Queen Anne woman unscathed by tsunami at Phuket

Terry Hood likes to travel, and she has an adventuresome spirit. The Queen Anne resident did a parachute jump for her 60th birthday, and she's been to Europe, Australia and Peru.

But Hood is still shaken by her latest trip: one with her granddaughter, Emily Hood, to Thailand and Phuket Island the week the tsunami hit.

The pair emerged unscathed by the tidal wave because they were out on a boat for a snorkeling excursion, and neither realized the full magnitude of the disaster until they'd already left the country, Hood said.

They also never saw any bodies, she added. "We were part of the event, but we were spared the horror of the event."

Luck of the draw

Hood said 16-year-old Emily has been interested in going on a trip with her since she was a little girl, and the two came up with the idea of an Asian jaunt while they were in a Thai restaurant on Boston Street last winter. "I said if we went to Thailand, we could take Thai cooking lessons."

By July, the pair had started saving money and making plans that included a visit to Phuket, a resort island off the west coast of Thailand. "A lot of people I work with [at Bastyr University] have been to Phuket," she said. "It's where the beaches are."

After taking off from Sea-Tac International Airport on Dec. 13, the women spent some time in Bangkok, then a week at a town on the mainland where they did take some cooking lessons, Hood said.

They flew into Phuket on Dec. 21, staying two days in Phuket Town, which is inland and on the east side of the island. But Hood said she scored a hotel two days later across the street and up a half a block from the beach on the west side, where the tsunami hit full force.

She had considered checking into a hotel on the beach itself but nixed the idea because it was too expen- sive. Hood later found that that beachfront hotel had been destroyed by the killer wave.

"All that was left was a couple of pillars. Our hotel was undamaged," Hood said, explaining that hotels on the beach across the street blocked the tidal wave from hitting her hotel.

But it was at her hotel that Hood realized something was up when she felt an earthquake hit while eating breakfast at an outside table.

Emily, who was in their room, didn't notice anything until an aftershock hit, Hood said. It was a short time later that they were picked up for the snorkeling excursion. The people on the tour had also missed the warning sign, she said. "Nobody else seemed to be aware there was an earthquake."

The snorkeling excursion left from Chalong Bay on the east side, and the itinerary included visiting some small islands south of Phuket, Hood said.

A 'misbehaving' sea

The excursion didn't go as planned, and Hood, her granddaughter and the other tourists on their boat never got into the water when they reached the bay of one island.

"There were some snorkelers in the water, but there were a lot of boats trying to get out of the bay," she said. The water was too rough, something Hood's guide explained by saying, "The sea is misbehaving."

Hood said she was told it had something to do with tides and bad currents, "There was something obviously going on, but none of them knew what."

Her tour boar and the others out that day headed for an island even farther south, but they all turned back before catching sight of it because the ocean was still too rough, she said.

The tsunami hit while they were still out to sea, but nobody knew that, Hood said. "You couldn't see anything. The water was already rough to begin with."

Hood said she noticed debris in the water and overturned boats when the tour boats got back to Phuket, and someone who got a cellphone call said there had been an earthquake that caused problems with the tides. Hood had already guessed what happened and asked if there had been a tsunami.

"We live in the Northwest; we know about these things," Hood said of the Puget Sound region getting slammed in the distant past by a tsunami caused by a massive earthquake off the coast. "They laughed and said it wasn't 'The Day After Tomorrow,'" she said, alluding to the recent weather-disaster flick.

A chaotic, surreal scene

Hundreds of people converged in the center of the island, where the tourists were repeatedly moved to higher ground as rumors swirled that a tidal wave was on its way, she said.

Everybody finally ended up at a crisis center that had been set up in Phuket Town after the tidal wave failed to appear. It was both chaotic and surreal, Hood said. "We saw some injured people, but they didn't have horrible, horrible injuries."

News of deaths was also starting to filter in by that evening, but nobody was sure how many there were or how bad the damage was. "On this side of the island, they're totally unaware of what happened on that side of the island," she said, pointing to a tourist map of Phuket.

Hood said she and her granddaughter were never physically afraid, but she conceded they were getting "kind of anxious" about their situation. "Mostly I was going nuts waiting to call home and tell my daughter [in Tacoma] we were safe."

Hood and her granddaughter lucked out later that night when they ran into the two Phuket travel agents they'd used to book their hotel and the snorkeling excursion. The agents had come looking for them specifically, Hood said. "So when they came, we both felt we had been really rescued." The agents took Hood and her granddaughter home with them that night, took them to a store for toothbrushes and toiletries, and let them use their phone to make a collect call to Tacoma.

The travel agents also drove them to their hotel on the other side of the island the next day. Hood said she checked out immediately and took a flight to Bangkok, where they saw a CNN report about the disaster for the first time.

The two had watched Thai TV on Phuket but couldn't understand the language, said Hood, who added that the CNN report in English helped them begin to grasp how bad the dis-aster had been in Asia.

"I don't think we really realized what had happened until we got home."

The personal aftermath

Hood said she has avoided watching the tsunami coverage on TV, and she hasn't read about it in newspapers since she got back to Seattle.

"I can't explain why not," Hood said, adding she also hasn't developed eight rolls of film taken on the trip. "It's been very confusing and emotional."

She also admits feeling a little guilty for surviving the disaster. "Why me? Why was I so lucky," Hood wonders. "It was way more of an adventure than I signed up for."

Hood and her granddaughter were interviewed at the airport when they got home by a TV crew asking about bodies, something she found disturbing. Hood also admits to being overwhelmed by all the attention she's gotten from everyone she knows.

Ironically, Hood said, she somehow doesn't really feel like a survivor - even though she escaped the fates of roughly 150,000 other people through sheer luck and circumstances. "There's a lot of what-ifs."

Still, Hood said, she's grateful for life - especially since she could have so easily lost it in the disaster. "You do not know what's going to happen in the next minute," she noted with some sadness.

Staff reporter Russ Zabel can be reached at rzabel@nwlink.com or 461-1309.

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