Gainesville family feels 'lucky' to be alive


The Simonnes, Eric, center, Amy, left and Audrey, 11, were vacationing in Patong Beach, Thailand, when last month's deadly tsunamis struck.

Published: Wednesday, January 5, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 5, 2005 at 12:00 a.m.

Family in Thailand when tsunami hit

Two University of Florida faculty members and their family, on a Christmas visit to the Thai resort island of Phuket, felt the earthquake that triggered the deadly tsunami in the Indian Ocean on Dec. 26.
But Amy and Eric Simonne safely weathered the waves that later washed ashore about three blocks from their hotel - possibly in part because they decided to sleep late instead of taking an early morning snorkeling excursion.
"We had decided we wanted to sleep in so we made reservations for the 10 o'clock boat instead of the 7:30 trip," Amy Simonne, an assistant professor of food safety at UF and a native of Thailand, said on Tuesday.
"If we had taken the early boat, I don't know, maybe our whole family would be in a morgue now."
Yet while she, her husband, 11-year-old daughter and French in-laws escaped injury, they became part of the immediate relief effort after the tsunami swept death and destruction within about 60 yards of their hotel.
"A couple of tourists ran from the beach to our hotel and we gave them clothes," she said. "I gave a T-shirt to one woman who was so cold because all she had on was a swimsuit. We also gave money to some people who had nothing left."
Even from their 20th-floor rooms, she and her family didn't see either of the two mid-morning waves that damaged or destroyed most of the restaurants and shops for two blocks inland from the beach. And the hotel management wouldn't let guests go out into the street until late afternoon.
When they finally went out, the places they had so enjoyed the day before were scenes of devastation.
"We saw emergency crews pulling bodies out of the wreckage," said Simonne, who arrived with her family back in Gainesville about 1 a.m. Monday. "Helicopters were flying, and you could hear sirens all day long. It was very, very frightening."
She said eyewitnesses told them the second and more powerful wave was about two stories high.
Simonne said she spent much of the day at the hotel comforting a woman from Ireland whose mother and sister were missing.
"Later in the day they found her mother and sister alive," said Simonne, who works in the family, youth and community sciences department of UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. "I just got an e-mail from the Irish girl today."
Her husband is an assistant professor in UF's department of horticultural sciences. His parents joined them on holiday from France, their first visit to Thailand.
Amy Simonne said she wanted to show her in-laws the beauty of her homeland, especially the beaches of Phuket Island on the Indian Ocean side of the Thai peninsula.
They left Gainesville on Dec. 18 and after a few days visiting her family in Suratsani on the Pacific side of the peninsula - which escaped the tsunami - they arrived Christmas Day on Phuket.
They went snorkeling off a nearby island Christmas afternoon, and enjoyed it so much they decided to go again the next day.
"The dock where we got on the boat was badly damaged," Simonne said. "The girl at the counter who did our tour was gone.
"We couldn't believe the destruction," she said. "I get goosebumps every time I think about it. We could have been one of the victims."
She said her daughter, Audrey - a fifth-grader at Wiles Elementary School - hasn't talked too much about the experience.
"She did say she was grateful and that she would not ask for anymore Christmas presents," her mother said. "She's happy with what she got - feeling lucky to survive."
Her in-laws, who returned to France, had taken pictures of some of the areas they visited before the tsunami. They also took "after" pictures, including the restaurant where they had eaten the night before.
Curiously, Simonne said, they didn't realize the magnitude of the event until the day after they left the island by van and hired a driver and returned to her family home. Although the hotel had electricity, there was no phone service and they felt isolated from the outside world, she said.
It wasn't until Dec. 27, she said, that they started seeing news reports about the catastrophic damage - and that they first heard the word tsunami used to describe the waves.
"In that area, the word tsunami was never used, it wasn't something anyone had ever experienced," she said. "Some people were calling it a tidal wave. But most people just said, 'the water is coming.' "
Thailand sustained some of the fewest casualties of the tsunamis - as of Tuesday, about 8,000 estimated killed out of about an estimated death toll of 150,000.
"Sri Lanka and Indonesia were hit the hardest," Simonne said. "I haven't thought too much about me. We feel very lucky, and we just want to encourage people to make donations.
"You can't imagine the destruction," she said. "Whole families lost. And all the orphans. No houses. Everything is gone."
Bob Arndorfer can be reached at (352) 374-5042 or arndorb@gvillesun.com.

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