Speech Professor Survives Tsunami in Thailand

El Vaquero Staff Writer

Imagine while basking in the sun without a worry in the world, suddenly disaster strikes. You go to sleep in paradise, but wake up to broken glass and wood, and entire populations of people torn apart by uncontrollable waves of water.

“Before that [the tsunami] we didn’t even know the word tsunami,” said Ira Heffler, a GCC speech and English professor, who survived the monstrous tidal waves that devastated Indonesia along with the shorelines of Phuket Island in Thailand.

“It’s weird because we came very close to dying…yet there was not a scratch on us, said Heffler. “It certainly affected us.”

Heffler and his friends came out of the tsunami disaster in good health but others were not as fortunate. “I saw a person with a severed arm…I met a guy from Australia who lost his buddy when the waves hit … we had dinner with him that night,” he said.

Heffler had been vacationing with five friends in Bangkok, and had flown to Phuket Island with them for the last of his winter vacation to enjoy the tropical weather.

While sleeping, he was woken up by a 9.0 earthquake that took place at 5 a.m, “The room just rock ‘n’ rolled I just thought it was another earthquake. We found out later that it was a 9.0 earthquake…only a few hundred miles away,” said Heffler. “It happened in the Sumatra Islands.” Heffler slept off the earthquake not knowing what was going to come his way.

The 9.0 earth quake triggered the catastrophic tidal waves which would, according to the Nation, an independent newspaper in Bangkok, kill 250,000 people, mostly in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand on Dec. 26.

While Heffler made his way downstairs from his hotel room to have breakfast the first wave hit creating a stampede among the people in the hotel.

The first wave severely damaged Phuket’s shoreline and sent debris flooding into the edge of the city where Heffler and his friends were staying. “I was going down to have breakfast with my buddies…[and] people from the beach were running and screaming for us to run away.”
Amongst the pandemonium Heffler ran to his room for his camera. “I went through the mud and pried the door open,” said Heffler. He then returned to the hotel lobby with his camera.

“Then the second wave hit…that’s when cars [and] boats plowed into the walls of the hotel. At that point, the water level in the lobby was above the knee,” said Heffler.

He ran out of what was left of the hotel lobby with his friends and joined others outside. “The eeriest part was running with hundreds of people and not knowing why,” he said. “They [civilians] were in their swim trunks and we ran with them,” said Heffler.

Escaping from the tides of the tsunami, Heffler witnessed the gruesome damage the waves had caused first hand. “I saw lots of blood,” he said. “The glass from the buildings just cut into the people…and we ran.” The dining room Heffler and his friends had initially intended to eat breakfast in had been obliterated by the second wave.

Trucks with open beds awaited those fleeing from the disaster. Locals and tourists were placed in the beds of the trucks and taken to high grounds to stay safe from a third wave that was expected to hit at anytime. “The locals put us in some trucks; they were so caring about the tourists,” said Heffler.

From the hills, survivors watched for three hours said Heffler. A third wave never came and after hours of waiting, Heffler along with his friends returned to the city.

“The hotel I stayed in was two-thirds gone,” said Heffler.
Though two powerful waves had left the people of Phuket Island with a considerable amount of damage to deal with, much of the city was still in good shape. “The center of the city was still alive. The bars and clubs were still running,” said Heffler.

Heffler was stranded on the island with his friends for three days before he could fly back. Though his hotel was mostly destroyed, the residents of the island made sure the tourists were comfortable, “There was so much debris, cars in the streets, the Thai people were very resilient,” he said. “They did their best under the circumstances to bounce back. They kept asking us if we were okay.”

Having experienced the tsunami disaster first-hand, Heffler still has trouble imagining the event. “I’m not sure if I can still contemplate it now. It makes you pull back and revaluate what’s important; we’re all here for only a limited amount of time.”