When Warren and Julie Lavender surfaced from their first-ever certified scuba dive on the day after Christmas, they pulled off their masks, looked at each other and said, ‚ÄúThat sucked.‚Äù
Then Warren threw up.
The dive had sucked because the water was choppy on the surface and the current was hellaciously strong at the bottom and the fish were all hiding in crevices for some reason. The Lavenders happily climbed into the dive boat for the half-hour trip back to the beach, where glorious Alka-Seltzer awaited.
On the way Julie noticed something weird in the water. ‚ÄúSomebody‚Äôs wallet,‚Äù she said, pointing at it. Then came a chair. Then a coconut tree.
Then Warren noticed something worse--a horrified look on the captain‚Äôs face. He spun around to see that the beach wasn‚Äôt there anymore. ‚ÄúThat‚Äôs when we knew something was very, very wrong,‚Äù Warren remembers. ‚ÄúThat beach had to be 150 meters wide, and it was just ... gone.‚Äù So were the docks. Waves were crashing straight into the hotels, some of which caved in like sandcastles.
The Lavenders had unknowingly scuba-dived through a tsunami, which was now hammering their vacation spot, the resort town of Beruwala on the western coast of Sri Lanka, gobbling up homes and boats and people, pulling them into the Indian Ocean and then flinging them back at the town again and again, killing hundreds.
Suddenly, it all made sense to the novice divers, the way they‚Äôd had to fight the torrential current at the bottom. ‚ÄúIt was like a hurricane underwater,‚Äù is how Warren describes it. Twenty meters below the surface, his mask was ripped off. It was all they could do to hold on to coral to avoid being sucked away. ‚ÄúWe were hanging parallel to the ocean floor,‚Äù Julie says. Warren is 6'4", 280, but Julie is only 5'3". ‚ÄúI was terrified Julie would lose her grip and be swept away forever,‚Äù he recalls. ‚ÄúI remember thinking, Gee, I could really learn to hate this sport.‚Äù
They eventually made it to the guide rope and climbed to the sunny surface, where ‚Äúwe just thought it was the end of a perfectly normal dive,‚Äù Warren says. How could they have known that they‚Äôd survived a tsunami that had been moving at up to 500 mph on its way to mauling the coastlines of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, India, Sri Lanka and Somalia, moving entire islands and killing more than 140,000 people in one of the worst natural disasters of our time?
As the boat neared the dive center, Warren says, ‚Äúeverything that the tidal wave had wrecked going ashore was now in the wave coming back at us. The dive instructor told the captain to turn the boat and outrun it, but I said, ‚ÄòScrew that! Get us on shore!‚Äô Because with all the debris flying around in the water, I didn‚Äôt think we‚Äôd survive.‚Äù
Somehow the baby-faced captain steered the boat through the whirling chaos. He saw a house balcony that had been ripped away and decided to use it as a makeshift dock. Turned out it was the balcony from the dive instructor‚Äôs guest house. She watched, stunned, as the house collapsed, her new Sea-Doo lit out to sea and footlong angel fish flopped on the lawn.
The Lavenders jumped from the boat to the balcony, then ran in bare feet over smashed glass and brick for higher ground. When they hit the street, the couple saw two policemen running toward them, followed by hundreds of wild-eyed locals. Another wave was coming. The Lavenders ducked into a sturdy three-story concrete building and made it to the top floor as the water rearranged the lobby.
Later, they tried to walk back to their hotel but couldn‚Äôt find it. Half a kilometer from the shore they passed boats marooned on sidewalks. The Lavenders spent the night on the cement floor of a hilltop home that the owner had opened to the stranded. The next day Warren found the now unemployed dive boat captain wandering the streets, picked the guy up, hugged him and gushed, ‚ÄúYou saved our lives!‚Äù Then he handed him every rupee in his pocket.
Two days after the tsunami the Lavenders paid a man triple the usual rate to drive them to the capital city of Colombo for their flight back to Kuwait City, where the Canadian couple are schoolteachers. As they drove, only emergency and relief vehicles passed them going the other way. The driver wept.
‚ÄúIt seemed so unfair that we could simply buy our way out of a situation,‚Äù Warren e-mailed to friends later, ‚Äúand so many others have no choice but to stay.‚Äù
Looking back, they realize how preposterously lucky they were to just that week have taken up a sport that wound up saving their lives. ‚ÄúIf we hadn‚Äôt been diving,‚Äù says Julie, ‚Äúwe‚Äôd have been lying on that beach.‚Äù
‚ÄúWho would‚Äôve thought,‚Äù concludes Warren, ‚Äúthat we were in the safest place of all? Underwater.‚Äù
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