Robert Stenehjem grew up in West Seattle and graduated from West Seattle High School in 1965. He is a merchant seaman who was on vacation on Phuket Island in Thailand when the tsunami hit. Here are excerpts from e-mails to friends.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Robert Stenehjem grew up in West Seattle and graduated from West Seattle High School in 1965. He is a merchant seaman who was on vacation on Phuket Island in Thailand when the tsunami hit. Here are excerpts from e-mails to friends.


Sunday, 26 December


The weirdest thing just happened. I was eating breakfast at a restaurant about a block from the beach. I was about halfway through when I noticed a major exodus from the beach, a major traffic flow of bikes going full speed ahead and cars also.


Then everybody in the restaurant ran out and I was alone with one panic-stricken waitress, who in broken English said, “Leave now. Big wave coming.”


I remembered what happened in Hilo [Hawaii] in 1960 when people were warned of a big tsunami and everyone went to the beach for a looky-loo and several hundred people were killed.


So here I am at high ground, and the owner of this Internet cafe left me in charge. Nobody here anyway, and he went to even higher ground to see what he could see.


There has been about a dozen police and emergency vehicles screaming towards the beach. It’s a party-like situation right now as people are everywhere on the streets.


The owner just came back in major panic and said water was rushing up the street. More later, as I’m heading out to watch.


Sunday, 3 hours later


Wow, this is unbelievable. This island has been wiped out. It’s only divine intervention that I’m alive. I was on my way to my favorite restaurant on Kata beach, but on the way I went by this other one I really like and stopped there instead. Well, the one I was on the way to was totally wiped out.


There is mass destruction at all the beaches, overturned cars. All hotels and businesses on the beach and for a block away are totally wiped out. There are cars overturned with motorcycles stuck under them.


Not sure how many dead. The news is sporadic. I watched a little but it’s in Thai.


Now not even sure if the hotel I booked is standing as it’s right on the water. I went to my travel agent, who I’ve known for years, and her shop is totally destroyed. I am praying she is OK.


Have to run as I am close to beach and police just came by with loudspeakers saying another is coming at 3 p.m. It’s now 2:30.


Sunday, 3 hours later


The rumors here are changing hourly.


I’ve heard 21 people dead here on the two beaches closest to me, Kata and Karon, and then I heard over 100 at Patong Beach.


One guy I talked to was on Kata Beach when it hit. He said all of a sudden all the water left the bay, and all the boats — maybe 40 — all laid over on their sides, as all the water was gone. This guy knew what was coming and he grabbed his wife and ran like hell for the hill behind the restaurant. He was freaked out when I talked to him. His hotel was destroyed as are all the hotels on the beaches and that’s many, many. I don’t know where all these displaced people will go.


Most everything is closed, but a lot of bars are open.


There was supposed to be another wave, and everybody was on high ground at the great lookout spots waiting. I waited three hours and gave up.


Sunday, 6 hours later


It’s late here after a very stressful day. I went to the Patong Beach hospital about five miles away to meet some friends. It was the worst damage on the island, with many dead. I went to the rear of the complex and noticed a ambulance where they were loading two bodies. I walked into the hospital and there were 30 to 40 bodies on the floor with nothing covering them up. It was quite a shock, to say the least.


So I went back out to wait for my friends to show. We found a restaurant open, and they had CNN in English on TV. They said 168 dead in Thailand. Well, I have seen at least 80, and a medical person at the hospital said bodies were sucked out to sea and will be washing up for days.


People are walking around like zombies, myself included. I hope I can sleep, as the visions from the hospital are very haunting.


Yesterday morning


There are several of my friends unaccounted for. One friend was on a diving trip, and he is one of the 40 divers missing. Doesn’t look good.


Last night

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Tonight I went to Patong again. It’s the largest beach and shopping area and where the largest group of tourists is. It’s about a mile long and four blocks deep and full of big stores and small shops. Big hotels. The Sheraton and everything — and I mean everything — is destroyed.


There must have been 40 to 50 cars pushed through hotel lobbies, into department stores, piled up on top of boats, motorcycles and refrigerators. There are huge 120-foot boats up by the street and several smaller 30- to 40-footers on the road.


That’s where 100 or maybe even 300 to 400 people were killed. In the nine years I’ve been coming here I’ve never seen less than 200 to 300 people walking on the street.


The water surged up for four blocks about 3 meters [almost 10 feet] high. I really can’t believe anyone who was on that street survived.


I went to the Patong hospital with a friend from South Africa, and we went in and asked if there were any foreigners we could help in any way. The nurses were very glad we came.


We visited about six rooms and heard some scary — and very sad — stories.


The first room we went in was a young Swedish man with a major cut all the way down his leg. His Thai wife was sitting next to him with a large bandage on her chin. We asked him how he was doing, and he said that this was nothing because they had lost their 3-month-old daughter. Just washed away. The woman just started crying uncontrollably. It was heart wrenching. We gave them a hug, and they were very appreciative that we came by.


Next we visited a couple from Germany who were swimming in Kamala Bay, north of Patong. They both got smashed up on the beach and then dragged way out and lost sight of each other. His legs were really mangled up from the coral, and she had two black eyes and hands all cut up. They were washed out at 10 a.m., and it wasn’t until 10 p.m. that she found him in the hospital. She saw his name posted outside in the tent set up for people looking for family and friends. They both started crying when they were telling the story.


The next room was a black man and his wife from Norway. They were in a bar across the street from Patong Beach, way back in a hotel lobby, when the huge wave roared through. She was slammed into something — not sure what — and got 45 stitches on the right cheek of her bum and down her leg. She was standing, as she said she could not sit down.


He was bruised all over. He said there was a man sitting next to him in the bar and when the water hit the man got caught between the bar and a big beach chair. The man was screaming for help and had his arms around his wife and a pole.


Then the water sucked out and the black man never saw that guy again.


Today


Greetings, I had a very rewarding but very sad day today. At the Patong hospital last night they said there was a lot of injured foreigners so I started to go there on my motorbike. But I passed the Bangkok Phuket International Hospital and decided to pull in there to see if they needed any help.


The lobby was chaos. I went up to a long table full of phones and people and asked what they needed. I had planned on just visiting foreigners, but the people at the table looked majorly overwhelemed. The lady asked what languages I spoke, and I told her a little Spanish, fairly good American Sign Language and English. She said sit right here and answer phones.


I had a list of 575 people who were injured. They were listed by country. I also had a list of hundreds missing, and there is a whole wall full of photos of entire families, people from all over the world who are missing and most likely dead. The list of the dead was at another table.


So I answered the phone a few times and looked up names of the people the callers were looking for. None of the people they were looking for were there. I gave them numbers of other hospitals.


I met four or five other volunteers at my table: a man from Germany, a Swiss woman, an English woman, a Swedish man.


A man from the Kuwait consulate office in Bangkok and another from Bahrain’s were looking for anybody from their countries. They didn’t know where all the hospitals were so I told them I was going to the Patong Hospital at 6:30 to meet my South African friend and that I would check the list of paitients and their huge list of dead for any of their countryman.


It turned out that there weren’t any at Patong, but there were about 65 unknown dead. The list of the dead there was 160 names with countries listed. Two Americans, five Canadians, most from Europe and many Thais.


After two hours at the Bangkok Phuket International Hospital I was bored as not many people were calling. Then I noticed a woman in her mid 30s who had been sitting with three kids in their teens. One daughter was in a wheel chair with a very bloody bandage on a large leg wound. The mother was pacing around, and I could tell she was freaking out.


Then she came up to the table and sort of lost it. Screaming, she said she needed someone to change the bandages on her daughters leg. A hospital woman said the mother still had to deal with her consular. Then the mother freaked out big time.


So I got up and asked her to sit down with me and explain exactly what she needed. She said she was Swedish, her children were English and the whole family was washed out to sea about a two-hour drive north of Phuket near Koh Lak Park. Her husband had drowned; they found his body last night. They were staying on the beach in a bungalow that was sucked out to sea.


They only had the clothes on their backs. She said the Swedish officials were telling her she had to deal with the English. Her daughter needed help, and nobody would give it. I calmed her down, got her some ice water and told her to sit with her kids. I told her I would do her yelling for her and that she needed to stay calm.


There was a embassy phone list, and I called the English consulate and told them the story. They sent a very nice woman from the office in Bangkok who was at another hospital. She was very helpful and said she would take care of all the passport issues for both countries.


So that made my day right there. It was still so very sad as her kids had the thousand-yard stare. In major shock.


I went back to my table and looked at the patient list and wrote down room numbers to see what any of them needed.


One room I visited had a woman lying in bed, a daughter all bandaged up on a cot and a son in a cast on another bed. They were from Norway, and it was the girl’s 13th birthday. I asked them where they had been. Kamala Bay north of Patong, walking on the beach when they were slammed up on the rocks and then dragged out to sea. They still have not found their father. Mom started crying but neither children did. They looked numb. They have family members arriving tonight to take them home.


I had seen a pizza place close by so I asked if they would like one. The birthday girl smiled. So I went and got them a big pizza and ate it with them.


In the next room there was four people from Switzerland. Dad and Mom were in their 70s, and their son and his wife were maybe in their 40s. The younger wife was hurt the worst. She had had surgery on her legs. Her husband was bandaged up and bruised, as were Mom and Dad. They were eating breakfast a block off Patong beach when the first wave hit and shoved them through the restaurant into the street. Then they were dragged down the street when the wave went back out to sea. Then the big one came in.


They were all split up, swimming and trying to grab onto anything. The older man grabbed something but was shocked by some electric wires. He still held on, and Mom grabbed him. Their children were slammed about a block down the street, banging into floating cars and motor bikes.


The son saw a Thai boat, jumped onto it and floated off. When the water receded they all found each other and they carried the daughter down the street and waited for help. An American doctor drove up in a huge jeep and took them to the hospital.


I asked what they needed. All their passports and money was in a safe in their hotel room, which luckily was on the second floor.


I told them I would go and check it out. I found the hotel, and it was in the major damage zone. There was a guard at the makeshift gate, several overturned cars on the grounds plus furniture, etc. Totally full of junk. I found out all the safes were put in one room with a guard in front. We called the hospital and the Swiss family was very glad to know all their stuff was OK.


At the Patong hospital there’s a huge tent set up with hundreds of phones to call anywhere in the world for free. A young couple from Germany came up to me and asked if I knew where they could help. They were pre-med students and had just flown in from Germany. They had not even found a room yet, and the first place they went was somewhere to help. I suggested Phuket International Hospital as I had heard earlier they needed blood badly but didn’t have enough trained people to draw it.


They said they could do that so I got them the address and off they went.


I guess disasters bring out the best in people, and I saw it all day. I saw 40 to 50 tourists picking up the carnage and making piles of broken up furniture and destroyed boats. There are tourists on the streets collecting money and clothes.


I fly out to Bangkok on Thursday. Now I almost wish I was staying as these people in the hospitals were so glad just to talk with someone. I gave out my card to most of them, and I think I have some e-mail friends for life.