The early morning sun had brightened a pale blue, cloudless sky over the small beach community of Mon Ikeun, a small fishing village in the Muslim province of Aceh, on the northwestern coast of Sumatra in Indonesia. David Lines, a trim clean-shaven 40-year-old Australian, his Indonesian wife, Nurma, and their 3-year-old son were up early preparing for a day at the beach. It was Sunday, December 26, 2004. The new day was starting out as any other in paradise.
The fantastic waves in Aceh had drawn David, an avid surfer, to the area. After marrying Nurma, a local woman, six years ago, he built his dream house, constructed of concrete and cinderblock with a tiled roof, near the beach. The Lines lived six months of the year in Mon Ikeun and the other six months in Australia, where David is a partner/owner of The Marquee Venue, a hip-hop nightclub in Sydney. By all measures, he considered himself blessed with a good life!
Mon Ikeun and the other communities are located on or near the beautiful beaches of Lhok Nga, a middle-class district and recreational area of more than 20,000 residents just twenty kilometers southwest of the provincial capital of Banda Aceh.
These communities enjoyed the area’s only golf course and tennis and volleyball courts. The white sandy beaches and clear blue waters of Lhok Nga made it the perfect spot for surfing, swimming, snorkeling, fishing, and boating. Every Sunday, the beaches were filled with the citizens of Lhok Nga and the residents of Banda Aceh. They would spend the afternoon and evening on the beach eating barbecue fish and drinking coffee and tea.
Being near the equator, weather in the area was normally in the mid-eighties, sometimes in the nineties. The rainy season, when heavy storms usually occur in the afternoon or at night, is between November and April. As a result of the tropical climate, local vegetation is dense and quite lush. Here, one can find a wide variety of tropical trees and plants.
Before the beaches were filled with people that Sunday, local residents felt a severe rumbling that lasted almost five minutes. This devastating earthquake, with a magnitude of 9.0 on the Richter scale, struck at 7:58 a.m.
David reacted instantly, calling to his wife to grab their son, a few belongings, and to get into the car. Before he joined his family, however, he had to get a quick glimpse of the ocean. From an open space near his home, about ten minutes after the quake, he could see the water receding, revealing a normally submerged coral reef. Moments later, he heard three loud booms from the ocean and saw a large wave forming. He knew instinctively they were in imminent danger from the water. He didn’t know how devastating it would be.
David raced back to the house and jumped in the car, where his wife and son were anxiously waiting. After having to drive toward the wave, they turned and headed northeast on the main road to Banda Aceh. On the way, he picked up people walking along the road and yelled warnings to others to get to higher ground as soon as possible. As he briefly looked back at the beach, he could see a wave rushing through the trees.
As he drove inland the road; ahead, was congested with cars, trucks, motorbikes, and pedestrians fleeing the area, and in some places the road was blocked by debris from collapsed buildings.
Within minutes, David was stuck in traffic. He quickly decided to take a detour toward a volleyball court at the base of a nearby hill. “I wanted to save the car; I knew this was big, but I didn’t know how big.” After parking his car and making sure all his passengers were out, he shouted to others fleeing the disaster to follow him as he and his family headed for the top of the hill.
The first giant fifty-foot wave came ashore just as David and almost a hundred people reached the safety of the summit. “Just as we got to the top of the hill, we were surrounded by raging water,” David remembered. “There were multiple waves, up to ten, and then another series of two. The waters were rising, trees below were falling down and debris was getting really thick and moving fast. It was like a logging camp gone mad.”
Roiling black water surged across the entire landscape right up to the mountains in the distance. Standing on their hilltop sanctuary, feeling the ground shake from continuous aftershocks, the survivors watched the raging water violently rush at them from all sides. Men, women, and children cried and prayed aloud to Allah.
The waves crushed almost everything that remained below as the water pushed through the once peaceful valley toward the city of Banda Aceh. Later, the debris-filled water made a slow withdrawal to the ocean.
“After an hour the water slowed down to a crawl and we began to notice people. I’m jumping in the water with an inner tube and saving them. The problem with saving people at that stage wasn’t the water, because I’m a surfer. The problem was getting through the debris, which was hundreds of meters wide: wood with nails in it, corrugated iron, refrigerators, dead animals, but no dead bodies at that stage,” David explained.
David’s family and the others who’d escaped remained on the hilltop for the rest of the day and night. By the next morning the water had receded, and they could all see for the first time the totality of destruction that the tsunami had caused. The communities of Lhok Nga had disappeared along with most of the inhabitants and all of the homes!
Although he said he didn’t see any dead bodies during the tsunami, David added, “I’ve seen about 500 bodies since then. My wife’s family lost thirty of its members. Eighty percent of my village is dead and one hundred percent of the homes are wiped out...gone!”