The water that came as a wall

I saw a tsunami once, and I had my life changed by another.

I grew up on an island of earthquakes, volcanoes and - when I was a kid, at least - tsunamis. On the Big Island of Hawaii, when the sirens went off, everyone would rush to the water and wait to see the ocean disappear. Too often, not much would happen. One night too much happened, and half my hometown was gone. We lived for months smelling death, cleaning muck, boiling water and hearing stories of loss and survival.

Recent events bring back all those memories of earthquakes and tsunamis. Seven-point quakes would throw me across the room and back. Once I rode my front lawn as it rose up and down like ocean swells. A big rock I was crawling towards was sucked into the earth, then thrust back out. I stopped crawling toward the rock and learned a lesson that moment: that nothing is stable in life.

The tsunami I witnessed occurred during the day. The sirens sounded, and as usual people came to the ocean's edge to watch. My parents put out chairs; there was excitement in the air. We lived across the street from the ocean - not a beach but a wall of black lava that the ocean pounded day and night. About half a block down the street, the rocks were leveled out, and it's there everyone stood, and there I watched the ocean disappear.

The ocean water drained away, leaving big fish, eels, octopus, dolphins, everything tossing on a naked sea bottom. Papa-sans and mama-sans with babies on their backs ran out into the new landscape and grabbed as many fish as they could. It was frightening to watch because you could see, beyond, the wall of water coming.

Not a wave. A wall. A ragged wall growing taller and taller, picking up everything in its path. The wall had wood sticking out of it, trash, fish floundering and falling off the front, the face, of the wave. It was like a dirty wall of ice, only moving fast. And like a glacier, sections would splinter off, too. It was almost as tall as the iron-wood trees, and when it hit land it didn't break over the top like a normal wave; rather, the bottom fell out and it melted, as if imploding, gushing a massive amount of water up the street and into yards while people ran from it. Luckily no one got caught by it. The next waves surging in were just big rough waves.

Every tsunami has its stories of survival. Many thought the April 1, 1946, wave was an April Fool joke as people ran up the street screaming for others to run for their lives. The tsunami that took out my hometown happened at night. No moon, and no one saw it coming as it ricocheted into Hilo Bay. When it hit the Hamakua Coast, the earth shook from the impact and the lights went out, not to come back on again for a long time. Parking meters were flat to the ground, construction equipment carried miles inland, two- and three-story buildings gone; many a home was vaporized, only the steps remaining. To this day you see concrete steps to nowhere in many places around Hilo.

With the ongoing reports of the Dec. 26 catastrophe in the Indian Ocean, I dream at night of things I'd long forgotten. That long drive back to our house, not knowing if it was there or damaged (it was fine). The worry when my dad went to help the first weeks. Seeing who didn't come back to school, like the boy in front of me whose name was Lani. Losing miles of stores and my first school.

And yet there were wonderful stories. How my friend Patty was found two miles from her home in her bed, perfectly in place, not even a ripple in her blankets; as if she were still alive and asleep. They said a vacuum formed around her through the force of the wave.

One friend was one of many rushing their boats out to see beyond the breakwater in Hilo Bay. He got just to the mouth of the breakwater when the tsunami rolled under him and rose up as it hit the shallow baywater. He held on to the side rail and was thrown in and out of the boat. He and his boat just barely made it; a few more feet, and he would have been sucked into the wall of water.

Cockroaches found in Coke bottles (this huge bottling plant was leveled) and sealed cans (vacuum forces opening and closing of atoms). Friends hanging on to palm trees and living (a member of the grass family, the palms didn't break but instead bent, staying firm even with the force of the tsunami). And one friend of the family actually rode the wave and lived to tell about it.

I've heard similar surreal stories when hurricanes and tornados hit. Nature is quite the terrorist. Even here in the Northwest, seeing a low tide still makes me want to run for my life, despite years of knowing it's just a tide and everything is OK.

Leilani McCoy is advertising representative of Queen Anne News. Reach her at

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