Tsunami Family Saved by Schoolgirl's Geography Lesson

James Owen in London
for National Geographic News
January 18, 2005

On December 26 British schoolgirl Tilly Smith, ten, sensed something was wrong while on the beach with her family. Her mind kept going back to the geography lesson Mr. Kearney gave just two weeks before she flew out to a Thai resort with her family.

"The water was swelling and kept coming in," recalled Penny Smith, Tilly's mother. "There was froth on it like you get on the top of a beer. The sea was like a millpond before [the swelling began]."

The Smiths, from southeast England, were celebrating Christmas at Maikhao Beach in Phuket, southern Thailand. Deadly tsunami waves were already on their way—triggered by a massive earthquake off northern Sumatra earlier that morning.

"The beach was getting smaller and smaller," said Penny Smith, 43. "I felt compelled to look, but I didn't know what was happening. Then Tilly said she'd just studied this at school—she talked about tectonic plates and an earthquake under the sea. She got more and more hysterical. In the end she was screaming at us to get off the beach."

Tilly's father, Colin Smith, 46, said other tourists on the beach were alerted by his daughter's concerns as he took Tilly and her seven-year-old sister back to the hotel swimming pool.

Penny Smith added, "I didn't know what a tsunami was, but seeing your daughter so frightened made you think something serious must be going on."

She remembers seeing a yacht being tipped vertically in the bay. "Then it was as if the entire sea came out of the water. I was screaming, 'Run!'"

The family took refuge on the third floor of their hotel. Set well back from the shore, it withstood the surge of three tsunami waves.

"Everything went in the swimming pool—beds, palm trees, the lot," Penny Smith said. "Even if you hadn't drowned, you would have been hit by something."

If they had stayed on the beach, she believes they wouldn't have made it to safety.

In the disaster's aftermath, the Smiths said, they met people from nearby resorts who had lost whole families.

Safely Home

Continued on Next Page >>


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