AP Journalists Recall Tsunami Experiences

By: (AP) A reporter is an observer, yes, but there can be no detached witnesses in places where the ocean swept away all vestiges of normal life, leaving only destruction and despair.

The tsunami that ravaged southern Asia also haunts the men and women of The Associated Press who told the world about it; they are beset by memories of orphaned children and childless parents, of lifeless multitudes and infernal havoc, of the stench of death that permeated their clothes, their brains, their very being.

These are the things they will remember.


Lely Djuhari, in Banda Aceh, Indonesia:

The silence from Banda Aceh and a big swath along the western coast of Sumatra gave me the chills. I was alone in The Associated Press office in Jakarta trying to find out details about the earthquake that had shaken Aceh province, calling number after number with no luck. All the lines were dead.

An editor on AP's regional desk in Bangkok, Thailand, reported they felt their building sway. What kind of a quake has an epicenter off Sumatra and is felt in Bangkok, 700 miles away? What kind of quake could silence so many people?

AP photographer Achmad Ibrahim, Associated Press Television News cameraman Andi Djatmiko and I rushed to the airport and flew to Medan, in the province adjoining Aceh. We got there at 9 a.m. only to spend over an hour haggling with drivers. Nobody wanted to go the 250 miles to Banda Aceh, because they feared aftershocks and reports were starting to come in that huge waves had smashed ashore.

Finally, we convinced one. We drove for 12 hours to arrive bleary-eyed in Banda Aceh, stunned at nature's carnage.

The provincial capital was a wasteland of rubble and mud. Watermarks up to 25 feet high stained the sides of buildings, marking the tsunami's path as it rampaged through the city. Hundreds of bodies lay in the streets

Scenes of chaos are imprinted in my mind: Motorized rickshaw drivers hauling bodies wrapped in straw mats, people on foot struggling to carry bloated corpses, unclaimed bodies partially covered by plastic or cardboard.

"A parent should never have to bury their own children. I spent all night burying 11 of mine," said the first village man I spoke to, his hands bloody from digging. "I don't have any energy left. But I have to search for two more -- my daughters."

People tugged on my arm, wanting to tell me their stories.

I called AP's Jakarta bureau by satellite phone with one of the first eyewitness accounts from Aceh.

There I remained for 14 days. One of my most touching experiences was interviewing the local APTN cameraman's 10-year-old son, who survived the tsunami up in a coconut tree.

I froze a few times as Ardiansyah recounted seeing his mother and little sister swept away to their deaths. I was terrified the interview would cause him psychological damage. But his father, Ferry Effendi, knew his son well. He let me know when to pause and when to go on.

The horrifying images haven't gone away, and most likely never will.


Irwan Firdaus in Banda Aceh, Indonesia:

The tragedy took several of my close friends, including a journalist who often provided stories to The Associated Press from Banda Aceh, Muharram M. Nur.

His house was demolished by the inrushing sea and he is presumed dead; his wife is hospitalized and their three daughters were still missing two weeks after the tsunami.

I also lost a friend who got married in November. Arief Rusli and his new wife were walking on Banda Aceh's Uelele beach when the big waves roared in that Sunday and were swept away.

Another Acehnese friend was Rufriadi Ramli, a lawyer who was often a source for stories on human-rights abuses tied to the region's long-running separatist conflict. He hasn't been heard from since the disaster.

Then came a different kind of news: my wife in Jakarta called early on Jan. 7 to say she was about to give birth.

I felt sad, nervous, and confused. Here, there were bodies in rivers, pieces of flesh on roads, expanses of shattered buildings, the fear of disease outbreaks, hunger among the army of suddenly homeless. Yet three hours and several phone calls from my sister later came word that brought a smile to my face despite the apocalyptic scenes around me. My wife had given birth to a boy.

I rushed to the airport for the flight home. It should have taken only a couple of hours, but the trip stretched over 17 hours because my jetliner was diverted first to Malaysia amid the huge number of relief planes flying in and out of Aceh.

In the frustration of the delays I consoled myself with one thought: My wife and son were safe and healthy.


Shimali Senanayake in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka:

I couldn't believe the sea was responsible for all this.

I lived all my life by the beach. I would look out my bedroom window at the sea and it always calmed me. If ever I got home after work before sunset, I would walk to the beach, sit on a rock, inhale the fresh air, and gaze at the waves.

The water's inexplicable specialness meant so much to me that my husband and I had our wedding reception on the beach last year.

So, early on the morning after the catastrophe, I went down to Trincomalee's beach. Villagers cautioned me not to, saying the tide was still high. But this was the sea; how could I be afraid?

Then I saw the row after row of crushed houses.

People began telling me of human loss, of children being washed away while making sand castles. A father was walking with swollen eyes, tightly holding the hands of his daughter. The waves had washed away his wife and 6-year-old twin sons.

I looked at the sea and it was so peaceful ... it was so difficult to comprehend.

There were so many sad stories, like the baby yanked from her father's arms by the surging waves. He had lost his mind, and his distraught wife sat by his bed. It was only when a teardrop smudged my notebook that I realized how I was straining not to weep as I listened to her story.

Many times, I felt guilty for being alive.

I journeyed to a little-known village to track down an 18-year-old woman who had been plucked from the waters -- then raped by her rescuer.

Only a few years younger than me, she had lost her parents and seven other family members to the tsunami. Sitting beside her on her bed, I struggled to record all that she said.

When she broke down, I couldn't hold back either.


Chris Brummitt in Banda Aceh, Indonesia:

It was on my fourth day here that I began feeling I had seen too many bodies.

The feeling came after a long, hot day on an island where dogs were eating corpses on the beach. We got back to Banda Aceh after a four-hour boat ride in which we were tossed about by a rough sea. Bodies floated in the harbor and lay on the shore.

It was threatening to rain as people scavenged pots and pans and dirty clothes from destroyed houses. A fisherman tried to sell me a large tuna with sharp yellow fins that ran down its back.

More than two weeks after Banda Aceh was shattered, the stench of rotting corpses hangs over much of the city, a smell that sticks to clothes and hair. If a colleague walks into a room after working in the hardest-hit areas, it is clear where they have been -- they stink of death.


Alisa Tang in Phuket, Thailand

Despite hearing the skyrocketing death toll, updated several times a day by Thai officials, the extent of the destruction and lives lost didn't sink in until my pre-dawn drive to Khao Lak, the worst-hit area on Thailand's Andaman Sea coast, where the waves came in about 30 feet high.

The headlights of our truck flashed over a few corpses, wrapped in white cloth, laid out by the road to be picked up and taken to Buddhist temples that were now open-air mortuaries. A Thai resort employee slept by the roadside next to a candle.

We came upon a Westerner trudging along with a small bag in hand. He got into our truck, shut the door and deliriously mumbled, still trying to escape the waves: "I need to get to the hills."

It was one of many times my heart broke in those days after Christmas. Haggard, half-mad and forlorn, he got out and walked off into the darkness. I never got his name or story.

Later, I cried when I heard a Swedish doctor recount the tale of 7-year-old Karl Nilsson of Lulea, Sweden, who had been playing in a hotel room with his brothers, Olof, 5, and Vilgot, 3. His parents, Thomas and Asa, were outside.

"He told me: `I was under the water but somehow I could breathe. I was just closing my eyes and moving with the waves. Then, suddenly the flood ended and I was in another city,'" said Marie Guldstrand, the physician who found him at a Buddhist temple where survivors sought shelter. His parents and two brothers had vanished.

Cecilia Bergman of Stockholm, Sweden, spent her last minutes of life in her black bikini, playing by the pool with her 18-month-old son, Hannes, when the wall of water came upon her.

Like thousands of other miracle children, Hannes survived but will be affected forever. When he sees television news reports of the tsunami, he cries, "Mama! Mama!"


Chris Torchia in Galle, Sri Lanka:

The first day and night had my nerves fraying. Not from the spectacle of death and devastation that I found. It was personal.

My brother, Andrew, was on a diving vacation in the Maldives in the Indian Ocean, and I didn't know whether he was safe. He had taken a seaplane to an outer island two days before the disaster. Communications were bad and the extent of damage in the low-lying islands, which were pummeled by the tsunami, was not clear.

Then, after 30 hours of tension, as I was surveying hundreds of bodies at Galle's main hospital, a text message on my cell phone reported that my brother was fine.

As dusk approached, I had to be careful where I stepped at the hospital. The morgue and a nearby ward were full of bodies, and more were laid on walkways, and on the grass. Stiff limbs jutted from puffed-up torsos.

I felt detached from these dead strangers, who lost their human characteristics as decay took its toll. The immense volume of death made it difficult to focus, to understand that this was about individual lives. Looking at faces of children and the elderly, I struggled to imagine the personalities of these ordinary people and what they felt and saw in their last moments.

My imagination failed me no matter how many times survivors described how the bays temporarily emptied out, exposing sunken boats and rocks where people once dived -- and how the ocean came surging back, tearing city streets, enveloping everything and killing their relatives.

I asked the driver of a motorized rickshaw to recount how his daughter died, and stood in silence as he pointed at a hospital photograph of a corpse and said tearfully in English: "This is my daughter, sir."

I felt uneasy pushing him to clarify the circumstances of the girl's death. Was she dead when he found her? Did he try to revive her? How did he know it was she in the hospital photograph?


Miranda Leitsinger in Khao Kak, Thailand:

Covering the devastation inflicted on the resorts of southern Thailand, I was struck by the constant jumbling of the living and the dead -- life's extremes colliding, mixing and separating.

Thai rescue workers smiled as they posed for pictures in front of dead bodies. Thailand is a country where people are taught from childhood to smile in every situation, including anger and grief.

As charity workers carted bodies wrapped in white sheets, zipping back and forth in trucks, animal workers toiled to save a dolphin that had been thrown into a lagoon by the raging sea.

On New Year's Eve, I went to Bang La Street, which juts off popular Patong beach. Revelers partied, girls danced on bar tops or tried to lure in men, techno music boomed. They said they did think of the dead, but life had to go on and Thailand needed tourists.

The scene seemed very wrong, very disturbing.

Just before midnight, down on the beach, a Dutch-Thai couple lit two orange Buddhist candles stuck into beer bottles. They were disappointed others weren't there to pay respects to the dead, they said as the surf gently rolled in and the candles fluttered.

Thai television reported many people were seeing ghosts on the beaches.


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