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Survivors describe tsunami horror

'It seemed like it was over'

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Bangkok (Thailand)

(CNN) -- Peter Heydemann of Chicago was vacationing in Thailand with his family when the tide began to slowly rise early Sunday. He watched from his hotel as the street below became flooded by what he thought was just an unusually high tide. Thinking the worst had passed, he walked down to investigate.

"I didn't know the big one was still coming," he told CNN Wednesday. "And suddenly I heard somebody yell -- I assume it was something like, 'Run!' But I had no place to run to, and suddenly I was in water above my head."

A few minutes later, the water was dragging him out to sea along with driftwood, smashed buildings, gas cans and other debris. He remained at sea for about 40 minutes, clinging to a body board that he found in the water.

"It seemed like it was over," he said. "Nobody saw me from the beach. I tried every now and then to let go of the flotation and wave, but nobody could see me."

Heydemann's story echoes those of other survivors -- that many people believed high tide was coming in and they went to get a closer look, only to learn that the worst had not yet hit.

Adam Forbes, an 18-year-old tourist from New Jersey, was on a fishing island off Phuket, Thailand. He was to join about 40 people on a pier for the trip back to Bangkok, but he had to pay his hotel bill first.

Forbes was delayed for a few minutes, so he was was not on the pier when the massive wave struck.

"The first wave just looked like a wall of white coming toward you, and the sound ... it was just screams everywhere and just the crashing sound," he said. "The water just kept coming and coming."

Forbes, who was reunited with his parents Wednesday, said, "I will always appreciate the power of water for the rest of my life and how much nature can destroy in just a few minutes."

Tourists Warren and Julie Lavender were scuba diving off Thailand when the tsunami struck. It was just their fifth diving expedition. While underwater, they noticed intense currents close to the surface.

"Because the current was so strong, we were holding on for dear life," Julie Lavender told CNN.

Warren Lavender said: "At one point, we were hanging onto coral and the instructor, she was looking at us, and she was also quite distressed."

When they reached the surface and made it back into their boat, the instructor told them she had done 4,000 dives in the same spot and she had "never experienced anything like it."

As they headed back to shore, Julie Lavender said the beach "wasn't there any longer, and buildings were collapsing, and the drivers of the boats were both locals and they couldn't believe their eyes."

"You could just tell on their faces that this was something they'd never seen before," she said.

Across the region, the scene is one of death and devastation: entire beaches submerged, towns destroyed and boats tossed around like toys. The death toll has topped more than 80,000 in southern Asia and East Africa -- more than 45,000 in Indonesia alone. And authorities have said the death toll will likely rise to more than 100,000.

At the town hall in Phuket, hundreds of photographs and posters are attached to notice boards; family members seeking any information about their missing loved ones.

More than 400 miles away at the main Bangkok hospital, a Swedish mother pleaded for any information on her 4-year-old daughter who was swept from her father's arms by the giant wave in Phi Phi, Thailand.

Anna Kjellander was last seen wearing a pink and white dress with ribbons on the shoulders. The girl has shoulder-length brown hair and brown eyes.

"I would like to know if either she is alive or if someone on Phi Phi after the disaster had seen some child lying on the ground looking like that. It's better knowing if she's dead or alive," said Anne-Lie Kjellander, who is being treated in the hospital with her husband, Sten, and 7-year-old son, Martin.

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