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Published: Sunday, 1/2/2005

Toledo native writes of pair s miraculous escape

Ted Wilhelm, 32, a Toledo native, and his wife, Natalie Wilhelm, 29, of Chicago, are teachers at an international school in Dhaka, Bangladesh, who survived last week s tsunami while vacationing in Sri Lanka. Mr. Wilhelm s parents are Don and Patricia Wilhelm of Sylvania. Ted and Natalie are now in Darjeeling, India, where Mr. Wilhelm sent this story of his and his wife s incredible escape.

On the day after Christmas, my wife, Natalie, and I awoke at our beach resort in Sri Lanka where we had been lucky earlier in the week to find the seemingly last room on the beach. The waters crashed with their regular baritone boom, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary on this glorious Boxing Day as our new English friends reminded us it was.

We had plans to leave that day. Unfortunately, we were a day too late.

We were in our bungalow, but yards from the beach, packing when my wife stepped outside and noted casually to me that the water had surged up the beach, over the terrace, and was glassing over the pool in a slow roll.

I noted three employees from the restaurant furiously running. At that moment, instinct told me that, while I had not looked to the ocean, something was terribly wrong. I screamed to my wife to come back, tossed our bags on the bed, and turned to flee with her hand in mine. That is when the first surge came.

It was not a wave. It did not break. It simply pushed forward without invitation. The sudden sound of screams, breaking dishes, and the desecration of the dining room with its glass walls exploding into large razor sheets sent us into a sprint that was hampered by the water that was quickly up to our waists.

We ran behind the line of bungalows. Unfortunately, the grounds were surrounded by a 6-foot wall. Without room to proceed, the water rose quickly and it was soon to my wife s neck.

People screamed for help. Tables, chairs, glass, anything without deep roots crashed against us and pushed us into the wall. We had to get off the ground. The wall seemed the best bet, but it was studded with broken glass.

The bungalows could maybe be climbed, but they were groaning and creaking, ready to collapse. We pushed forward, hoping to reach the distant gate, but the water was pushing and pulling, and I felt my first deep sense of helplessness.

Fortunately, the wall gave. A car-length section behind us fell with a reverberating thud, providing us an escape. I pulled my wife back into the current that dumped with angry freedom, and we floated into the street.

We clamored down the street barefoot with the current, myself in only shorts, my wife in a shirt and underwear, her skirt having long since been ripped from her body. As fast as we could, we waded through the rubble, knowing a second surge was coming. We were unaware that our feet and legs were being clawed at by the teeth of debris and collisions with concrete, trees, and anything else sunk beneath the gritty, swirling water.

We finally reached a clearing, having pulled ourselves through a tight group of palms where for a moment Natalie s leg was trapped in a cluster of furniture and tree trunks.

Breaking inland, we ran toward a group of homes just as the water surged for a third time, building higher and higher upon itself. Here, in the cluttered clearing, a woman screamed for help. Just her head, shoulders, and a desperate arm reached above the surface. I scooped her up and Natalie took her hand, and we were now a chain of three. Unfortunately, terror had frozen her; she would barely move. The water was rising and was still chest-level, moving inland with us, and I wanted nothing more than to see another day beside my wife. I turned to the woman and yelled, hoping to snap her into action:

You must move! You must move now! And you must move fast!

I didn t hear her reply, but Natalie told me later that she cried in German that she thought her leg was broken and she couldn t move. Regardless, I took flight again and she joined along.

We found ourselves pinned in a dead end of three houses. The only way out was in the wrong direction toward where screams were calling that the waves were coming again. I panicked for a moment, looking for any solution, then noted a tuk-tuk, a three-wheeled vehicle used as a taxi throughout Asia. Somehow I grabbed it as it lurched with the bouncing water and climbed upon its canvas roof. Natalie has since called it a feat of adrenaline. I really can t say, I just wanted to get us to safety. I pulled Natalie up, and from there we reached the tile roof of the safest-looking of the three homes.

The German woman refused to leave the tuk-tuk.

Once at the top, we took a secure hold, looked out at the chaos, and witnessed a view of destruction that I struggle to describe. In the serpentine water that heaved and coiled in currents about trees and remaining structures, everything imaginable was afloat: from clothes to cars; people and luggage; large plates of jagged, razor glass floating like thin sheets of ice. I looked to Natalie who at last was giving in to the stress. I held her face in my hands, trying to help her stay together.

This, I said, pointing to my head, will get us out of here. We need to stay calm and think. We can do this, baby.

She nodded and then we looked to our feet. Below them rivers of blood coursed down the roof and Natalie cried out as she realized the deep gash carved out of her foot.

Calls from below forewarned of more surges, and it was then that I knew we had to take our chances. I turned to my wife, looked deep in her eyes, and told her I loved her and that I always will. I will never forget that moment, when I realized that people were dying about us and that we were not out of the woods.

Saying goodbye with love stands like a flagpole in my memory of the event as much as the breaking glass, the screams of children, or the deep color of the ruby blood that was spilling from our feet and legs down the roof. It was time to get inland. We had survived but passively waiting, still within a short walk from where the beach had once been, was not enough. We kissed, and turned to slide down the roof, careful not to break through the brittle clay tiles.

After their escape from the roof, the Wilhelms made it safely inland where their adventures continued. The couple had a 13-hour train ride to the capital city of Colombo and from there they took a flight to Delhi, India. Mr. Wilhelm has since been in contact with his parents, who now know he and their daughter-in-law are safe and with friends.



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