How does a tsunami affect human life?

Tsunami: Stories of Survival

On December 26, 2004 at 7:58 am, the earth shook for eight minutes off the coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The earth's crust rips up over a length of 1000 kilometers. The gigantic rift triggers a huge wave.

The 2004 tsunami hit the coastal areas of Sumatra, Sri Lanka, Thailand, India, the Maldives, Burma and Malaysia completely unprepared. Around 250,000 people die, including 86 from Austria. The exact number is still unclear.

Ten years after the tsunami, people tell us how they lived through the disaster and how it changed their lives. Some, like Max Schachinger, survived on site in Thailand, others, like Sana Brauner, were able to save themselves but lost close relatives.


"Left completely alone with this madness"

It was a coincidence that she wasn't there. She didn't get a vacation. Romana Bartl lost her best friend Peter on Khao Lak (Thailand).

"Can I still picture his face?"

Astrid Becker was exactly one year before that on Khao Lak (Thailand). In 2004 she went to a ski lodge instead of Thailand - and lost her best friend Attila.

"Who am I waiting for?"

The entrepreneur Max Schachinger arrived on December 25, 2004 at the Golden Buddha Beach Resort on Ko Phra Thong (Thailand). He and two friends moved into a hut just a few meters behind the beach, his two friends upstairs, he downstairs.

In the morning I heard thunder as if an airplane had exploded. "Max, there was a huge wave!" Shouted the friends. I'm out and there were a lot of people waiting and watching. Interesting, the water is receding. We walked into the dry sea, were out there for many minutes. The Thais stayed on the beach, some climbed trees. Then we heard screams, people pointed to the sea. A big wave far out. Wow, I thought, it's quick. Then I ran.

The wave caught me. I put my hands and legs first in a tree. I held on, the five meter high tide is over me. I was under water. Then I saw that my floor was gone. None of the people on the beach could be seen. Then a voice from above: Hey Max! My friend Teddy was sitting on the palm tree. At that moment the second tidal wave came. It was violent. I have good breath from yoga, but the sea was above me for many minutes. I thought I must run out of air now, but I remembered that in a fast avalanche there can still be air in a suction cave. I'm with my head around the tree, I've got air under the raging water. I gave up and did what the moment needed: to hold on with all my might.

Trees, huts, palm trees: swept away. Only the water has come back, now with earth, mud and uprooted trees. The pull back out to sea was enormous and fatal for many. Then I stood there, shirt and pants, barefoot, just a shirt around the middle. What was i thinking? I'm there. We live. What should I do? Teddy was still sitting on the tree. We went off. We went on. I wanted to get people up the hill in case another wave came. Detlef was nowhere to be found.

People crouched on this hill and said pointless things like: "Will I get my money back?" A few were hysterical, they may have lost material, nothing else. I'm not talking about people who were seriously injured or who couldn't find loved ones. A third of 240 people on the island have died. There were hardly any injuries, most of the people drowned. I'm going to find groceries, especially for the kids. I am over dead bodies with cut feet. Our missing friend showed up before dark. It did not wash him into the mangrove swamps, but into the sea on the other side of the island. Fortunately he was fit, he used to be in the German national water polo team. He fought for his life for eight hours.

Take others by the hand

We spent the night on the hill on the ground. Before that, a monkey came too. He was confused and grabbed a few of us. People got hysterical and scared him off. When he came back, many freaked out, even though he didn't do anything. One of the locals then beat him up. Nobody did anything about it. The guy hit him on the head until he was dead.

The hill was the real tsunami for me. Watching people lose consciousness in their stories for a long day and a half without the distraction. I always thought I wasn't ready for the world. To my surprise, I was the only one of 150 on the hill who picked up something for the first five hours. I literally had to take others by the hand. Who am I waiting for? That was what I learned from this experience. For me my life has become clearer. It has taken the aura of importance from the usual human activity.

The next evening, women with children were first picked up in an army helicopter, the days after the rest. The three of us stayed to look for missing people with a few committed locals. After three days we were also admitted to a monastery. Only then did I begin to cry. It was good to feel that you were in good hands with people again. In the monastery there was a television with high-pitched tsunami dramas, which we affected did not speak to.

My family thought I was on the safe east coast. They then got a list of missing persons with my name on it. I myself put together this list of our hotel and it looks like my name slipped on it. They worried for me one night. In the monastery I was able to send them the redeeming SMS.

While walking around the island, I found my backpack with the Psion organizer, which looked like an ornate sand sculpture. My passport and some money were in the safe, the contents of which Teddy saved for everyone. I sent my friends to Kho Phangan, and I was still able to go to the monastery retreat in eastern Thailand.

I talk about the tsunami the whole time, actually I should talk about meditating afterwards. Backache for days, sleeping on a stone floor, a piece of wood as a pillow and being confronted with the real thing: the incessant stories in your head. You separate from paradise every moment. I was able to take the return flight and so I escaped the real challenge halfway and back to Austria.

Meditating was actually the tough experience and the people on the hill a very disillusioning one. If we get lost in our stories, we don't bring anything good into the world. Before the soldiers came, there were just seven people who had come together to do something for each other. Today I am grateful for people who organize themselves, often with great effort, of course, and thus manifest the spirit in families, companies, schools and politics. This creates the space in which life can develop.


"I was a single prayer"

Sana Brauner lost mother and daughter on Khao Lak (Thailand).

It catapulted us out of our everyday lives. That was a tremendous message that something needs to be changed here, that we have a choice between being victims or creators. I chose creators.

The complex consisted of stable rows of houses that were laid out around a pool. You could go straight into the water from your room. I haven't been to the sea where the beach and restaurant were, I went to the room after breakfast. The boys played in the pool, there was an artificial island with a water slide. My son Alexander, he was just before the age of 6, and his cousin. My ex-husband was on the terrace. I stepped out of the room, saw it and shouted: "Water!" At that moment, bang !, it was already inside the room.

The two boys were lifted up in seconds with the sun loungers and everything on the terrace, and people upstairs in the building grabbed them and pulled them out. You got away with almost no injuries. I see the water rise, the room is already full, I am washed through the window into the bathroom, the wave is so strong that the doors and walls are broken through, it's like a washing machine.

In retrospect, when I see the picture, I'm already outside the system. At some point the moment came when I gave up. To be able to fight and to know: nothing happens. Now I'll let it happen! That was my last breath. So that's how you leave this world, and only more silence, the whole roar over. And suddenly a voice. My. Sana, do you want to live? I was holding onto the wing mirror of a car that was drifting there.

At first I thought it was the Flood, it can't happen. I've been watching the water, what is it doing now? Does it get any higher? I was covered in blood and filth, and a Thai comes up to me and takes off his shirt and hands it to me. When I found my sister again, she said that mom and the little one are not there, they are just ... It was an odyssey. A couple of friends were with us with their son, who died and was found in the room next door.

We did a lot, we went to Thailand again and again and did some research. At some point you come to a point where you say: I have to choose. Or - it's not about making a decision. But to have to accept what is. Before that, I was like in a parallel world, having to function for everyday life, for the job.

Everything is energy. Part of us is matter, part of energy. Without this energy being, matter would be nothing. The fact that I deal with the spiritual world simply came about through the questions: What do I have to learn? Why me? My answer to that today is: everyone remains the creator of their life. For weeks, months, I would have done anything to turn the clock back. I've been a single, non-stop prayer. It took a while to accept. There was a funeral for my mother. I've learned that you can't look inside people. You don't know what's going on inside. "You can't tell by looking at it," I've been told. I did a lot of training to do healing work. That is no longer comprehensible with the mind, that is one of the worst ... (searches for a word, silence)if you outlive your own child. No matter what, it is not there. That's what matters, that's how it is now.

There was also the feeling: I mustn't go so deeply into my pain, which is naturally there because there is the other child who survived. It is all the more to appreciate our life, every day, its presence. I have to admit, I worked a lot before the tsunami, and I felt guilty.

We talked about it very openly at home afterwards. Grandma, she was like a second mom for my son. She was such a help to us, such an angel. We missed it a lot. My ex-husband wanted the little girl to be called Alexandra, me Anita, so Alexandra-Anita. On the one hand, such an experience naturally binds you, on the other hand: It did not heal what had not worked before. But we are still very fond of each other, there is no evil between us, no quarrel.

Before I live side by side, I want to see: What is happening to me? There is so much to learn to really be a person - and not a program that is running. I'm writing a book about my experiences. Those who have already read the manuscript say: There is courage. I would like to share this conviction that we are more than one body. Ultimately, it's all about being able to be happy. I don't know why we humans only learn when the pain threshold is reached.


"It already did something to me"

Ali Bechstein traveled to Khao Lak with his girlfriend at the time on December 23, 2004, both of them survived the tidal wave unscathed. Nevertheless, the tsunami changed his life.


"The awareness that one is fleeting"

The writer Josef Haslinger and his wife Edith, Daughter Sophie and son Elias talk about the tsunami that they survived ten years ago on Phi Phi Island (Thailand).

What is the predominant feeling after ten years?

Edith Haslinger: It is already relatively far away. Through this anniversary it comes back to consciousness. I still feel anxiety when people gather. I am more or less at peace with the sea in Greece, where we go every year. I was very careful there in the beginning. I am reconciled to the sea, not to the crowds.

Sophie Haslinger: I have no problem with the sea during the day, only at night. We were on the roof of the hotel at the time and stared down all night. We didn't know if another wave was coming. I still can't sleep by the sea. It is not a nice sound to hear the sound of the sea in the night.

Elias Haslinger: In everyday life I skilfully suppress. I don't want anything to do with it. Something only comes up when it is triggered. That's a bad feeling. Not a panic attack, but physically oppressive.

Mr. Haslinger, which stages of the process did you go through?

Josef Haslinger: The experience was like a block in my soul in the first year. It was good that I decided to face it. That initially made things worse. Right after the tsunami, I was the coolest one in the family.

Elias: That's how you worked.

Joseph: That was the role I asked myself to play. I didn't have any nightmares, didn't take any therapy, and I made it a point to have everything under control. It wasn't until I started writing about it that I started having nightmares. I also couldn't read from the book for a year. Reading and crying at the same time is not possible. It got better a year after it was released. People who also experienced the tsunami came to the readings, some of which had far worse consequences than we did. People who have lost loved ones. At a reading in Germany someone spoke to me and said: I appear in your book. I'm the one who told my son in front of the helicopter to scream as loud as he can so he could come along. I used that in the book as a negative example because people died and the boy only had a knee injury and was flown out. I asked the father what happened to the son. It turned out that tragic continued that the tsunami marked him for life. People speak so lightly and have no idea. But with us it's mostly a part of our past life. But I don't want to forget the lesson I draw from it. The clear awareness that one is fleeting.

You say you did not seek therapeutic help. The other family members?

Elias: I wanted to go into therapy.

Edith: The whole family was at Esra's first meeting. Then the question was who wants to stay, and Elias wanted that.

Elias (to Sophie): Have you actually been there too?

Sophie: No, I didn't mean to tell strangers about it. For me it was a family thing. Elias found it easier to talk to others. It helped me to only talk about it in my closest circle.

Elias: I never wanted to talk to friends about it. I wanted professional help.

Everyone deals with it differently. Were there differences within the family?

No Answer. Remain silent. (Elias wants to say something, then doesn't say it.)

Sophie: When we came back it was Christmas break. For me it was important that we spent a lot of time together. Also that we have tried to reconstruct a lot. Who, when, how, where was, in order to even understand what was happening.

Why did you go back with your wife after a year? Without the kids.

Joseph: The children didn't want to.

Edith: I didn't want to either, but I didn't want Josef to drive alone either. At that time I was in a sabbatical year and was able to ride. We were there in early December. But that wasn't a vacation, even the weather was cloudy. Our resort no longer existed, we lived on a hill, far from the sea. We went down every day to see what was where. It was a work-up.

Sophie: I was on the other coast two years later. It would have been out of the question to go to the same place. We lived far from the beach on the hill. Back then everything was even more present. When I heard the sea at night, I had to move to another bungalow.

You were in the high school graduation class in 2004. How was that for you guys?

Elias: At the time I wanted to drop out of school, I didn't want to go any more. Learning Math: Why?

Joseph: You didn't even want to leave the house.

Edith: But the children are immediately back to school. I was back after a week too. Elias didn't want to at all.

Elias: I remember. The class head asked me on the first day to tell the others about it.

Edith: There were insensitive people there. But then he managed everything well.

Elias: We graduated from high school without any problems.

Sophie: School even helped me because that was normal. I wrote my departmental thesis right away.

Edith: It helped us that everyday life went on.

Were there situations over the years where that caught up with you again?

Sophie: Unlike my father, I had many nightmares, almost every day and in many variations. A dream was that the water came up to us on the fourth floor. The nightmares have diminished over time.

Elias: I don't dream about it anymore. But I'm not feeling well right now. When I talk about it, it's still oppressive.

Joseph: Elias was in a situation where he believed he had lost his family.

Elias: I just wanted to get out of the water and survive. At first I thought I was drowning, a girl pulled me down, but she came up with me. Then I had this little boy on my arm and with him I was saved. I don't know how I got up there. Then I realized that the family might not be there anymore. Luckily I saw Sophie then.

Do you have any memorabilia?

Sophie: I still kept my ticket from Krabi to Bangkok. Thai Airways, that was the moment when I felt safe again. When we took off in the direction of Bangkok.

Edith: A lot came back from our hotel safe. I still use the apartment key that came with me. Josef bathed him in vinegar. It was completely encrusted.

Sophie: I have an old Roxy bag that I use for snowboarding. We were only in bikinis in all the chaos, and this bag was left standing when we were evacuated. There was robe in it. I still use it. I don't want to think much about what happened to the person who heard it.

Edith: There was also a toiletry bag in the bag. I still have that, I didn't want to throw it away.

Joseph: I got the digital film from the camera that was forwarded to us. I only looked at it once when I was writing the book, and never again after that. There's still the box that got the rotten stuff from the vault in it.

Edith: And the smelly sand?

Joseph: I filled the sand in a glass.

Elias: After the tsunami I sometimes had the smell of corpses in my nose. Not any longer longer. Only when I eat Thai. They handed out food parcels at the helipad. The stink of the corpses made the rice smell too. I haven't been able to eat Thai since then. (Everybody is laughing)

Does such an experience change anything about the fear of death or dying?

Sophie: The others have to answer that. I was the only one who wasn't underwater.

Edith: We saved ourselves up to the roof, and Sophie and I didn't go back down.

Joseph: Only Elias is down with me.

Elias: I still remember every corpse razor-sharp. The one open-breasted man who came to meet us. And the corpses in front of the hotel entrance.