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Published: Monday, 1/3/2005

Toledo native learns waves of panic cannot destroy acts of love

Ted Wilhelm, 32, a Toledo native, and his wife, Natalie, 29, of Chicago, are teachers at an international school in Dhaka, Bangladesh, who survived the tsunami while vacationing in Sri Lanka. The couple are now safe in India. Today, Mr. Wilhelm continues his narrative of the couple's dramatic escape from disaster. In yesterday's editions of The Blade, they described how they survived the slide from a rickety roof into the dangerous floodwaters.

MARISSA, Sri Lanka - Having eased ourselves from the roof into the water, we made our way down the road inland toward the major highway that parallels the beach nearby.

Walking as carefully as we could in our haste, we were aware of what the hidden debris was doing to our feet and our furious, desperate pace was slowed.

While the water had barely receded, the prophesied third or fourth surge was yet to come. People were using this temporary calm to call for their loved ones.

Walking along sections of a fallen wall in waist-high water, we were met by the screams of "Toby! Toby!" from a man red-faced with anguish, tears spilling as freely as the tide. We asked who he was looking for and he told us through sobs that his son was missing.

"I can't find him. I lost him. You know, he was the one making the toast."

We remembered the boy who somehow had earned the job of dropping bread onto the toast conveyor each morning at the buffet. The buffet was in the glassed dining area. If he had been fulfilling his self-prescribed duty, it was likely he was dead.

"Yes! We know him, we will look. We'll help you find him," we said.

However, the sight of a father whose 8-year-old son was missing was too much for my wife, and danger or not, Natalie turned to me and wept into my chest. The full impact of the event could not be ignored in the calm that revealed the true extent of the disaster.

We continued down the road calling Toby's name until I heard my own name being called.

David, the guy who asked me to play Frisbee the day before, was waving us over to their guesthouse where they were waiting on an elevated porch just above the water. We joined them and shared hugs and tears with new friends, strangers, and those who joined in the relative safety.

Then we saw Lucinda and Matthew, our new friends and companions who had been sharing breakfast with us before the tsunami hit. The relief that they had made it was shared and we talked on the porch as to our course of action.

It was then that people began running again, screaming that the water was coming and to get inland. There was a hill where refuge could be had.

However, the main road was still quite a way away, and there would be no time to beat the water through the disaster-torn streets.

Beside the guesthouse was a van. I yanked the door open, hopped to the top, and again Natalie and I climbed to a tiled roof of questionable safety. I could see the beach line and I heard the roar of the water again, and I could see the palms that lined the beach swaying.

The panic that followed was short-lived, though, as this last surge proved to be a comparatively small swell that rushed by, simply stirring the debris and slightly spinning the car that was wrapped around the tree behind us.

Back on the porch, we decided to scramble inland to the hill toward which the locals were pointing us. We were a group of eight now and some had their bags with them, having been packed and ready to depart that morning.

The walk was slow, filled with fear of another surge, and we picked our way through the water and rubble inland for more than half a mile before we reached dry land again.

Here we stopped, still short of the hill, and new friends and strangers opened their bags to offer sandals for my bleeding feet and shorts for Natalie.

Drinking water was passed around, people cried on each others shoulders, and no one passed without stopping so that we could assess each others' injuries and needs.

Feeling out of danger, we slowly made our way to the hill. Upon ascending, we found hundreds of locals and tourists, sitting in the ironic sun wondering, waiting, and for many, wailing. It was here that my wife became a hero.

Our group of eight found a shady spot, opened up our bags, and laid our mats and blankets where wounds could be bandaged with the collected first-aid supplies that had been packed.

Exhausted by the thousand decisions that I felt I had made in an instant, I sat and stared into the distance. Natalie, armed with gauze, antiseptic, and bandages, began her rounds, mending wounds and holding those who were overwhelmed.

Her strength still moves me as I remember a woman, legs torn by glass, sobbing on Natalie's shoulder as Natalie stroked her hair, calming her so that she could be tended to. For about an hour, Natalie proceeded this way while I helped those who visited our makeshift triage.

Debates ensued about when to go back down to assess the damage, find lost belongings, and consider getting out of harm's way. We made a trip down after about two hours, and after emptying our backpacks, which we used to fill with water found in the tide that was at last subsiding.

Along the way, locals, whose homes were safely removed from the beach, handed us bags of fried rice, pineapples, crackers, and anything they had to offer. Along the way we saw the man who had been screaming for Toby with his black-eyed, elderly mother.

"Did you find him?" Natalie and I asked, and with tears and embraces for us both, he told us he had.

In German, Natalie asked the mother how she was, and exhausted, frightened, and overwhelmed, the mother began to weep. Natalie locked her in one of the hundred embraces she shared with anyone and everyone in need that day.

Seeing her hugging the elderly woman and kissing her cheek and telling her everything was OK, Natalie made it clear to me yet again what a hero she is and why I love her so much. Seeing her, alive, smiling, and doing what she does best, I realized for the first time how lucky we were.

We waited on the hill for about six hours. Lucinda had a radio around which crowds huddled to hear reports from BBC.

With the worst behind us, we decided on a plan.

David lives in Colombo and had a car. It was determined that we would return to the disaster area, see if his smashed car would run, gather any belongings that could be found, and try to make it inland.

At the beach, I found our packs and some clothes washed not far behind our toppled bungalow. I threw the sandy stew of clothes together, got the manager to retrieve our passports and cash from the unmoved, mammoth resort safe, and we returned to the hill to pull the group together.

Picking through the rubble, I would find our pen, our wine key, our soaked travel guide - I could have looked forever but, in the end, much was left behind, and to be honest, I really don't care. I wanted out of there.

The wreckage was overwhelming. We called out, searching for the trapped, and cries and screams filled the air over the calm of the light beach tide.

At the hill, our group had grown to 13, but somehow, we limped our way out of there.

David's car proved to have about 15 miles of life left and a van carried the rest of us. It was driven by a local doctor who wanted nothing in return. He led us to his house where we could e-mail home, call family, change, and where he would arrange for his bus driver friend to ferry us all inland to a sleepy town called Ella.

Along the beach road that to the east remained passable, we saw bodies being carried to line the road, a stiffened arm stuck up from a sheet as if a last chance to fend off the water. We noted bent railroad ties, flattened communities, and even a bus with its nose propped high up upon a palm.

The disaster is truly indescribable and the pictures you see can only tell so much.

What we all absorbed still haunts our dreams and even now, my wife dreamt we were peacefully enjoying a Himalayan view until a surge of water overtook the giants headed our way.

I awoke to her whimpers, and then screams, and realized that when the body count is tallied, the wreckage is tidied, and lives begin to resume, this nightmare will stay with us.

The panic, the desperation, and the realization of catastrophe chokes me.

But the blessings I feel because of the love of my wife, friends, family, and strangers are immense, and no tide will ever wash that away.



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