The Wave

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When I started swallowing the seawater and felt it go into my lungs, I experienced a fear that I will never be able to fully describe. I felt it in my bones. The water was pushing me down and I had absolutely no control. The wave was trying to kill me, and it was winning. I could do nothing about it. The only thing I could do was think: Well, this is it. I lived 11 years and now I am dying. I hope I am going to heaven.

What was happening? Why was it happening? There was nothing that came to mind. I only saw darkness. Then I passed out.

Moments before, I was enjoying a day at the pool with my mother, father and sister. It was the day after Christmas 2004, and instead of celebrating in Sweden with the traditional meatballs and dancing around the tree, we decided to take a beach vacation to Thailand. It was just as beautiful as the pictures in the brochures. Turquoise water, white sand, green mountains. We spent the week soaking in the sun and having swimming competitions. I was 11 and my sister 14, so we probably had some water fights, too. This day had been no different. We were sitting at the hotel pool overlooking the Indian Ocean when something very strange happened. My father was the first to notice that something was off. I was swimming in the pool when I saw him looking out at the bay for a very long time. The water had started to bubble very strangely. A minute later, the entire bay seemed to disappear out of thin air. It was completely dry. A half-mile of pure sand that wasn’t there before.

People started freaking out like, What’s happening? This is so weird. But it was very innocent. Just a curiosity. Some people started taking out their cameras to take pictures of the fish that had been stranded in the sand. But my family stayed by the pool. It just seemed very strange. Then the blue horizon started to grow taller and taller. The small white boats that were floating way out in the ocean seemed to be raised above the mountains, almost into the sky. They looked like toys in a bath. Suddenly, everything was happening very fast. The horizon would not stop growing. It became a giant wall that seemed to block out the sun. You might think at this moment that I was feeling panic and fear. In fact I felt nothing. I was still in the pool, looking up at this big blue wall, thinking … What?

Then, out of nowhere, a small sailboat smashed into the wall next to the pool. I heard my sister Linnea scream, “Johannes, watch out for the mast!” It came crashing down right over my head. I just barely climbed out of the pool in time to dodge it. The next thing we did was automatic, almost like animals. Without thinking, we desperately tried to get as high above ground as we could. The blue wall kept coming closer, growing higher. We all climbed up on top of the bar that was next to the pool. The last thing I remember is holding on to someone’s hand and having to crane my neck to see the top of the wave. It was more than 30 feet high and coming at 400 miles per hour. Before the water even hit us, we were knocked back by the pressure wave.

The next thing I know, I was in a washing machine. The taste of salt. Then the choking of water in my lungs. Then the darkness. Then the fear. Then something more than fear. Then I passed out. A few seconds went by where I was just … gone.

Somehow, the wave pushed me up to the surface for a moment and I took my first desperate breath of fresh air, still choking on the water in my lungs. I was above the water. Then I wasn’t. Then I was again. It felt like I was whitewater rafting over Niagara Falls, only I didn’t have a raft. The wave flushed me from one side of the island to the other — a full mile. I just tried to keep my head above the water as it pushed me. Everything was caught in the rush of the wave — logs and pieces of boats and houses were rushing by at furious speeds. I just tried not to get crushed to death.

Then an empty canoe came toward me, and I was able to grab onto the side of it and get my head above water. All around me, I saw people on top of houses and in trees, screaming. A few feet away, a woman was treading water. She looked ready to give up. Even with the saltwater in my eyes, her face looked familiar.

It was my mother.

Because I still had water in my lungs, it was almost impossible to speak. But I was able to gather some strength and scream out to her, “Mom, swim! You have to swim!”

She used the last of her strength to reach the canoe. We held on to it as the water pushed us further and further across the island. We eventually smashed into a palm tree with incredible force. It felt like a car accident. My mother was cut very badly. The water had started to calm down at this point, but I could tell that she was in trouble. I knew if I didn’t get her out of the water, she wasn’t going to make it. After a few minutes, a longboat floated by. It was so cruel, because a few days earlier, our family had a competition in the water to see if anyone could get up into one of these boats without help. Nobody could do it, despite our Viking roots.

Somehow, with a lot of struggle, I was able to climb up into the boat. When I turned back to my mother in the water, she was being crushed between a refrigerator and the side of the boat. I clung to the boat with one arm and one leg. I pushed the refrigerator away with my other leg and lifted her up into the boat with my one free arm. I was very small, even for an 11-year-old. I have no idea how I was able to do it. But at that moment, I was in a kind of trance. Whatever it took to survive, I was going to do it.

We collapsed in the boat. The dead floated all around us. Time seemed to stop. We drifted in the boat for hours, slowly picking up new survivors from the water. Everyone was cut and bleeding and severely dehydrated. My mom could not speak. I kept trying to keep her alert, but she just stared straight ahead. Eight hours later, with our boat full of survivors, a rescue boat picked us up and took us to a large cruise ship in the distance. When we got on board, the people explained that we were being taken to nearby Phuket for medical attention. When we looked back at the beach, everything was destroyed. The message seemed clear: the only survivors are the people on this ship.

Everyone else was gone. My father and sister were gone.

*

When we arrived at the hospital in Phuket, it was pure chaos. As my mother leaned against me for support, a nurse pointed us to a broom closet. We sat there and waited for a doctor. People were dying in the rooms all around us. The sounds were terrible. After some time, a doctor came and examined my mother’s wounds. He stitched up her knee on the spot without any antibiotics. She needed surgery, but there weren’t enough doctors. It would have to wait, he said. Then he left. We sat there without anywhere to go. A television in the corner of the main room was playing news footage of a giant wave, but we didn’t speak the Thai language. I still didn’t fully understand what happened. All I knew is that one moment I was with my family in the pool having fun, and the next moment something came and washed us all away.

A photographer came by and started snapping photos of us. My mother was still in shock and not speaking. She just stared into the distance. I remember feeling like an animal. But I was too tired to do anything about it. So I let them take our photo. Little did I know, but it ended up going viral in newspapers around the world. It was the only reason our family members back in Sweden knew my mother and I were alive.

A little while later, this British guy came up to my mother and started speaking to her in English. For some reason, I freaked out and told him to get away. I was still in defense mode. He told me to relax and that he wanted to help us. He explained that his name was Father Brian and he was a Christian priest who runs a church nearby.

“Do you want to sleep there for the night?” he asked. “I can drive you in my car.”

Of course! I was so relieved to leave death and chaos of the hospital. During the drive to the church, Father Brian asked if we had lost anyone during the disaster. I told him that my father and sister were swept away.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I promise I will find them.”

My mother had not spoken in hours. She broke down.

“No you won’t,” she said. “They’re dead. We saw it. They’re gone.”

“I know they are alive,” he said. “I’m going to find them.”

Shortly after we arrived at the church, Father Brian found out that the hospital finally confirmed a surgery time for my mother. So he took her back to the hospital and I was left to sleep on the red carpet floor of the church, all alone. I stared at the ceiling and felt completely empty. I didn’t think about the wave. Instead, a strange and horrible thought kept repeating over and over: What’s it going to be like living without my father? It will be much more quiet in the house. We won’t laugh as much. What’s it going to be like cleaning out my sister’s room and deciding what to keep?

I passed out from exhaustion and dreamed of life alone back home.

When I woke up the next morning, Father Brian took me to see my mother at the hospital. By the time we arrived, she was already out of surgery and on a bit of morphine. She could finally speak again, and her shock was replaced with a feeling of resignation and sadness. We just … sat there. What’s there to say? Who was there to be angry with for taking our family away? The earth? The ocean?

The following day, Father Brian came to check up on my mother when his cell phone rang. He answered and immediately looked at my mom with a smile.

“I told you so,” he said.

He handed the phone to my mother.

On the other end, it was the voice of my father.

He always has been a beast. He’s been bodybuilding since he was 15 years old. When the wave hit, he was able to grab onto a wooden beam above the breakfast buffet. He held on so hard that the backpack he was wearing completely ripped off his body, leaving severe bruises all over his chest. He held on until the wave broke. After two days of wandering the wreckage of the island, he found a note posted with my mother’s name on it and a phone number. He had to beg for change and wait for hours in line for a phone in order to call the number. When he did, the man on the other end was Father Brian.

My mother and father barely spoke words. Mostly they just cried. Their joy was cut short when my mother asked, “And Linnea?”

My sister had been swept away from my father during the wave. The only thing Father Brian was able to find out was that the most severely injured people were evacuated to the town of Krabi by helicopter. If you weren’t in the Phuket hospital, you were either in Krabi, or you were gone. No address, no hospital, no region, no district, no nothing. Just “Krabi.”

Who was there to be angry with for taking our family away? The earth? The ocean?

My father immediately took off with Father Brian and made the two-and-a-half hour drive to Krabi to search for my sister. When he arrived … well, where do you start? He started at the first hospital. He walked through it, wearing his invisible backpack scars, floor by floor. Room by room. It went on like that for a long time. Hospital after hospital all over the city.

My sister wasn’t there. He was losing hope. A nurse told him that the people who already had surgery were taken to a hotel across town. So he went into this hotel, and it was chaos. People were packed into rooms, sleeping on the floors. In the last room he checked, he saw a blonde haired girl sleeping under a pile of bandaged and broken arms and legs.

It was my sister.

She had cuts all over her body. Her hand wasn’t just broken, it was practically destroyed. Her fingers were three times the normal size and the skin was green. But it didn’t matter. She was alive. My father carried her out of the hotel and Father Brian drove them back to Phuket so we could all be reunited, and my sister could get proper surgery. When they were finally able to look at my sister’s hand in Phuket, the news was not good. It had been so badly infected that her arm would have to be amputated below the elbow. That was a very hard moment. No one can prepare a 14-year-old for the news that they are going to lose their arm at exactly 2 p.m. the next day.

That night, Father Brian called every single priest he knew across every single faith and told them to please pray for Linnea. The next day, the Thai doctor is preparing my sister for surgery. He’s unwrapping the bandages on her green hand to clean it when he screams. He completely panics.

“This is not right!” he says. “Get this girl off my operating table!”

He takes off his scrubs and forces everyone out of the room. My sister’s hand isn’t green anymore. The swelling has gone down. The infection has gone away.

I am Swedish, and we do not use words like miracle very often. But I have to call this miraculous. The doctor used a different word. He thought it must be witchcraft.

Western tourist, mostly all from Sweden, line up to check in for a flight home at Phuket International airport Saturday, Jan. 1, 2005.  The death toll in Thailand from last week?s tsunami is over 4,800, more than half of those are foreigners with an additional 6,000 still missing.  (AP Photo/David Longstreath)

My sister would need additional surgery when we got back to Sweden, but no amputation. A few days later, on New Year’s Eve, we were cleared to return home to Sweden. Getting on the plane was one of the most surreal moment of my life. When we boarded, we saw that the plane was almost entirely empty. Sweden lost more than 500 people in the disaster. More than 230,000 were lost in total all over the Indian Ocean. When we landed and arrived home in Falkenberg, outside of Gothenburg, my grandparents were waiting for us with a home-cooked dinner. Our house was perfect. Nothing was out of place. And yet as we sat there eating dinner quietly, it felt like we didn’t know each other. It felt like we were ghosts.

It was a very, very strange feeling. It was like we weren’t supposed to be there.

For a long time, years maybe, I was a very angry boy. Of course, I was so thankful to be alive. But I could not escape the feeling of helplessness that I felt when I was being pushed under the water by this unstoppable force. No chance of escape. No reason why. It made me angry. The only place that I was able to use that anger for a good purpose was the football pitch. I always loved football since I was a little kid, but now instead of giving 100 percent, I was able to give 110 percent. It would kick the ball a little bit harder. Anything that was holding me back before somehow meant nothing now. Whenever I got tired on the pitch, I thought about lifting my mother up into the boat with one arm, and I realized that I was not really tired. There is always a little more to give.

As I rose up through the ranks of Swedish football as a teenager and ended up making the Junior National Team, my mother became my loudest supporter. Now I play in the Swedish Premier League with Falkenbergs F.F., and whenever I go to the ticket office to get tickets to our matches for my family, the attendant always jokes, “Are these for your mother? Because if so, I’ll make sure to sit somewhere else.”

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She’s quite loud, and sometimes she even sings along with the supporters’ crazy songs. They sing one about my teammate Stefan Rodevåg that sounds very funny translated from Swedish. He’s one of the older guys on the team, so they sing:

Stefan Rodevåg! Stefan Rodevåg!
He’s young and horny,
He has his own boat,
Stefan Rodevåg!

It sounds better in Swedish.

We have all gone on with our lives since 2004. My sister is a stylist who worked abroad in Dubai for years. My father is still a beast (and a businessman). And my mother is my biggest fan. But no matter where we all are, we try to make it back to Thailand every year. We have returned 10 times since 2004 to help Father Brian with charity projects.

johannes vall red

It might seem crazy to want to return to the scene of such trauma, but we have no choice. When Father Brian dropped us off at the airport to return home to Sweden after the disaster, we obviously did not know how to possibly repay him for all his help. We hugged him and thanked him a million times, but he kept saying, “No, no. Don’t thank me.”

Then he pointed up to the sky and said, “Thank my boss.”

vall sig 3

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