Surfers survived tsunami on resort's upper floor

AP News
Posted: Oct 29, 2010 3:35 PM
Surfers survived tsunami on resort's upper floor

Sebastian Carvallo was showing surfing videos to fellow guests on his last night at an island resort off western Indonesia when the powerful earthquake struck. When he heard a distant roar two minutes later, he knew instantly that he had to run.

The Chilean surfer grabbed his computer and his camera, rounded up the other guests and rushed to the highest spot they could find: the third floor of the thatch-roofed beach resort.

From that vantage point overlooking the lagoon, Carvallo and the others had a terrifying front-row seat Monday night as three towering waves of a tsunami struck, shaking the building so violently they thought it would collapse.

It was there they huddled together and rode out the waves that killed at least 400 people in the Mentawai island chain off about 80 miles (130 kilometers) off Sumatra.

"It was noise and chaos. You can hear the water coming, coming, coming," Carvallo, 29, said Friday in an interview with The Associated Press.

"And then before the second wave hit the building, everyone was screaming and when the wave hit the building you could only hear people praying," he said.

A videographer, Carvallo managed to shoot the frenzied moments of panic inside the Macoroni Surf Resort on North Pagai.

He estimated that two of the waves were at least 16 feet (5 meters) high. Early reports said there was only one wave that was 10 feet (3 meters) high, but some witnesses have since described one or more waves that were taller.

The Mentawai islands are revered by surfers for their consistently high swells and perfectly formed waves breaking on their shores in the Indian Ocean. Dozens of surfing resorts and wave-chasing boats operate there and after the tsunami, many have lent their boats to the relief effort.

Carvallo was wrapping up an eight-week stay on North Pagai, where the resort owner had hired him to make promotional videos.

Having traveled to the Mentawais once before for the surf, he had jumped at the chance _ provided he still had time to catch a few waves too. He had been planning one last surf in the morning before he left because the forecast was for unusually big waves.

On Monday, Carvallo was showing some surfing videos he'd shot earlier in the day to other guests _ all surfers or surf instructors _ on the ground floor of the resort's restaurant when the earthquake struck at 9:42 p.m.

"Two minutes later, we heard this huge noise, like a train out of control. We just ran to the top of the building," he said.

Carvallo, who owns a surf tour company in Chile, said his childhood in his seismically active homeland taught him to seek higher ground after an earthquake near the coast. He urged everyone to run to the top floor _ even persuading a few guests who he said wanted to keep drinking beer at the bar.

Incredibly, all 19 guests and eight Indonesian staff at the resort survived _ even though five people were caught outside.

Two of them climbed palm trees to escape the high water and three others wrapped their arms around tree trunks and clung for their lives.

Carvallo described the ordeal as "the scariest moment in my life."

After daylight Tuesday, Carvallo shot video of destroyed villas and the debris on the shore.

By Friday, Carvallo was out of the tsunami zone and headed back to Chile, grateful to have survived. "At the moment, I'd like to be safe," he said.

Still, he said he'd almost certainly return to Indonesia one day, perhaps to the same islands.

"In my opinion, Mentawais is a paradise," he said. "It's a perfect place for surf in the world. And the people are very nice."