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Islander"s account of tsunami tragedy

Traveling in India, MIHS grad sent e-mail to family

Islanders Logan Gee and Kevin Petrie were on a narrow peninsula on the southern tip of India when the waves triggered by last week's earthquake hit. They survived, and believe the area was protected by its relatively steep shore and surrounding lowlands that create a natural reservoir.

Gee called his family at about 10:30 p.m. India time Sunday -- mid-morning here -- to let them know he and Petrie were all right. He followed up with a lengthy e-mail telling of their experience.

They had planned to travel to Sri Lanka within the next day or so but are now trying to decide where their help could be most useful.

The two are both members of Mercer Island High School class of 2000. Gee, 22, recently graduated from Santa Clara University and plans to attend graduate school next, said his father, David Gee.

Petrie, also 22, has been studying writing at Bellevue Community College and plans to attend Evergreen State College on his return, his father, Roger Petrie, said.

Both are fairly experienced travelers and had visited Southeast Asia before. They left in October on an educational tour and had planned to return home in late February. Since the trip began, they have visited Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, India and other parts of Southeast Asia.

Following are excerpts from the e-mail Logan Gee sent to family and friends on Tuesday, Dec. 28, titled, ``The craziest thing happened the other day.''

It has been an insane couple of days. We were fortunate enough to be on the west coast of India, where the surges of water were not quite as devastating.

Amritapuri is located on a peninsula about a half-kilometer wide that stretches northward along the coast, with the ocean on the west and a river on the right that is about 50 meters wide. It was once largely marshland, unsuitable for building large structures, but as Amma's movement grew internationally and people started coming from all corners of the globe to stay at her ashram, earth was added to the peninsula, and two 15-story dorm buildings were constructed. They are the highest buildings in the state of Kerala. The buildings are pink, along with the ornate, six-story Hindu temple that is in the same complex. Surrounded by miles of palm tree forest, it is needless to say that the buildings stick out like a couple of sore thumbs. The peninsula stretches seven kilometers, and lining the coast is a modest fishing village.

At about noon on the day after Christmas ... we were getting ready to head to [a] sandy beach...

Suddenly, a large group of locals and tourists are speedwalking by the narrow dirt passageway past the tea shop. ... We are beckoned to follow them into the temple complex. ``Come, come. Ocean coming, ocean coming.''

We are about 200 or 300 meters from the rock wall that separates the village from the ocean. We get up quickly, and watch as, sure enough, water is creeping down the passageway, though at this point not very much.

Right now it is only a trickle, and people are relatively calm. ... It is an hour before the real wave hits. We go back across the complex to our room on the 15th floor of the north dorm, crossing just inches of water in the passageway that bisects the complex.

It's 1 [p.m.]. As I lie on my sleeping pad reading, I am distracted by distant screams and the faint sound of rushing water. At first I don't move. There is always so much noise around the village, I have learned at this point to disregard it. Kevin looks out our window. Suddenly he moves quickly to the door, and out to the balcony at the end of the hall. ``Dude, you gotta look at this.''

As I we move closer to the end of the hall, the screams and rushing water become louder and louder. We look down and panic surges through my body as we look down to see the entire peninsula in about a meter or two of fast-flowing water. The dirty water looks like an oil spill as it moves into the backwater on the east side. Suddenly, the current is cruising southward at a very fast rate, and the ferry boats scramble to throw ropes to the opposite dock as they are rapidly pushed southward.

We go to the other side that faces the complex, both grabbing our cameras before looking down at the temple grounds. It is bedlam. People rush for the buildings. Those on the ground are now wading through a meter of water, though here the water is almost stagnant with the exception of the narrow passageway through the middle.

The original surge is over, and my head clears a little bit. It was hard to know how serious this really was.

We decided to go down to talk to people about what was happening, maybe help people unload the basements of the different buildings. Figuring that we're going to do some wading, we put on our swimming shorts, deciding that the ashram rules against showing skin probably weren't terribly important right now. I laugh at Kevin, who is sporting his lifeguard shirt from back home. The irony of this would come later.

Indians, for the most part, can't swim. Even those in beach/fishing communities. We had just come from Varkala, where the locals wouldn't go past their upper thighs in the surf. Kevin and I realize that our lifeguarding skills may actually come in handy. Just two days [before] we had spent time with a family right by the water who had a collective six or seven little boys and girls, small enough to take a serious thrashing from this kind of flowing water.

We cross the grounds to the temple stairs where people are starting to congregate. A few of the swamis, (these are the highest order of the Amma religious hierarchy, and are the closest thing to legitimate authority) are shouting at each other in Malayalam. I ask one of them if they know about the neighboring village, if anyone has gone to help the children and elderly who would be most at risk. No one seems to respond with a clear answer, wanting me to just stay on the steps and wait.

Rumors of the earthquake have begun to circulate. Near Indonesia?

Isn't that hundreds of miles from here? Possible aftershocks?

Another wave?

Some people rush into the tall buildings, some rush downward. As we sit on the temple steps under 15 stories of balcony onlookers, Kevin is talking about how the buildings may not be safe. Again, they sit on a narrow strip of marshland that is now saturated with thousands of gallons of rushing water. If there is a shift in the foundation at all, it is not inconceivable that these huge pink monstrosities could come tumbling down like the Twin Towers. Jesus Christ!

I urge my two buddies to come with me to the village. I am convinced by the collapsing theory as well as the possibility that we could help any struggling locals. If they aren't drowning, they at least need to empty out valuables from their homes. No takers.

I wade through the thigh high water to get ... further south [to] higher ground. I keep walking and find myself on muddy ground where the water has either receded or seeped into the earth. I go past the hospital and out to the village along the coast.

I start walking through the homes. The ground is exposed in the majority of the area, but there are muddy ponds that stretch maybe all the way to the river on the east side. Rickshaws are turned over, chunks of stone ranging from basketball size to full wall size are strewn about the road. Many buildings are still standing, though most are quite damaged.

A group of men starts yelling at me. One of them speaks decent English. ``More water coming. Back, back. Ashram, go.''

I ask [one man] in the same kind of broken English that the locals speak, if the town has been completely evacuated of women, children and elderly.

``Other people escaping. Come, come, you must go back to ashram.''

I tell him I am more worried about the tall buildings falling than another surge of water.

``You know swim?''

I nod.

``Lifeguard?''

``Yes, lifeguard.'' ...

``OK. You come, come. With me.''

Now we are rushing southward over a path of fist-sized jagged rocks. ...

We come across a large group of men yelling at each other. Like so many times before in the chaos that is India, I am struggling just to figure what is going on. ...

[My new friend,] Sham speaks with a few of them and then beckons me as he runs for one of the waist-deep ponds that stretch into forest. I walk through the muddy water, hoping there are no leeches or jellyfish.

``Where are we going?''

``Searching, searching.''

``For what?'' ...

``Two people in that house gone. We find them.''

Needless to say, I have serious butterflies in my stomach. Does that mean we are searching for bodies? What the hell am I doing here?

We don't find anything. ...

We come to the edge of another pond right near a small concrete home with a real ragtag stick fence and a small shack. A family is on the porch, yelling [and] pointing toward the pond. Sham looks at me again. ``Come, help.''

We pick up a canoe and push it into the pond as one guy jumps in and starts paddling away.

``What is he doing?''

``His father swept away. He go search for him.''

What?!!! I tell Sham that I'm going back to the ashram -- I don't feel like I'm really helping. ...

Back at the ashram, things have calmed down. Some people just mill about, others are organizing people to help clear out basements and first floors. I see Kevin. He and I do rounds helping locals move piles of clothing and bedding up the narrow staircases. ...

They tell us everyone has to go to the other side of the river, and we are being herded toward the ferries. Kevin and I have only our shirts and shorts, and are not able to go back to our room. The elevators are shut down, and they won't wait for us to run up 15 flights of stairs. On the other side ... Kevin and I grab a rickshaw into the nearby city of Karunagapally. We are with two of our friends who said they would spot us rupees until we can get back to the ashram. We book ourselves into a hotel with TVs and post up in front of the BBC world channel.

An 8.9 earthquake. We watch as the death toll climbs from 3,000 up to 8,000 over an hour. Today they are saying it could be as high as 30,000. After a good night's sleep and an overly stressful retrieval of our all our things from the ashram, we are now back in Varkala, miraculously unfazed by the surge. (The only explanation we can think of is the abnormally steep shore and the lowlands that create a natural reservoir.)

Happy to be alive and still trying to wrap my mind around everything that has happened, I now sit in an Internet cafe wondering what we will do next. Our plans to go to Sri Lanka have had quite a monkey wrench thrown in.

Love to all.

Logan

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