For Patrick Green, the terrifying wave came in a trickle.
He and friend Becky Johnson were in the elevator of a Phuket hotel, on their way to the beach, where they planned to get one last hour of Thai sun before heading to the airport.
Outside, a tsunami had crushed the shore, but in the elevator, the only sign that something was wrong came when the lights flickered and water – so slowly – began seeping through the doors. His confused mind raced to find an explanation as “inhuman, indescribable” screams pierced the walls from outside.
“Nothing that happened afterward was nearly as scary as the 10 seconds in the elevator,” the 28-year-old Cashmere native wrote his family.
His answer came when the elevator thrust downward and the doors burst open, revealing a raging river through the hotel. Dirty water, waist-deep and rising, gushed into the elevator. He and Johnson swam to a door. Outside, people, cars, tables and trees floated by.
They swam perpendicular to the current, aiming for the structure that would save them: a jungle gym in a nearby play area. They pulled a few other people onto it, including a woman who clung furiously to her baby as she looked for her 5-year-old boy – they would be reunited five hours later.
Johnson asked one of the Thai men what had happened.
“Big wave!” was all he could muster with his limited English. (A day later, Green and Johnson would joke that he proved to be more informative than the Thai government.)
A few more waves hit, none strong enough to dislodge them. As Johnson shouted prayers, a thatched palm-leaf roof lodged against the play structure, helping shelter them from the last and biggest wave, one that swelled 10 feet over their heads.
After that the water calmed, and Green and Johnson swam 150 yards to the hotel’s main entrance. They took stairs to the building’s rooftop, where they spent the rest of the day taking pictures and listening to panicked shrieks warning of additional waves that never came.
The pair managed to get a return flight the next day to Singapore, where they teach at Singapore American School.
“I think it’s been good for me to talk about it over again,” Green said Thursday. “I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. I’m trying to do mind-numbing things like watch movies and read, because you start to think of all these people who didn’t make it and these people whose lives were thrown into disarray and how many people are without water and sanitation.”
Johnson, also 28, is from Oregon. Both taught at Blaine Middle School in Blaine last year before accepting offers to teach in Singapore. Each made a two-year commitment and arrived in August. He teaches U.S. history, she fifth grade.
Green closed his note home with this:
“It was ugly and awful. There are some images I will never forget, and some that I might never acknowledge again. I am left with an immense respect for the power of nature.”