Live each day.

Although the night before was a Saturday, there wasn’t much of the usual festivity as we all quietly celebrated Christmas by phone with our loved ones half way around the world and turned in early missing home and counting the days until we saw our them again. Up early, I sat outside my second floor barracks room sipping coffee and watching the sun rise as I had done countless times before over the past two years. It was a typical morning, sunny and warm with a light breeze. The sea birds hunting and playing. The chickens beginning to stir. The ever present waves hummed along the shore, beckoning me to come closer. Sounds of human life were still sparse at this hour with no one in any hurry.

Later that morning, several of us sat at the long cafeteria tables enjoying our brunch, sharing Christmas news from home and just generally enjoying the last of a string of days off. As usual, the tv screen was muted but filled with images of talking heads and generally ignored by most of us until an image appeared on the screen of the Indian Ocean with rings radiating out from a center point on the map. Someone turned up the volume. One by one, we each set down our forks and stopped mid-sentence as the gravity of what we were watching sank in. I slowly looked past my fellow diners through the window toward the lagoon, mentally calculating the time and the location and wondering why we were still sitting in our chairs. So many thoughts rushed through my mind at that moment. The sheer devastation we were watching unfurl on the screen, the absurdity that we weren’t struggling for our own survival, the dismay that we were watching this unfold from a news broadcast half way around the world, the unease that maybe it wasn’t over, the relief that maybe it was.

It was Sunday December 26, 2004. I was on the British Indian Ocean Territories atoll of Diego Garcia. The news scroll, the images, the devastation…it was all too much to take in at one time. The tsunami had struck Sri Lanka just an hour earlier. Given our proximity, it didn’t seem possible that we should be watching this on the news. How had we not known? Why were there no sirens? Was there something more to come? Why had we been allowed to sleep through all of this? I was JUST outside, there was nothing to see.

I spent the rest of the day in quiet contemplation, eyeing the shoreline suspiciously. I’ve always assumed water would be my death anyway, so to have seemingly escaped it seemed like something out of a Final Destination movie. As imagery of the devastation continued to pour in, a reluctant spirit of quiet celebration came over many of us. We’d not only been spared the violence of the tsunami, but we had also been spared the anxiety of despair. What would be the point of knowing what was coming if there was nothing we could have done to prevent it, or escape it? Did I mention it was an atoll? I remarked to my mother later that week that the highest natural point on the island was four feet above sea level, the highest man made point was 22’ and was also a swimming pool, and that the highest structure was the air traffic control tower which would in NO way fit the population of the island inside it and would have toppled anyway! She wasn’t amused.

Despite all of the Monday morning quarterbacking about the tsunami warning systems and the conflicting information about Diego Garcia’s role in the early detection and reporting, the simple fact is that the average person on the island was not made aware. Maybe this was intentional, maybe it was due to lack of technology, maybe it was just a Sunday morning on a holiday weekend and something got overlooked. Whatever the reason, I’m quite certain I enjoyed my coffee that morning much more in my ignorant bliss than had I been worried about an impending wave of doom.

What rash actions might have been taken had we thought we were in danger with no escape? What words would have been said or recorded? Writing emails to loved (or hated ones)? Random sex with strangers? Airing of true feelings for those pined after? Drunken debauchery? All possible and very likely. What would have happened when we survived the perceived doom? How embarrassing that would have been! We did. We survived. We didn’t even know we were survivors until hours later. We didn’t know why until a week later. Oh, I’m sure someone somewhere knew why as soon as it happened. But we didn’t. Island indoc did not include a lesson on ocean topography. But early that morning, had someone said we were in the direct path of a tsunami with waves over 20m high traveling at over 500mph, we would not have imagined survival.

That’s the day I decided that I’d really rather not know the end is near, or thought to be!

{Footnote for the curious: We were spared due to the topography of the ocean floor surrounding the island. Check out the Chagos Trench and the science behind tsunami energy. }

3 thoughts on “Live each day.

    1. Hi Chuck, I think there may be a mashup of two different tsunami stories floating around. During the 2004 event, there were some small craft that had broken mooring lines (not necessarily chains) from the surge that occured at high tide. A more significant event in the early 80’s may have cause more damage.

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  1. How well I remember! I was in Colorado on leave, trying desperately to get word on the status of the island. My team was due to deploy there just after the New Year.
    As for me and knowledge of our demise, I would take a lesson from the movie Melancholia, gather the loved ones, hold hands and be together.

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