'Lucky...It wasn't our time'


The Mirror

A Federal Way family is safe after a harrowing encounter with last month’s tsunami that devastated 12 South Asian and eastern African countries and left an estimated 140,000 people dead and more than a million displaced.

Patti and Jim Halbmaier, their daughter Julia, 22, and seven relatives spent a year planning a family reunion vacation in Thailand. They were staying at an inland resort and had a sea kayaking trip scheduled the morning of Dec. 26, the day the tsunami struck.

During the 45-minute trip from the hotel, their guide told them there had been an earthquake in Indonesia that morning.

“I didn’t think much of it because there wasn’t a sense of urgency,” said Patti Halbmaier, who is an executive board member of FUSION, a Federal Way-based organization that provides temporary housing for women and children.

When they got to the pier, the tide was way out and there were no boats –– not even the one that was supposed to pick them up. “It was pretty strange,” Patti said Monday by telephone from Thailand.

“It was just odd that the water was out so far,” Jim said. “We didn’t realize it at the time, but we were already in the beginning of what happened.”

Suddenly, a mass of water was rapidly surging toward shore.

“We were standing on this rickety pier and we saw just a lot of water coming in. It was like a good-sized wave, and it was coming fast and it was churning,” Patti said. “All of a sudden, the water level raised up really high.”

People began yelling “’Get off the dock!’” and “’Tidal wave!’” and their guide told them to run. They turned and ran, stopping on the other side of the street. Patti’s brother-in-law yelled at them to run again. “We ran up this little incline,” she said. “We could see a little hill, so we just knew to keep going.”

Halbmaier said her heart was racing. She couldn’t see what was coming behind her because she was helping her 84-year-old mother up the hill, with assistance from a Thai man, and she lost track of her husband. They all made it to higher ground, where they waited about 30 minutes before the guide said they were ready to go back.

“The whole dock was submerged and totally destroyed,” Jim said.

It took hours for them to get back to their bungalow because of road blocks and traffic jams. They sat for an hour on a bench at a rest stop, where the owner of the sea kayaking company found them and told them what happened. Still, Patti said they had no idea of the magnitude of the destruction until they resort to the resort where they were staying and watched the news.

“It was a bit scary, but we have no idea how scary it was on the west side of the island,” Jim said.

“It was a miracle that we just happened to be on the side of the island that was protected,” Patti said. Forty-eight hours before, they had been on Patong Beach with friends.

“We were just lucky. It was not our time,” Patti said.

“From our perspective, we kind of dodged the big bullet,” Jim said. “We sat in the Starbucks (on Patong Beach) about 11 in the morning. Now that whole area’s totally destroyed.”

Patti said the devastation was bad, but businesses have reopened on the north side of Thailand near the resort where her family is staying. The beaches are more quiet –– beach chairs, umbrellas and food stands were washed out to sea –– but some visitors have returned to lie on beach towels.

On Dec. 30, Patti, Jim and six other family members finally went on their sea kayaking trip “and had a great time,” Jim said. “You get a tsunami, it happens and it’s over with.”

Jim has returned to Federal Way. Patti, Julia and the Halbmaier’s 10-year-old niece, Allison, a student at Twin Lakes Elementary School, plan to return Jan. 11.

Despite the massive destruction about a 30-minute drive away, Patti and Jim encouraged those who were planning to visit South Asia to still go to support the economy there with tourism money.

“This couldn’t have happened at a worse time,” Patti said. “It’s really going to affect their economy. It’s still beautiful. People here are wonderful.”

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