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Tsunami survivor describes 'land of walking wounded'

American says, 'I feel like a cat -- halfway through my nine lives'

From Matt Smith

Tsunami survivors survey the damage to a shop at Thailand's Railay Bay.
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Disasters (General)

(CNN) -- After battling breast cancer, Stephanie Cox couldn't have known a trip to Thailand would put her in harm's way.

The American was in Bangkok for a checkup when she and friends decided to go rock-climbing along the coast -- a move that put them in the path of the deadly tsunamis.

The tsunamis, triggered by a powerful earthquake off the Indonesian island of Sumatra on December 26, are blamed for more than 150,000 deaths in at least 11 countries on the Indian Ocean. (Full story)

"I feel like a cat -- halfway through my nine lives," Cox said after surviving the disaster.

That fateful day, Cox, her fiance, Lou Russo, and another couple and their 2-year-old son had just boarded a boat for the Thai island of Phi Phi from Railay Beach, about 110 miles (175 kilometers) north of the coastal resort city of Phuket, when the tsunamis hit.

As the first wave approached, the water beneath their boat rushed out, leaving the vessel stranded on the sand.

In an e-mail to friends sent a few days after the tsunami, Cox said the passengers on the boat were ordered to disembark and grab their bags. The onrushing wave provoked "a sense of awe, but not urgency," she wrote.

"Then I saw the faces of the Thai boatmen go blank. They screamed to us, 'Run, forget your bags, Run!' We ran up to the platform -- the small wall where the beach meets the cottages and restaurants."

The tsunami "had swelled so big that it was picking up and smashing sailboats in front of us like toys -- people falling out as they turned over," she wrote. "It was stacking wooden boats like dominoes, sending them flying down sideways along the beach."

Contacted by phone Tuesday, Russo said the wave appeared to be about 20 feet high.

"It wasn't a wave that swelled up and broke," he said. "It was just a constant breaking, like a steamroller."

Cox and her companions were separated as they rushed ashore, but they managed to regroup after the first wave hit. The nearby hotel pool was a "cesspool," she said, littered with debris, broken boats and trees. Overturned chafing dishes at the hotel buffet had set tablecloths on fire.

Then a second wave began to crash ashore: The group ran inland, following a crowd of Thais uphill into the jungle overlooking the beach.

The couples joined about 200 survivors in what they called the "high camp," Russo said -- a refuge on high ground a few hundred meters (yards) from the beach. They had managed to take their packs off the boat, with first aid kits and water inside.

Russo, an experienced climber trained in first aid, helped a doctor treat some of the injured.

"The stories were so sad, terrifying and tragic: A Thai woman who had helped us escape had turned around to get her children, but they had been swept out to sea; an American-Irish couple who had spent the past 15 years of their lives on their sailboat had watched their boat and all their belongings get smashed," Cox wrote.

"It was the land of the walking wounded -- bloody families in bathing suits, cut by glass and wood and other debris, mourning. Most people lost all of their bags and passports. We were lucky."

The next morning, government officials ordered the area evacuated, with speedboats carrying tourists and residents to ferries offshore.

Cox, a Colorado native, moved to Nepal in February 2003. In May, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and went back to the United States for a mastectomy before returning to Nepal.

A brush with cancer "was awful," she said by telephone from Kathmandu, Nepal, where she works for a nonprofit organization focusing on rural poverty in Asia and Africa. "But it was nothing like the mass destruction that we saw, and in a way that was far, far worse emotionally. ... What we saw and what we went through in Thailand is more of a profound sense of loss."

Cox and Russo returned to Kathmandu on Monday to find that the disaster had touched them even there -- an acquaintance from another aid organization had been killed on the beaches of Thailand, a popular resort destination for American expatriates in Asia, Cox said.

Cox said that the still-fresh memories of the disaster are painful but that she hopes to return to Thailand.

"We were really sad to leave, to be honest, because we felt such a connection to the people," she said. "It was the Thai people who grabbed my arm and my bag and ran me down the walkway. It was a Thai woman who helped guide us up the beach."

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