Monday, January 17, 2005

Journalists Recall Tsunami Disaster

Click here for AmazonThe silence from Banda Aceh and a big swath along the western coast of Sumatra gave me the chills. I was alone in The Associated Press office in Jakarta trying to find out details about the earthquake that had shaken Aceh province, calling number after number with no luck. All the lines were dead.

An editor on AP's regional desk in Bangkok, Thailand, reported they felt their building sway. What kind of a quake has an epicenter off Sumatra and is felt in Bangkok, 700 miles away? What kind of quake could silence so many people?

AP photographer Achmad Ibrahim, Associated Press Television News cameraman Andi Djatmiko and I rushed to the airport and flew to Medan, in the province adjoining Aceh. We got there at 9 a.m. only to spend over an hour haggling with drivers. Nobody wanted to go the 250 miles to Banda Aceh, because they feared aftershocks and reports were starting to come in that huge waves had smashed ashore.

Finally, we convinced one. We drove for 12 hours to arrive bleary-eyed in Banda Aceh, stunned at nature's carnage.

The provincial capital was a wasteland of rubble and mud. Watermarks up to 25 feet high stained the sides of buildings, marking the tsunami's path as it rampaged through the city. Hundreds of bodies lay in the streets

Scenes of chaos are imprinted in my mind: Motorized rickshaw drivers hauling bodies wrapped in straw mats, people on foot struggling to carry bloated corpses, unclaimed bodies partially covered by plastic or cardboard.

"A parent should never have to bury their own children. I spent all night burying 11 of mine," said the first village man I spoke to, his hands bloody from digging. "I don't have any energy left. But I have to search for two more -- my daughters."

People tugged on my arm, wanting to tell me their stories.

I called AP's Jakarta bureau by satellite phone with one of the first eyewitness accounts from Aceh.

There I remained for 14 days. One of my most touching experiences was interviewing the local APTN cameraman's 10-year-old son, who survived the tsunami up in a coconut tree.

I froze a few times as Ardiansyah recounted seeing his mother and little sister swept away to their deaths. I was terrified the interview would cause him psychological damage. But his father, Ferry Effendi, knew his son well. He let me know when to pause and when to go on...

Editor & Publisher: Journalists Recall Tsunami Disaster

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