On Christmas Eve 2004 my wife, Bette, and I were in a hotel bar in San Francisco dreaming up plot points for a film we’d like to shoot some day when a woman arrived from the airport with breathless news. The bartender clicked his remote and It’s a Wonderful Life vanished, Jimmy Stewart’s smiling face wiped off the screen by a mountain of angry seawater. I can still see those endlessly repeated loops of amateur video shot from the balconies of beachfront resorts in Sumatra and Thailand, relayed by satellite to every TV receiver on the planet.
The first horrifying, mesmerizing wave crashed against a seawall, jetting skyward in salty white torrents, tearing through a fringe of palm trees like a monsoon river, across a hotel pool deck and a manicured square of green lawn. The darkening surge roared uphill through narrow, cluttered streets choked with tourist luggage, broken timbers, small motorcycles with their riders struggling to stay vertical, cargo vans overturned and bulldozed by white froth into market stalls. A transit bus floating on its side began to sink as desperate passengers jumped from the slippery roof.
It’s impossible to forget the images, those flailing human bodies—especially one unfortunate older man clinging to the outside railing of a rapidly filling parkade. Exhausted and in shock, he finally let go. We watched as he sank into the muddy torrent and was swept away.
More than 230,000 people in fourteen countries around the Indian Ocean died or disappeared, many of them before our eyes, and there was nothing any of us could do. Everything not nailed to the ground was torn loose and carried off by the roaring water. And there was more to come. Even after the first water had cut a swath nearly a mile inland and then sucked itself halfway out to sea again, full of death and floating debris, people standing among the palms were so stunned by the spectacle they waited too long to outrun the next wave.
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