Hill Staffer on Anniversary Trip Survives South Asian Tsunami

Posted January 3, 2005 at 6:51pm

Five days before Christmas, Susan Sweat, a 25-year-old senior legislative assistant to Mississippi Rep. Roger Wicker (R), arrived in Thailand to celebrate her second wedding anniversary.

After exploring Bangkok’s Buddhist temples and riding elephants in Chiang Mai, Sweat and her husband, Air Force Maj. Scott Sweat, flew to the tiny southwestern Thai island of Phi Phi (pronounced pee pee) on Dec. 25.

“We were going to hang out on the most beautiful place on earth,” Sweat recalled, adding that that same beach had been featured in the 2000 motion picture “The Beach” starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

On the morning of Dec. 26, Sweat had just settled down near Phi Phi’s postcard-perfect, turquoise blue shoreline when the first wave hit the western side of the island. It was one of a series of waves that has so far left more than 150,000 dead in a wide swath of coastal South Asia.

“To me it looked like a landslide had just happened,” Smith said. “It looked like the beach was going out to the ocean.”

Fortunately for the couple, they were staying at a beachfront Holiday Inn resort on the eastern side of the island. Sweat immediately ran to the nearby bungalow where they were staying to inform her husband of what was happening.

He grabbed “a video camera and [ran] out to the beach,” said Smith. A few minutes later, “he came running back in and [said], ‘There’s a wave coming.’”

At the urging of the hotel’s manager, Sweat and her husband, along with the other hotel guests, first fled to a hilltop bar, and then further upward into the jungle, until they finally reached a rocky summit.

From that perch, Sweat said they could hear the residual effects of the tsunami crashing onto the eastern portion of the island.

“It sounded like a wave, but magnified a hundred times — like the largest wave you’ve ever heard in your life,” Sweat said. The Columbus, Miss., native added, “We didn’t know what had happened really.”

The manager later called their group back down to the hilltop bar, where they spent the remainder of the day before being allowed to return to their rooms to shower, eat and make phone calls.

But they spent the night outside on the hilltop due to concerns about aftershocks.

“We took some sheets from the room. And some pillows and slept on the ground,” she said. “Strangely enough, if you looked up, the moon was out and there were stars and it was gorgeous. But if you looked around you, you saw all the people who were bleeding and were hurt.”

While the Western tourists staying at the hotel were unscathed, several local villagers, including children who resided near a pass where the tsunami had hit, were swept out to sea. Others still were injured.

With the hilltop bar serving as the makeshift triage center for the area, Sweat said the scene at times evoked the horror of a war movie. Her sleep that night was interrupted by the whir of a Medevac helicopter landing to transport the injured to hospitals on Thailand’s mainland.

Some of the victims had IVs. “Their heads were wrapped in bandages and they were bleeding through the bandages,” she said.

Back in the United States, it wasn’t only family and friends who were worried about the couple. “The Congressman was talking to my parents several times a day,” Sweat said of Wicker.

The next day, Dec. 27, guests were cleared to return to their bungalows, and Sweat and her husband began helping the resort clean up the pathways, grass and flowerbeds that had been blanketed and piled high with sand. The beach “had tripled almost,” she noted. “Walking up and down the beach after it happened, I realized the people who lived there lost not only their families but their houses and their livelihood.”

That same day, Sweat learned that the hotel where they had made reservations for the night of the 26th had been completely leveled. Another hotel on the island of Phuket where they planned to stay later had also been destroyed.

“Had we been on any other beach in the area, we would be dead,” she said.

On Dec. 29, their originally scheduled departure date, Sweat and her husband took a tiny wooden boat out to a larger ferry boat, which carried them to Phuket, where they caught a plane to Bangkok.

“When we got closer to the pier [at Phuket] fishing boats were stacked on top of each other and pushed onto the land,” she said. “It looked like they were model ships.”

At the Phuket airport, foreigners without luggage or passports milled forlornly, and photos of the missing plastered the walls. “That’s when it hits you these are just the people who had relatives that were left behind,” she said.

Finally, on New Years Day, the couple landed at Washington Dulles International Airport.

“It was really grounding,” said Sweat of the ordeal. “Quite obviously, God was watching out for us. … We are so lucky.”