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For them, tsunami hit very close

Heather Lazenga and Andy Keeler crossed paths with Sunday's monster tsunami, though they didn't know it. They were working on a charter dive boat off the Thai coast when shock waves raced through the Andaman Sea beneath them.

"Everything was perfect," said Lazenga, 25, of Lutz. "The water was completely flat."

Soon, the boat's radio crackled with a trickle of worsening news, half-preparing the couple for the devastation they would find on shore. They lost their dive-video business, their home and most of their possessions.

But the radio warnings kept them on the boat and out of harm's way.

"We had our customers saying, "Okay, we're going to go diving tomorrow,' " said Lazenga, who returned home Wednesday. "We had no idea their hotels were already gone."

Lazenga's close call is one example of the ways the tsunami has affected lives across the Tampa Bay area.

A former University of South Florida geography professor who moved to the Thai coast has e-mailed friends that he is unharmed and aiding recovery efforts there.

But in Largo, an English teacher has been desperately working the telephone and the Internet to learn something about her 24-year-old son, who was vacationing in South Asia and hasn't called home.

In that sense, Lazenga and Keeler, her British boyfriend, were again lucky. From the boat, their cell phones reached answering machines in Florida and England. The pair left reassuring messages before their parents knew anything had happened.

But the boat's radio brought grim news.

At first, they heard about water appearing to boil near their dive site, the reefs of the Similan Islands, some 45 miles from their coastal town of Khao Lak. Other boats were turning back, and they did too. Then they heard of the sea rising so high that mooring buoys were under water.

The couple struggled to understand the reports their Thai-speaking captain was hearing. They heard the Merlin was in the sea, and Keeler thought of a boat with that name. But it was the five-star Merlin resort.

They could hear screams via the radio transmissions. The captain cried.

They heard of people injured or killed.

How many? They would ask.

"Roy, roy," the captain would reply in Thai. Hundreds, hundreds.

The boat approached Khao Lak through floating debris. Friends found shelter for the boat's crew and 33 tourists in a preschool.

Hundreds of refugees crowded a Buddhist temple that had become a relief camp. At one point, someone shouted, and the crowd assumed it was a tsunami warning, said Keeler, 33. For about 15 seconds, they raced uphill in a panic.

"The temple just emptied within seconds," he said.

Lazenga's and Keeler's home was 2 miles from the beach. Outside lay the bodies of their landlady and another woman, covered by a sheet.

Seawater had swirled 9 feet high through the house, and left crabs and 2 feet of mud on the floor.

Grieving, they left Khao Lak the next day, along with many of their tour customers. Their four-flight trip to Tampa took 21 hours.

Home in Lutz was the first place they felt safe, Lazenga said.

"I saw my mom and I just lost it," she said. "I started bawling."

"I just need to find my child'

The last time Dee Chastain heard from her youngest son was Dec. 19. Nick Amheiser, a 24-year-old English teacher in Japan, told his mother he would vacation in Thailand, India and Vietnam over the Christmas holidays.

"I told him to call me if anything happens," said Chastain, who lives in Largo and teaches English and reading at Tyrone Middle School in St. Petersburg. "He promised me he would, and I know he would call. I just need to find my child."

Since the tsunamis hit, Chastain has called the U.S. State Department, relief agencies and anyone else she thinks can help. She sits by her phone at home, drinking coffee and waiting.

Amheiser, who attended elementary school in Tampa, has taught in rural Japan for two years as part of the Japan Exchange Teacher Programme (JET), a Washington, D.C., organization.

Officials at JET told Chastain her son was traveling with other teachers, and that the organization had not located many of them as of Friday.

"They said I could call his school district Monday, when all the teachers are supposed to report back," she said. "I only have one number for him, and I've called and left message after message."

Chastain, 49, has posted her son's picture and name on Red Cross and other relief organization Web sites, and has forced herself to look through dozens of photos of victims on the Internet.

"That was not fun," she said. "But the hardest part is sitting here waiting and not knowing."

Chastain is holding out hope her son is helping with rescue and cleanup efforts.

"I will not be leaving Phuket'

Henry Aruffo, a retired geography professor who taught at the University of South Florida, Hillsborough Community College and St. Petersburg College, has sent an e-mail to friends letting them know he is unhurt.

An avid scuba diver, Aruffo retired in 2003 to move to Phuket, Thailand, one of the hardest-hit areas.

"I will not be leaving Phuket," Aruffo wrote, "as I am part of the reconstruction process and have been diving on sunken ships here in Phuket and stopping the oil and gas spills from polluting the environment any more than possible.

"There were at least 30 ships sunk near the shore line in the Phuket area. Our dive team has also recovered three bodies trapped inside.

"There is so much human tragedy here in Phuket."