Paradise lost

After encountering the tsunami in Thailand, Sacramento climbers stay on to help with the relief effort

Cosumnes River College mountaineering instructor George Knott leads a climb above the beach in Ton Sai, Thailand.

Cosumnes River College mountaineering instructor George Knott leads a climb above the beach in Ton Sai, Thailand.

Photo By George Knott

For George Knott, it was his sixth trip to paradise, a stretch of pristine beach in southern Thailand famous for its towering limestone cliffs and world-class climbing. One of a half-dozen Sacramento climbers at Ton Sai in the Krabi Province for the holidays, the 48-year-old Cosumnes River College professor of physics and mountaineering was on the beach the morning of December 26, working an expert section of rock, when the first of the tsunamis struck.

It was the rock that saved him.

Knott and several other climbers were stepping around the high tide at the crag’s base when the water suddenly disappeared from about their feet.

“We saw the water fall fast,” Knott said. “We looked out to see a huge wave coming. Everyone stared open-mouthed and then ran like heck.”

Knott reached a makeshift ladder used by climbers and pulled himself onto a rock terrace in time to see the wave slam an outdoor bar just beneath him. But he couldn’t see his girlfriend, Beth Sehan—a 20-year-old California State University, Sacramento, student—or her friend, Annie Berhold, a CRC student who’s also 20. Both had been relaxing in hammocks below.

“I was frantic about Beth and Annie but could do nothing except watch the waves hit the bar,” Knott recalled. “Then I went down the ladder in a daze. I don’t remember much except picking up a little dog, and then the next, biggest one hit. I ran for my life and made it.”

Earlier, Sehan had felt the ground shake during an aftershock from the 9.0 earthquake that had fractured the seafloor off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia. By then, waves from the displaced water were surging toward Thailand at 500 miles an hour. Sehan, looking up from the book she was reading, saw the first tsunami grow out of the sea.

“I remember watching the swell in the ocean crash against the small island in front of Ton Sai, then turn into a wave right in front of the beach. I was thinking, ‘Where did George go?’ but I couldn’t see him. At that point, I ran.”

Sehan and Berhold distanced themselves from the wave along a dirt road that rises quickly into the jungle, and eventually they were joined by Knott. Together, the three witnessed the macabre scene of bloodied climbers, kayakers, boatmen and locals coming up from the beach, a number of them critically wounded. Still, below in the water, the less fortunate had not escaped the waves: A mother and daughter were killed while kayaking, an elderly man drowned while swimming, and a child was swept out to sea.

Across southwestern Thailand, the tsunamis wreaked similar devastation, only in greater proportions. Hit hardest were the more densely populated resorts at Phuket and the Phi Phi islands, where much of the tourist area rises only 5 feet above sea level. Tourists and Thai caught unaware were swept out to sea by the hundreds. The official death toll for Thailand has risen to 5,300, with the missing estimated at 3,716.

Throughout 11 southern Asian and African countries, the tsunamis have claimed more than 150,000 lives, making it the worst disaster of its kind in recorded history.

From Phi Phi, a miraculous story of survival involving a Sacramento-area couple has made international headlines. Will and Amanda Robins, a Citrus Heights couple honeymooning on the island, first thought the screams of horror outside their hotel meant a terrorist attack. They jumped over the reception counter and slipped into a small room with computers, but soon the walls there imploded under the mass of water that had encircled the resort area.

The newlyweds reached for each other but were separated by a wave 15 to 20 feet high, Will said. “We were in the water fighting for our lives,” the 26-year-old pro golfer later told The New York Times.

The torrent swept them over what remained of the hotel, pummeled them with concrete blocks and pulled them, still submerged, at incredible speeds 150 yards out to sea. Will held his breath until he thought he might give out, but then he surfaced. Amanda appeared a moment later near him, and the two were able to wave down a nearby boat.

Will nearly lost his right ear, both of his shoulders were dislocated, and his left collarbone was broken; his wife sustained a broken pelvis. But, despite their ordeal, the couple is happy to be alive. From a Bangkok hospital, Amanda wrote in an e-mail to her science students at Winston Churchill Middle School in Carmichael: “Will and I have been two of the luckiest people in this tragedy.”

The U.S. State Department has reported that 37 Americans have died, and another 2,500 are missing in southern Asia still.

“There were no warnings,” said William Chen, 48, a Mercy San Juan doctor vacationing at Railay Beach, Krabi, with his family. Chen heard news of the Indonesian earthquake while watching CNN in his bungalow that morning, but the report mentioned nothing about the tsunamis. By the time calls from survivors on Phuket were lighting up cell phones at Ton Sai and Railay, 10-foot-high waves began crashing into the beach.

“It was a very surreal experience,” Chen said from his Folsom home. “At first, I didn’t grasp how cataclysmic it all was.” Not until he and his family were told to seek refuge at a hillside resort, and he was working with the wounded brought there, did he begin to understand the disaster’s significance. With a first-aid kit someone had carried from a hotel, he treated several lacerations and a fractured leg. The more seriously injured were flown out by helicopter; the dead, reportedly 10 boatmen, had been swept out to sea.

Chen noted that most mornings during his vacation, his wife, Lori, and his children—Andrew, 16, and Allie, 13—relaxed on Railay Beach while he climbed, but his slight cold that day kept the family together in their resort on the eastern, more protected, side of the peninsula.

“It shows how arbitrary and capricious life is,” Chen said.

In the tsunami’s aftermath, the Thai government ordered mandatory evacuations of Railay, Ton Sai and the surrounding areas. Charter boats collected tourists and workers the day after the catastrophe, but several Sacramento climbers, including Rick Miller and Denise Goodpasture, ignored the orders, staying on to assist with relief efforts. Miller, a 36-year-old manager with Pacific MDF Products in Loomis, said one restaurant owner was quite candid—he could only promise them rice and water because of the food shortage. Still, fueled by this and the remaining packages of M&M’s from a local store, they threw themselves into 10-hour days cleaning the beach with other teams.

The waves Miller had witnessed the day before, one as high as 12 feet, had left behind shattered long-tail boats in palm trees as well as crushed bars and restaurants, and had tossed chunks of coral onto the remaining cement foundations.

Goodpasture, 30, a Mira Loma High School math instructor, said it took her and six others two hours to clear debris from one small section of beach. Miller worked on pulling boats and engines from the trees while Knott, Sehan and Berhold hauled away broken glass and sections of boats and coral.

“We saw some good in people that was real impressive,” Miller said. “I was so proud to be part of the climbing community. All I kept hearing from climbers who, like us, had come halfway around the world, was, ‘These people have lost everything, their whole life’s work.’ Everyone was pulling together for them.”

For relatives back in the Sacramento area, the calls came early on December 26 even before some had heard the news about the earthquake and tsunamis. They were short—the transmissions sometimes interrupted—but the messages were the same: “We survived a tsunami. We’re safe, but call and tell Beth’s mom to cancel her trip,” Knott told a Curtis Park neighbor. Sehan’s mother, Katherine Han, who was to leave for Thailand two days later, watched the events unfold on a cable news channel and then followed the advice.

“We’re alive, and we’re fine,” Goodpasture assured her confused mother, Sue Paulson of Yuba City, who was awakened at 1 a.m. But not everyone got the message. Several groups of anxious Mira Loma students phoned Sacramento Pipeworks, the climbing gym where Goodpasture and Miller are members, to verify that their teacher and her boyfriend were safe.

As news of the Asian disaster spread, so did local relief efforts both small and large. At Goodpasture’s school, the wrestling team turned its January meet into a benefit that generated several hundred dollars. Students at Winston Churchill are collecting money in advance of Amanda Robins’ return to the United States within two weeks. Vice Principal Jamey Paul said the students will leave the decision of where to direct the funds to Amanda, who may wish to send them along to the boatman who saved her and her husband.

Americans have been giving to the south Asian disaster relief in overwhelming numbers—some 45 percent of Americans in a recent Gallup Poll. A KCRA telethon raised more than $1 million, and the Rumsey Band of Wintun Indians and the United Auburn Indian Community have announced plans to contribute $1 million to Save the Children and Habitat for Humanity.

Nationwide, private donations reached $320 million last week and soon may exceed the $350 million appropriated in aid by the Bush administration. In support of continued charity to the region, Congress sent a bill to the president that extends 2004 tax deductions for donations made through January 31.

In Ton Sai, Thailand, the sea has returned to its customary gentle roll, and rebuilding of the beachfront has begun in earnest. Web sites operated by the resorts reassure potential tourists that the danger is past, but even the stalwart climbers who stayed behind occasionally glance over their shoulders at the water.

Knott, staying in Thailand indefinitely on sabbatical, has adopted a characteristically sanguine attitude about recent events. “It was like a Grateful Dead concert; you had to be there.”

For Goodpasture, the faces of those who greeted her return have left as much of an impression as the images of the wreckage in Ton Sai. “It didn’t really hit me what could have happened until I saw the reactions of friends and family when I returned,” she said. “I’ll never look at the ocean in the same way again.”

Amanda, writing to her science students, chose not to dwell on the circumstances of her injuries but reminded her students that they had witnessed “a momentous event in history” and asked them to consider how it has changed, forever, a great part of the Earth.