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Tsunami Eyewitness - 72-yr-old Swept Out To Sea

Tsunami Eyewitness - 72-yr-old American Swept Out To Sea

by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- A 72-year-old American who felt an earthquake but shrugged off breakfast conversation about a tsunami, was slammed two hours later by a ''line of cumulous clouds'' of water at Golden Buddha Beach Resort and carried out to sea.

"It was probably next to atomic energy as one of the greatest physical forces possible," Gerald Bodden said in a recorded interview on Thursday (Dec. 30) from a hospital bed.

Bandaged, and with skin peeling from his ordeal, Mr. Bodden was recovering from "sunstroke, dehydration, shock and general fatigue, being in the water for four hours and swimming for much of that time."

Clinging to a broken tree while drifting in the Andaman Sea, "I estimated at first I was two kilometers off shore, and the current dragged me northward for a while and I didn't know where I would end up. Maybe Burma."

More than 1,800 people drowned or were crushed to death -- many of them foreign tourists -- along Thailand's west coast on Sunday (Dec. 26) morning when an underwater earthquake triggered giant waves that pulverized cities, villages and resorts.

"At eight o'clock that morning, I had felt the earthquake myself. And the consensus among people on the island was that tsunamis were headed there because of the earthquake. But we'd had rumors of tsunamis coming down there in the past, but it never happened. I don't think they've had one in that part of Thailand in 400 years," Mr. Bodden said.

When the tsunami hit, he and other foreigners were in Golden Buddha Beach Resort, a cluster of about 40 exclusive, privately owned bungalows on tiny Koh Pra Tong island in the Andaman Sea about one mile off Thailand's coast near Khura Buri, 70 miles north of crippled Phuket island.

Originally from Mobile, Alabama, and formerly a writer of computer instruction manuals, he worked in California's Silicon Valley from 1976 to 1990 before retiring in Thailand 14 years ago.

In his two-bedroom, beachside bungalow, he felt an earthquake "at least two hours" before the tsunami hammered the island.

"I was in my house, which exists no longer, in bed, and it went like this..." he said, shaking himself back and forth in his hospital bed for a few seconds to indicate the jarring sensation.

"But I spent almost 15 years in the [San Francisco] Bay Area and we're used to that. And I said, 'Oh. An earthquake somewhere.'"

Other foreigners also felt the quake.

"Oh yeah, a couple of people mentioned it. I'm pretty blase about that, having lived in California. Somebody said, 'Did you feel an earthquake this morning?' and I said, 'Yeah,' and continued eating my eggs.

"We never thought we'd have a tsunami. But for the first time in my life I understood why some people say California will go underwater, because it certainly could," Mr. Bodden said, chuckling.

The resort's foreigners chatted about a tsunami again when several of them saw giant, white walls of water rapidly approaching their tiny, west coast beach.

"What I saw on the horizon looked like a whole line of cumulous clouds. Instead, they were huge walls of water," he said.

"I saw every drop of water being pulled out to sea, which of course was feeding the tsunami. And I should have had the sense of mind to climb to higher ground. But I just did not. I'm a great believer in self preservation, but I just missed it this time."

He grokked the wave's potential when the water smashed the thatched, wooden "yoga hut" he was temporarily converting into a meeting room.

"When I saw the hut started to crumble, I jumped out of it of course. The water caught me, took me out to sea," he said.

"Then another wave hit, almost as big. I was tossed up and down, like a matchstick, totally out of control which is one of the worst feelings one could have. But I managed to be thrown up in time to get a gasp of air and stay alive.

"Then back down, then up and down and up. Then finally in what seemed like five hours, but it could've been five minutes, the big waves subsided," he said.

"I grabbed onto a tree branch and it took me out to sea as the water receded. A tree branch cut by the storm. And it took me probably as far as two kilometers off the shore."

After being shoved north by the current toward Burma, the swells shifted south and brought him back to within half a kilometer from his resort.

"I managed to maintain my cool, I never went into panic, but that's when I really felt like, 'Oh, I think I'm going to make it now'," he said.

"I let go [of the tree branch], and I swam and swam and swam and turned over on my back and caught my breath and turned over again and swam and swam and swam. And I kept focused on a piece of sand right ahead of me and I kept telling myself, 'I'm going to make it there,'" he said.

"This was almost four hours after I had been in the sea and I was totally exhausted.

"I saw no tapes about my whole life. Nothing flashed in front of me. I just wondered how I was going to come out of this," he said.

"I thought I might land somewhere else. All I knew was, I was determined to get out of it. I was not ready to die. And I didn't intend to."

But he was in pain, especially after he let go of the log and swam a final half-hour to reach home.

"There are a series of scratches on my left arm that I got from grasping the log. And I have a very painful -- if you look here on my left leg -- a very painful wound there and I'm not quite sure how I got it. And I have minor pains in my hands. I couldn't give you a tight handgrip right now because my hands hurt."

Mr. Bodden believes a lifetime habit of exercise kept him strong enough to stay alive and swim back to shore.

"I work out three times a week. Now I do both aerobic type exercises and weight lift machines and I don't do it necessarily for muscle-building, but to keep from atrophying. It's recommended as you age," he said.

Being whacked by a tsunami was mind boggling, he said.

"I knew that I was caught in a force beyond my control. It was weird. It was like a dream."


Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 26 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is

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