other and much bigger than the first, you could hear the breaking of trees and buildings and people screaming. Instead of following the Thai people around the mountain, I looked at Jason and said, "We're rock climbers. We could make it up this." The hill looked pretty unclimbable, but I had looked at rock formations before, in other places, and said to myself, "I could never get up that," and did. That's when we just started going straight up. You just pull on whatever you can find -- branches, vines, roots.

JASON: Because I put that pack on, I kept getting stuck, trying to tunnel through little areas and under vegetation. So Tanya was ahead of me, screaming for me frantically.

TANYA: That's all I wanted, for him to get up by me. I dropped my sarong. I just remember thinking, don't worry about it. We never thought, "tsunami." When you're thinking in the terms of you're life, you're not really comprehending what's happening. You're just thinking, Get me out of here.

JASON: There wasn't much time to figure out what process was going on but that we would be safer if we got --

TANYA: -- to the highest point on that mountain, and we didn't stop until we got to that highest point. Then we got to a point where it was kind of a cliff and you could see down below and then out. All these other people started coming up over a three-hour period. People were trickling in. And you started thinking, I haven't seen that person yet. Then checking with people, "Do you have everybody?"

JASON: We were starting to see the injured, people with all kinds of injuries. A Thai lady climbed a tree and the wave broke it down and it broke her leg. Most people had lacerations, cuts.

TANYA: Huge gashes in their heads.

JASON: Most people who did get injured were also swimming at one point or another and they got injured by debris, like boards with nails in them.

TANYA: You could see bits of just stuff on them, like you were swimming in a pond or something.

[devastated area with palms knocked down]JASON: Tattered clothing, people coming up there naked because their clothes got ripped off, or people who had partied hard on Christmas and were still in bed. I mean, if this thing had happened under darkness, the death toll would have been multiplied.

TANYA : I went into major shock at that time. I thought I was going to pass out. I was throwing up.

JASON: I had dry heaves.

TANYA: You start to realize the magnitude of it all and just how close you are to certain waves hitting you.

Then, there was a caged monkey that had been let out when the waves came. It was trying to climb you and just hold on. It was very scared. When anyone pushed it away, it would bite him or scratch him. So we started holding on to a 5-year-old whose mom had the husband and the two other kids to look after. So J and I, whenever you'd hear, "The monkey's coming," J and I would put the little girl in between us and say, "Don't look at it, don't look at it." It came up to me a couple times and pulled at my bathing suit. There were about six people who were pretty badly bit. The monkey's teeth were like 2 inches, they were huge! It was the size of a toddler. And it was ugly.

JASON: When it stood up it was taller than the kids who were really scared -- to add trauma on top of trauma.

TANYA: Then they brought up rope and tried to tie it up, but it went crazy and started biting that person. These girls were freaking out over it, saying, "Let's just kill it." And when a hundred people are starting to say, this is becoming a problem, we all started agreeing that killing it was probably the best thing. We thought we were going to be there for four or five days at that point.

So they hit it and kicked it off the mountain, and five minutes later it came back like nothing happened! Then they hit it again, several times. A Thai man did this. It was a horrible noise. The Thai people are absolutely amazing people; they don't want to hurt animals. They believe in karma. These people believe in no confrontation whatsoever. They're the happiest people we've ever met, on earth. Because of their Buddhist religion, they really don't think in terms of ever confronting anybody. So this man, he felt so bad, and kids were crying over it, and I was crying. But it was good, it was relieving. We thought, "OK, no one has to worry about the monkey anymore."

And then we got text messages that there were more tsunamis coming.

All you're thinking is, are we high enough?

JASON: There were people who were willing to volunteer to go down and comb the beach and try to find supplies like food and water. Every house just had the contents spilled out. Much of it was swept out to the sea, but a lot of it was just strewn all over the resort area. We were lookouts, to look out for bigger waves coming.

TANYA: They asked if anyone had a whistle. No one did. But I learned how to whistle at pro basketball games with my father. Who knew? Jason, who has very good vision, decided to be the lookout, and everybody said, "OK, you be the lookout and whistle when you see anything." Then I started having Jason be the lookout and let me know, because there were people who needed help. There was a gentleman who lost his finger, and we found a shirt for me, so I took off my bathing suit top, thinking maybe he can use it for a sling. People cut their pants legs off to help other people. I started collected thick sticks for the lady who broke her femur.

JASON: People were asking if we had seen this person or that person. The people in the cottage next to us were never seen again.

TANYA: Once the sun went down and we were all lying there, people were whispering their stories of what happened. One lady hadn't found her husband, and another was a Swedish lady who handed her 15-month-old off to the nanny, but the nanny couldn't hold on to her when the wave hit them. [The nanny survived; the baby was lost.] That was pretty traumatic for me, hearing these stories. We were starting to understand that there were people dead on our island and people missing.

We were sleeping on rocks and roots. There were five of us Americans. We had found a mosquito net and we shared it. The small macaque monkeys were coming all night raiding our food. One scratched the bottom of my feet, because I was holding the mosquito netting down with my feet. Late at night, they made a fire on the beach, and I just remember sitting up, and every so often making sure that the fire was not getting hit by a wave.

[kids and adult survivors sitting on rocks in shrubs]  [survivors sitting and standing in forest]
Tsunami destruction on Ko Phra Thong

[devastated area with knocked down trees and huts, person in foreground] 

JASON: The waves were big that whole night -- not big, but they were louder than normal, with crashing sounds.

TANYA: Then we got a message that said they were coming to rescue us at 6 in the morning, and everyone's like, "Yay!"

JASON: They told us all to get down there and wait for the boats and helicopters to take us. It wasn't that scary going down at that point. The sea looked really calm, like nothing had happened, but the devastation was unbelievable.

TANYA: The Thai Navy helicopters came and took the injured first. We walked around in hopes of finding something of ours. Then we went over to where our hut used to be and I just cried and cried. You just start to realize, oh my gosh, if we were sitting in the hut or just sleeping --

JASON: I still didn't have a shirt, just my swim trunks. We just were so happy to be alive, but so sad. It was very surreal. Things weren't really clicking what had actually happened. We didn't have any battle scars from surviving the ordeal. And a part of me is guilty that we survived with nary a scratch.

TANYA: The first deceased, the one that we first knew about -- that was reality to us. We were some of the last people to leave the island, and they brought her out, on a stretcher, with a sheet over her. When people are missing, that's one thing, but when they actually found bodies --

[helicopter landing on beach, survivors in foreground on beach]JASON: It just as easily could have been one of us.

TANYA: Thirteen people from our resort died.

JASON: Four or five Thais and the rest were visitors like people staying on the island. Of the fishing villages, 80 percent of the people in one fishing village was gone. The other fishing village is 20 percent gone, according to a Web site we saw. They said entire generations are wiped out, the teacher, a lot of the kids.

TANYA: The kids who danced for us. All the kids we have pictures of and we fell in love with --. We got an e-mail saying they had someone from the government come to one of the villages to assess it and see what the damage was. There was no sign of life, only a kid's bicycle. Some of them apparently made it to the mainland in boats, but many are gone.

[above right: Ko Phra Thong survivors rescued by Thai Navy.]

JASON: For us -- we're home now. If you never turned on the TV or did any reading, you'd never know anything happened. But for the people who have lost everything who are staying there and have to rebuild their lives after this, it's huge.

Still, it has changed us. We're definitely less materialistic already.

TANYA: Materials are absolutely not important to me. Before we left, it was like, "Oh, what are we going to do with the mantle?" [they're rebuilding it] or, "When are we going to buy a new car?" With me going back to school, and starting a new chapter in our lives, money's been hard. But now I'm so thankful to have the things that I have. We don't need a new car. We have each other.

I almost want to go up to people and say, "Hi, my name is Tanya, I'm so glad to meet you, what's your life about?" Because there are people on the island who I never took the time to do that with, and I never saw them again.

[Telfords looking at one another]Life's just too short to be worried about an assignment or to regret. For instance, I'm 31, I didn't go to school right away, and I always regretted that. I always thought, I wish my path was a little bit different, and why didn't I go to school at 17? You know what? Your path is your path, and you're who you are because of it. I have no regrets at this point and I don't think anyone else should. Value what you have.

JASON: I know that 45 seconds out of every minute I'm still trying to absorb it and try to understand and comprehend it and deal with knowing that so many people died. Our story is one of survival, and for every one story of survival there are thousands that didn't end in a happy ending like ours. I have a huge part of my heart that just cries for the Thai people and what they've been through.

Everyone is going to have scars from this. Hopefully we can turn ours around and put them toward something useful. I'm definitely going to just try to be a kinder and gentler person in my dealings with everyone.

THE TELFORDS URGE OTHERS TO CONTRIBUTE to relief efforts for tsunami victims. To help residents of Ko Phra Thong villages rebuild their homes, boats and schools, send donations to Business for the Environment, Tsunami Relief Fund, 3524 Dutch Way, Carmichael, CA, 95608. Also see News for other relief efforts.




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