Tsunami Hits Sewickley Pennsylvania

Reg Henry
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Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette and a friend of mine. His children and my daughter are friends and former classmates. In fact, I am relatively certain that his son, Jim, who was caught up in the tsunami, was present at a traditional day after Thanksgiving party that I attended in November.

You just never know when a tidal wave of emotion is waiting for you. When your life can be swept away or changed forever. Fortunately for the Henrys, their story has a happy ending.

This is Reg's column as it appeared in today's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

"Phone call from Thailand lifts heavy burden

This is how you know you are overweight: You go to Vietnam for Christmas and revelers in the street think you look like a beardless Santa Claus and one or two touch your stomach for luck in the manner of the lucky Buddha.

(Memo to self: Must lose weight in the New Year.)

Vietnam is not, I grant you, an obvious destination in the festive season, but the Henry family -- father, mother, son -- went there to see daughter Allison, 23, who has spent the past few months in Ho Chi Minh City teaching English and volunteering in an orphanage.

I blame myself for this odd turn of events. I first went to Vietnam 35 years ago as a soldier in the Australian army, and I fell in love with the country despite the tragedy of war. Four years ago I went back and found that peace had swept away the fear but not the beauty and the charm.

As a result of Allison picking up on my enthusiasm, the nightmare of every Pittsburgh parent became personal reality: Our baby moved away, and to old Saigon no less, a spot more outlandish than Cleveland.

At least in Cleveland you are safe from traffic on the sidewalks. That is not necessarily the case in Ho Chi Minh City. The traffic, 85 percent of it motorbikes, is truly crazy.

The most important piece of equipment of any Vietnamese vehicle is the horn, without which driving is impossible. Although everybody is honking at everybody else, and people are often driving on the wrong side of the road, running red lights and attempting insane maneuvers, no one blinks an eyelid and road rage is rare. Many thousands are killed on the roads every year in Vietnam, but the wonder is that every intersection isn't routinely the scene of mass carnage.

On Christmas Eve in Ho Chi Minh City, the normally nutty traffic was multiplied many times over as whole families piled on motorbikes to come downtown. The authorities had strung the main thoroughfares with lights, and a concert was staged in front of the Opera House.

Logically, Christmas shouldn't be a big deal in communist-ruled old Saigon, even with its small but significant Catholic presence. In fact, it was a huge deal. The people, with their cell phones and growing prosperity, were in the mood to be merry.

Perhaps much of it was simply Sparkle Season-Vietnamese style, and perhaps Santa says the only logical thing in the circumstances: "Ho, ho, Ho Chi Minh," but peace on Earth and good will among men were much in evidence.

It seemed like half the kids were dressed in Santa suits. When a grown-up Santa arrived in the lobby of our hotel, he was besieged by kids dressed as angels. And when one set of parents found that their child couldn't have a picture taken with Santa because of the crush, they did the next best thing: They found a pretty blonde American girl -- that would be our Allison -- sitting in the lobby and happily plopped the kid down on her lap for a photo.

When the public concert out in the street finished on the stroke of midnight with a sweet rendition of Silent Night, it seemed the best of Christmases and a Happy New Year seemed assured. What could possibly spoil it?

Yet unimagined by us and millions more, a great cataclysm was building in the bowels of the Earth under the Indian Ocean. By this time, our son Jim, 21, had left to make a side trip to Thailand to see his girlfriend from New York. He was to rejoin us in Hanoi in a few days.

He was in the pool at a resort on the island of Phuket when the first great wave struck. The water swept over the pool, but the two of them got out and managed to have the presence of mind to get to higher ground before two bigger waves arrived with deadlier force. If they had been in their room, they would have died.

As it was, the resort was destroyed and they lost everything except their lives and their bathing suits -- no passports, no money, no proper clothes. I had our first inkling of trouble when I saw a brief bulletin on a TV set at the airport as we prepared to board our flight to Hanoi.

When Jimmy did not arrive on his flight, and the hours wore on and we heard nothing from him, fears that seemed surreal began to seem more and more plausible. A couple of times that terrible night I walked the streets of Hanoi alone and in despair just to get away from the TV and the pictures of carnage from Phuket and elsewhere. The grim absurdity of it was striking: We had always worried about Allison in Saigon and here was Jimmy perhaps lost to a tsunami in Thailand.

Then he called -- on a borrowed cell phone -- and we all cried in our joy and relief to hear that they were safe and unharmed. They would soon return home, their only lasting scars the contemplation of those few minutes when paradise turned into hell.

Now that the dread has lifted from me, although not the sorrow for others, I feel I should rub my own stomach. Surely no Buddha was ever so lucky."