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Surfer grateful to have survived Indonesian tsunami

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Sebastian Carvallo was showing surfing videos to fellow guests on his last night at an island resort in 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, 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 about 80 miles off Sumatra.

"It was noise and chaos. You can hear the water coming, coming, coming," Carvallo, 29, said Friday.

"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 making promotional films for the Macoroni Surf Resort, Carvallo managed to shoot the frenzied moments of panic.

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

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.

On Friday, he was out of the tsunami zone and headed back to Chile, grateful to have survived.

Warning systems too close to help

Costly warning systems installed across Asia since the deadly 2004 tsunami did nothing to save villagers on the remote Mentawai islands in western Indonesia. Such systems can be effective for people living hours away from where a tsunami is forged, but are of little help to those living closer by. There are questions about whether Indonesia's system was working properly, but even if it was, a tsunami generated by an earthquake so close to shore can reach land long before there's a chance to raise an effective alert, experts say. Many local people said they ran out of their houses when the earthquake struck, but returned when there was no warning that a tsunami was coming.

Relief effort: A group of private aid workers battled fierce swells and driving rain Friday, managing to deliver food and other supplies to desperate survivors on the islands hardest hit by the tsunami. Government agencies pulled back boats and helicopters that had been ferrying aid and instead resorted to air-dropping boxes of aid from planes.

Surfer grateful to have survived Indonesian tsunami 10/29/10 [Last modified: Friday, October 29, 2010 10:12pm]
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