Friday, December 31, 2004

Isle survivor climbed
and jumped roofs
to reach safety

The noise preceded it, roaring over the din of Patong Beach -- packed with vacationers enjoying balmy weather and sunny skies. In his seaside bungalow, Gary "Mad Dog" Derks sprung awake.


Gary Derks: The isle businessman helped save at least seven others from the tsunami

"It was like a 747 (aircraft) coming through your bedroom," Derks, a Waikiki nightclub owner, said of the sound of the first tsunami to hit Phuket, Thailand. "The noise was incredible. Then we heard a bunch of people screaming and crying."

Derks, who was vacationing with his Thai girlfriend, looked out a window to see a giant wall of water heading toward the beach. By the time he had awakened his girlfriend and threw on some shorts, water was seeping under the doorjamb. The couple tried to get through the door, but it would not open against the rushing water.

So Derks threw a chair through a window and got out with his girlfriend. They climbed onto a nearby concrete wall, then shimmied up to a hotel's second-story lanai.

It had been just minutes since the first wave hit, but already water was engulfing whole buildings and eating up buses and cars. Derks said he helped two women, a baby and others get up to the lanai. He saw other tourists in nearby bungalows being swept away.

"On the first floor, there was a retired European couple begging for help," Derks said.

No one could save them.

Fifteen minutes after the first tsunami, another hit. The water was rising fast, and Derks, his girlfriend and others on the lanai -- two women with a small baby, and a young Australian couple -- decided to get to higher ground. They got on a rooftop, then jumped onto another and another, tossing the infant "like a little football" over the gaps, which were sometimes as wide as 4 feet. In front of them, others were doing the same.

Three people who tried to jump on a thatched roof fell through, and two were caught under the water. The third person was helped to safety, but that man's girlfriend was among those lost.

On a stable rooftop, Derks' group waited, hoping the water would recede.

It did, after several minutes. And when the water got to about 5 feet high, Derks and the others decided to start moving again. They worked their way down into the rushing water, where Derks told his girlfriend and the women with the baby to hang onto his belt.

Then, the avid surfer and former college baseball star -- 6 foot 3 and 220 pounds -- started to run. "There were so many overturned cars," Derks said. "We just kept working our way east ... pushing away debris. It was survival."

The water started to get more shallow as they moved farther from the beach. Soon, it was waist-deep. With no shoes, Derks and his girlfriend cut their feet badly on broken glass hidden beneath the murky waters. It didn't matter. They were both just happy to be alive.

"In the hotel room, when the water started coming in, I just thought to myself, 'There's no way in hell I'm going to die like this,'" said Derks, 44, who owns Da Dawg House on Kalakaua Avenue. "I'm not going to die drowning in my own hotel room."

When Derks got his girlfriend to a safe place, he turned around and headed back to the beach to look for a friend. But first, he sat down to rest. That's when the reality of the disaster hit him, and he started to bawl. "I just broke down," Derks said. "The poor people on the beach, they didn't stand a chance."

Derks found his friend, who had also escaped with minor injuries, several hours later. That night, unable to travel much farther, Derks, his girlfriend and friend stayed at the studio apartment of a Thai colleague. Derks is part owner in a sports bar in Phuket.

In the morning, the group was allowed to return to their bungalows to collect any articles.

Everywhere, there were bodies and devastation. Everyone was in shock.

"There were at least 5,000 to 8,000 people walking the road," Derks said. "Nobody was talking. ... The only thing that we heard were the rescue workers, trying to pull bodies out."

Derks said he lost everything in the tsunami, except his life. He got back to the islands Tuesday and has not slept since.

Whenever he closes his eyes, he says, he sees the remains of Patong Beach -- a tourist hot spot he had visited several times a year for more than two decades.

"The devastation and the death is what affects me," he said.

But he said he will not let the disaster stop him from returning to Phuket, something he plans to do within a month. "I'm going to bring money, go back and face the music," Derks said. "I'm not going to lock myself in a high-rise. ... You can't let it affect your life."

He said 50 percent of the proceeds from a New Year's Eve party at his club will go to tsunami relief efforts in Thailand.

East-West Center Tsunami Relief page
www.eastwestcenter.org/events-en-detail.asp?news_ID=252 American Red Cross Hawaii
Pacific Tsunami Warning Center

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