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WORLD

Survivor's tale: This is surreal

From Journalist Alan Morison

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PHUKET, Thailand (CNN) -- What do you do when you see a huge wave-wall coming at you? You run. You run as fast as you can. You think: "This is surreal."

But you keep running ... until the water lifts you off your feet and sweeps you onwards.

It makes no difference whether you can swim or not.

The force carries you forward, and you become a living, breathing projectile. Grab onto something and you may live.

Surf the wave and you have a chance. Hit something solid, and you die.

As the Boxing Day tsunami swept him into the Phuket resort town of Patong, Australian Les Boardman, 56, from the beach suburb of Cronulla in Sydney, reached out and grabbed a post. He hung on for dear life.

He also reached out with one hand and grabbed another man, trying to save him, but the force of the water made him let the man go.

Just a couple of minutes earlier, on the first full day of a holiday with his wife and anxious to hit the famed Phuket blue water, Boardman had watched the tide off Patong beach recede suddenly.

Out it went, leaving about 200 meters (yards) of exposed sand, like a giant drawing breath. He puzzled as to what this might mean.

Only when he saw the boats racing for shore -- boats of all sizes, motors going full bore -- did he realize what was happening. He and his wife, Dianne, turned and ran for their lives.

They got about 20 or 30 meters, heading up the soft sand to the beach road. Then, as Dianne dived under a parked car, the water hit them.

The moving wave-wall carried Les about 5 meters upwards, to first-floor level, where he grabbed a post.

Through a fluke of physics, the water also lifted the car from above Dianne and tossed her up, alongside her husband.

They were both able to scramble through a first-floor window to relative safety, where they watched as more giant waves continued to roll in for the next 90 minutes.

"I thought I was definitely gone," he said a few hours later, after he and Dianne were lifted by helicopter to Wachira Hospital, on the other side of the island.

"How the hell anyone survived has got me licked. The second wave carried a car right towards me, but I was able to shift to one side and watch it shoot past. The worst part was, you could see the bodies going out in the water."

The Boardmans were staying at the upscale Holiday Inn, which takes out a section of Patong about the size of a city block and is home to hundreds during the peak holiday season.

Early-morning swimmers in the hotel's huge pool, which is surrounded by four storys of rooms, were swept out and up as the sea poured in through every passageway and corridor.

The Boardmans were just two of many Australians being assisted with insurance queries and cash loans by Consul Robin Hamilton, who arrived in Phuket from the Thai capital Bangkok late yesterday.

At Wachira, he was told there were 13 confirmed dead in that hospital alone.

In the hospital forecourt, staff were keeping a tally of the names of those admitted for treatment, listing them either in capitalized English or in Thai script.

By evening, there were 10 huge boards packed with numbers and names, including Dianne Boardman.

As soon as her cracked and bruised ribs are healed, the Sydney couple, like many other fortunate survivors, will be heading for home.

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