Californian talks about family's survival in 'Waves of Death'

Firmage with daughters Caitlin (left), Michaela and wife Vivian on vacation in the north of Thailand days before the tsunami hit.

James Firmage and his wife Vivian planned to end their Thailand vacation by having one last open-air massage on Phi-Phi Island, while their 7- and 10-year-old daughters had colorful beads braided into their sun-streaked hair.

Then they would take a ferry to Bangkok, spend one night in a luxury hotel and then head home to savor memories of an ideal vacation.

Instead they would run for their lives and spend a night cowering in the jungle, listening to the cries of the lost and injured and the screams of the dying.

Firmage is one of the survivors interviewed in "Tsunami 2004: Waves of Death," a History Channel special airing at 7 p.m. Tuesday on cable channel 55.

It was early on the morning of Dec. 26. Firmage, whose company sells direct marketing programs, rose early and left to get some coffee. His wife, a dentist with a practice in Mill Valley, Calif., near San Francisco, was lying in bed about 8:30 a.m. when she felt what she would later learn were tremors from the 9.3 magnitude earthquake that struck off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia.

"She didn't realize what it was," said Firmage (pronounced fur-mage). "She was awakened by a tremor, but she just thought our youngest was jumping on the bed."

The couple and their children checked out of their hotel around 9:45 a.m., with time to spare before they were scheduled to catch a ferry for the ride to the port city of Phuket.

They decided to stroll the beach.

Firmage said he saw that the longtail boats that pick up tourists for day excursions were sitting on the sand instead of floating in two to three feet of water of the shallow bay. The boat operators were standing beside the boats looking out into ocean, but the Californian chalked up the shallow water to the previous night's full moon.

It wasn't until the family reached the beachside hut that Firmage saw that the water had ebbed so far that part of the reef was exposed. Then he noticed the face of a beach-side shopkeeper.

"She wasn't paying any attention. Her eyes were wide. She was looking out at the sea. She had a look of anxiety . . . She put her hand over her mouth like you do involuntarily when you see something you don't understand."

Seven-year-old Michaela walked 20 feet away and sat down on the sand to write in her journal. A two- to three-foot wave slowly rolled in, lapping at her feet. But it came in parallel to the shore instead head-on. The shopkeeper told Firmage, "Get your daughter and run."

His wife saw the water being sucked out at an incredible rate with a larger wave moving strangely behind it. Other locals started yelling "run."

"My daughter said she heard me say 'Boy, that acts like a tsunami,' " said Firmage. "I don't remember that. But when in Rome, do what the locals do. We ran."

The locals led the way followed by his wife and oldest daughter, with he and the youngest child next, all running in beach flip-flops. His uncinched backpack bounced crazily across his shoulders, throwing him side to side.

"Then, I heard what I describe as a jet engine coming on. It was deafening and you couldn't hear anything else. It was starting to really scare me."

"I turned and from where I was -- about 75 yards from where we were on the beach -- I saw a huge wall of brown water. My guess-timate was it was at least 12- to 15-feet tall, bending down palm trees. I thought 'No way we are going to get out of here. There's no way to escape.' "

He grabbed Michaela and ran along with the panicked crowd of Thai natives and Europeans.

"It was like a scene out of a disaster movie," he said. "People were screaming. Kids running. "Then the wave shoots past us, turning from a wave into a raging river, filled with debris -- an 800-gallon water tank, the roof of a house, people. Everything is in the water.

"It wasn't the clear, green ocean you are expecting (to see), it's one big brown mass, almost like a cauldron. It was undulating. It's hard to describe. Everyone thinks of the ocean as looking friendly, but it didn't look anything like that.

"If it had a personality, it looked sort of like a murky beast."

His oldest daughter screamed "Let's go" and ran across the walkway and up behind another bungalow. Her mother followed. Firmage and Michaela trailed behind. When they reached the back of the bungalow, his wife and daughter had "essentially vanished."

Firmage suddenly was physically unable to stand up, his hands and feet felt completely numb, like frostbite, he explained. He sat down on the ground with his daughter.

"I was doing everything I could to maintain any sense of order. I was suppressing panic. I had my daughter with me and the last thing I wanted to do was lose it in front of her.

Firmage's wife and older daughter eventually did return. They'd been higher up, in the jungle where another 250 survivors had beaten down a 50-yard square area to spend the night.

It was a night almost as harrowing as their escape from the waves, he explained. No one slept, and every few hours one of the survivors would jump up and scream.

"It would set off a huge pandemonium and panic," Firmage said. "Just when your nerves calmed, it would happen again."

All the survivors had remarkable stories, he said. One woman was asleep when a wave surged through her room, ripping off her clothes and carrying the bed 100 yards before it slammed against something. The woman, trying to get out of the bed, reached out and a pair of hands grabbed her and pulled her to safety.

The group stayed on the hill until noon the next day. Without water, food or blankets, it was up to small groups of men to venture back down the hill. Firmage went down twice to search for supplies.

On one of those trips, he saw a man sitting on an elevated walkway.

"He looked exhausted. If the water didn't rip your clothes off, it shredded them. He looked like somebody had taken a knife and cut his clothes in strips from the top of his shoulders down.

"He said 'My life has been destroyed in five seconds' and gestured toward a spot underwater."

He told Firmage he remembered running with his wife and two daughters. " 'I don't know where they are,' the man said.

"I never saw him again," Firmage said. "As a father of two children, that moment almost crushed me."

Returning to what was left of the village, Firmage tripped over a couple of bodies. On the pier, his children saw other bodies wrapped in sheets. But they saw no faces, nor did they see the shower stall that was being used as a temporary morgue.

They did see survivors with terrible injuries -- shattered bones, gashes and a man with a broken back.

The couple and their children caught a ferry to nearby Krabi in southern Thailand and were met by pandemonium. The dock area was filled with thousands of Thais searching for loved ones. In the background, sirens wailed loudly.

"In Krabi, we saw the best and worst of mankind. There was a guy who owned an Internet cafe. He let us send e-mails for free, gave us food and let us take a shower with a cold bucket of water. Down the street, people were charging twice the normal cost to use the phone."

Firmage and his wife haven't forgotten the group of survivors who shared their fear in that jungle oasis. In a week, the two of them are headed back to Phi Phi Island, where 1,4000 died and 50 are still missing. They will spend 10 days as volunteer workers. They also may work in Krabi, where many of the children whose parents were killed by the tsunami are living in an orphanage.

"I'm trying to find a little more meaning in the stuff I do," said Firmage.

"There's a great quote from Winston Churchill: 'We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.'"

on television



7 p.m. Tuesday


History Channel, cable channel 55


Parental discretion advised. Film contains graphic footage of people being swept away and of dead bodies.

Rita Sherrow 581-8360