Surviving the tsunami

MARYSVILLE – Although Curry and Desi Smythe finally returned to their Marysville home this weekend after surviving the deadly tsunami in Sri Lanka, they can’t get the images of devastation out of their minds.

The two fled to the second floor of a beachfront hotel just as the tsunami was rushing toward shore. They thank God their lives were spared. But they mourn the deaths of those who only minutes before had been sitting close to them near the beach, relaxing on a sunny Sunday morning.

The couple was in Sri Lanka to visit Desi’s family in Colombo, the capital. Desi, 43, emigrated from Sri Lanka to the United States 22 years ago. On the morning of Dec. 26, they hired a van and driver and traveled with Desi’s mother, brother, sister, brother-in-law and her sister’s two children to the Blue Water Hotel in the resort town of Wadduwa, about an hour south. The family planned to enjoy brunch and spend the day

Michael O’Leary / The Herald

Marysville couple Curry and Desi Smythe survived the deadly tsunamis that devastated Sri Lanka by moving to the second story of their hotel.

They were sitting in a grassy area between the hotel and beach when, Desi recalled, hotel employees approached them and said there was some sort of disturbance in the ocean.

“They said, ‘Get back in the hotel please. There’s a small emergency,’” she said. “They didn’t realize the magnitude of what was happening.”

Not knowing that a giant wall of water was about to hit shore, Curry, 33, ran toward the choppy waters of the Indian Ocean to help several dozen fishermen who were having trouble getting their large boat to shore. After working with dozens of others to rope the boat in, Curry ran toward the hotel. An employee told the family they could “get a better view” by going to the second floor. They did so. That advice likely saved their lives.

Seconds after they got to a second-floor balcony, the tsunami hit.

“It was all at once,” Curry said. “It just came and almost instantly filled up the pool area with brown mud and sea water, and it filled the whole bottom floor of the hotel.”

“All of the people on the first floor lost their lives,” Desi said quietly.

“It was instant chaos,” Curry said. “There was screaming and a lot of people crying.”

The family watched in horror at the boat that Curry had just helped to rope in. “The boat was getting pummeled against palm trees,” he said, “and these fishermen were holding on to the boat. You could see this look on their face: that boat is how they support themselves, and they didn’t want to let go. I don’t know what happened to them.”

The family then went up to the third floor, water from below splashing up the stairway onto them. Curry and Desi’s brother-in-law carried her mother, who has a bad leg.

They looked outside. The hotel was surrounded by water. Three men struggled against the swift, swirling currents in the courtyard, which looked like a giant whirlpool.

“Someone tried to throw them a fire hose,” Curry said. “I never did see if they got rescued.”

The family looked out toward the parking lot, and saw their van – with the driver inside – floating. Moments later, the sea receded enough for them to walk through ankle-deep water toward the van. The driver took inland back roads to get away from the seaside road that is the standard route to Colombo.

The couple believes it was their faith in God that saved them.

Although the Smythes and Desi’s immediate family escaped unharmed, a second cousin of Desi’s father perished in the tsunami with the cousin’s wife and child. Several friends of her sister also died.

Soon after their escape, Curry was able to use a cell phone to call his mother, Carole Smythe, in Marysville and tell her they were OK.

The phone system in Sri Lanka was so overwhelmed with calls that they weren’t able to call home again until shortly after they arrived at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport late Saturday morning.

Although Carole Smythe was relieved the couple had escaped the tsunami itself, she became increasingly nervous when she didn’t hear from them again. She had heard reports that disease might claim the lives of many who had survived.

“I was so excited to hear their voices” Saturday morning, Carole Smythe said. “I’m just elated they’re home. I can’t get enough hugs.”

“It’s really good to be back,” Curry said. “Being home has never felt so good.”

Reporter David Olson: 425-339-3452 or dolson@heraldnet.com.

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