- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 29, 2004

BANGKOK — Tourists rescued from a tiny island off the coast of Thailand thought they were under terrorist attack or that a hurricane had hit, before they saw huge waves sweep helpless victims into the Andaman Sea.

“I thought it was a terrorist attack, because I could hear ‘bang, bang, bang’ and all these people were screaming and I couldn’t see no water,” said Rita Smith, a 54-year-old jeweler from England who had been staying on Phi Phi island.

“People turned white, everyone, with fear and horror on their faces. And it sounded like gunshots. So I thought someone was on the beach shooting people,” Ms. Smith said.

Traumatized survivors, some bandaged and wide-eyed, described their experiences yesterday after being rescued from Phi Phi, about 24 miles southeast of the larger Phuket island, which also was devastated by the underwater earthquake and tidal waves on Sunday.

More than 1,500 people, most of them foreigners, died on Thailand’s southwestern coast and islands, but officials said the toll could climb because hundreds of people were missing.

Groups of tourists from Phi Phi, Phuket and other stricken zones were brought to Bangkok, where medical staff, diplomats and volunteers sheltered them in university campus buildings near the international airport.

“Me and my boyfriend, we were both in bed when it happened,” said Laura Lynch, a 21-year-old office assistant from Wiltshire, England. “We were asleep. The fan stopped working and all the electricity went out and we heard screaming.”

“At first, I actually thought it was a hurricane or something like that. Then people were screaming at us to run,” she recalled.

“We looked around us, and people were being swept away in the water. Loads and loads of people,” she said.

“When the first wave was over, people were going down and trying to help people out of the rubble. And then as the second wave came in, a lot of people were swept away again, people who were trying to help. It was terrible.”

Her boyfriend grabbed her hand, and they began running up the mountainside when they heard a girl screaming on the other side of the road. She was injured badly.

“I think she got airlifted out,” Ms. Lynch said.

Some tourists on boats or scuba-diving underwater fared better.

“We were doing a scuba dive when suddenly a very strong current caught us,” said Petra Stegenier, 44, from Germany.

“We had to struggle against it. It took us down and upwards and down and upwards. We finished the dive, surfaced, and we were picked up by the boat and then we were warned that a big wave — they said a five-meter-high wave — just swept away half of Phi Phi island,” she said.

Others had to witness the horror show of pain and panic.

“I saw people being washed away by the wave and then crushed by the bungalows that were being knocked over,” said Daniel Aiguelles, a 25-year-old stock broker from Colombia.

Phi Phi’s hills are divided by tropical beaches on both sides of a narrow strip of sand only a few hundred meters apart where most tourists stayed in scores of inexpensive hotels.

“Phi Phi island is really narrow, so the island was hit at the same time from both sides,” Mr. Aiguelles said. “There were actually two waves coming onto the island.”

“People who were running away from one of them ended up facing the other wave. So there was really nowhere to go,” he said.

“Then the bodies just started floating.”

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