“I was awoken to the sound of screaming and chaos. This was not normal screaming – this was people screaming for their lives, screaming for their loved ones.”
This is how the 39-year-old Daniel Treisman from Johannesburg describes the day the catastrophic 2004 tsunami hit the island in Thailand he was vacationing on.
Thursday 5 November is World Tsunami Awareness Day and this year will mark 16 years since one of the worst tsunamis of all time rose like a wall of death from the Indian Ocean and hurtled on land, leaving unimaginable devastation in its wake.
The Boxing Day tsunami – so called because it struck on 26 December – claimed almost a quarter-of-a-million lives, including those of 15 South Africans.
For those who survived, the memory of how paradise was reduced to ruin in seconds burn as if it happened yesterday.
Daniel was 23 and on holiday with his girlfriend, Taryn, who is now his wife.
Everything was perfect when they arrived on the idyllic Phi Phi island on 19 December. The weather was great and Christmas was spent enjoying all the island had to offer.
Then everything changed.
Daniel and Taryn were still in bed that morning, sleeping off the effects of the festive night before, and were woken by the sound of people screaming.
Taryn jumped up and ran towards the door of their bungalow, Daniel on her heels. “I just saw this wave of muddy brown water coming towards us. It wasn’t a normal wave that once it breaks, it dies out and retreats. This was probably 1,5 metres and it just never stopped breaking. It carried on coming and coming.
“The force of it carried on and it went past the beach and into the resort. It started ripping out swimming pools. I remember seeing the reception counter being washed away past us – everything was just being washed away.”
He saw other bungalows in their resort collapsing and knew they needed to get out of there fast.
“We were fortunate in that where we were staying on the island, there was a mountain behind us. So we decided to jump into the water and let the wave wash us out onto the mountain, rather than wait for it to smash into us and suck us up.
“Everyone was in shock, in survival mode. Nobody really understood what had happened. Tsunami wasn’t the kind of thing we knew much about – we knew what a tidal wave was, but this was something different.”
Daniel and Taryn were fortunate – they were never separated and they managed to get to the top of the mountain. “All around us were injured people and those who had lost loved ones. That was going on all the time.”
Hours passed before they got to a hotel that was relatively unscathed and called loved ones back in SA to tell them they were okay. “Only once we’d spoken to them we realised the magnitude of what had happened.
“Some of the South Africans we’d made friends with on the island didn’t make it. We then had to figure out how we were going to find as many South Africans, dead or alive, and bring them back to SA. Eventually an emergency flight was chartered to fetch all the South Africans, including those injured and those who had died.”
Daniel and Taryn, who now have three kids, haven’t been back to Thailand but say they would like to return some day. “We’re okay now,” he says. “My wife had nightmares afterwards but she’s fine now too.”
He says one thing that will always stay with him is how quickly a place that seems like heaven can turn into hell.
“One minute you are on an island in the middle of Thailand and there is sparkling, clear water and people are scuba diving, partying, drinking and having an amazing time. It’s incredible how quickly it all changed. People enjoying the holidays and seconds later many of them were dead or injured.”
The couple spend some time reflecting on that terrible day on every anniversary of the tsunami. “We think about all we have achieved in the past 16 years and we think about those who didn’t make it and what their families must still be going through.
“It may be 16 years later, but you never forget. It’s something you live with for the rest of your life.”