Canadian who survived Boxing Day tsunami 15 years ago says it left her 'forever changed'
The Indian Ocean tsunami killed 230,000 people in a dozen countries
Vancouver's Christine Lang still remembers swimming for her life through still black waters in the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami 15 years ago.
She was in Thailand, on the island of Ko Phi Phi, shopping with her brother's girlfriend Rubina Wong on Dec. 26, 2004, when a 9.1 magnitude earthquake off the Indonesian coast sent tidal wave speeding toward Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Sri Lanka.
It killed more than 230,000 people, including Wong.
But Lang survived. She blacked out not long after the water hit, she said. When she woke up, she was in its murky depths.
"The water was motionless at that point, and I remember looking for some way to get out, to save myself because I needed air. I looked up and I saw in the distance a small circle of light," Lang told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann.
"My heart was jackhammering and my lungs were ready to burst, and I just kept swimming for that circle of light coming from the surface — and eventually I got there."
Memorials in Indonesia, Thailand
Thursday marks the 15th anniversary of the Indian Ocean tsunami, one of modern history's worst natural disasters.
In Thailand, hundreds of people attended a memorial ceremony at Ban Nam Khem, a small fishing village that lost about half of its population of 5,000 when the waves rolled in.
More than 8,000 people in Thailand died or went missing in the disaster, and the bodies of almost 400 victims remain unidentified and unclaimed.
In Indonesia, where more than 170,000 people died, thousands knelt in prayer at memorial ceremonies in Aceh province.
"No words can describe our feelings when we tearfully saw thousands of corpses lying on this ground 15 years ago," acting Aceh Gov. Nova Iriansyah said at a ceremony in Sigli, a town in Pidie district.
"And now, we can see how people in Aceh were able to overcome suffering and rise again, thanks to assistance from all Indonesians and from people all over the world."
'I'm not going to die here'
When Lang emerged from the water 15 years ago, she says she found her way to the roof of a house where a Thai couple pulled her up.
As the flooding started to recede, she climbed over the twisted debris to a hotel that was still standing. From there, she and a group of British tourists made their way down to the pier in the middle of the night, where a Thai long boat was waiting to taxi them out to a naval ship and to safety.
It was on that journey that she really saw the scale of the devastation.
"I think we were all in shock. Nothing seemed real," she said. "The surface of the water was covered with suitcases and clothing and roof tops, and all kinds of debris that was picked up by the tsunami and pushed off the island and into the water."
She spoke to As It Happens two days later from a hotel in Bangkok.
In that interview, she described swimming toward the light, then climbing through debris, all the while saying to herself, "I'm not going to die here. I'm not going to die here."
She says she felt compelled to talk about her experience because so many others never got the chance.
"So many people lost their voice in that moment," she said.
Lang's experiences resonated with her great-uncle, who heard her story and decided to gift her a collection of war medals belonging to his late brother, Paul Martin Roche.
The Second World War bomber pilot was credited with helping to save the French village of Blamont, Lang said.
"It was one of the most precious gifts I've ever gotten in my life."
She later attended a ceremony in Blamont in her great-uncle's honour. She says she may have never learned so much about his story if she didn't share her own.
"They're linked in some way," she said, later adding, "stories can save us."
Lang is now an elementary school teacher in Vancouver. She doesn't tell her students what happened to her, but she tries to instill in them the same kind of determination that helped her stay alive all those years ago.
"I really try to drive those messages home with the kids in my class to never give up, always try your best, and your best will be good enough, whatever happens," she said.
She's come a long way, she said, but she knows she'll never be the same.
"It was a very powerful experience and a major turning point in my life to have gone through that on a Christmas vacation, and to have survived it," she said. "It's forever changed me."
Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press and CBC News. Interview produced by Morgan Passi and Kevin Robertson.
- An earlier version of this story stated that Christine Lang spoke to As It Happens from a hospital bed in Bangkok in 2004. In fact, she spoke to As It Happens from a hotel in Bangkok.Feb 18, 2020 10:16 AM ET