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 area...

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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 this week when the tsunami hit. Here are excerpts from his e-mails to friends.

Sunday, Dec. 26, 2004

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 area, 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.”

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I remembered what happened in Hilo 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, 26 Dec. 2004, three 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.

Ko Pepe and Ko Lanta were wiped out. I was going to both on Thursday. 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 loud speakers saying another is coming at 3 p.m. It’s now 2:30.

I’m out of here. More later.

Sunday, Dec. 26, 2004, three hours later

If anybody has heard any news of this let me know what you heard. 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 Bach. The road over there has been closed today, but I have seen total destruction at the three beaches I saw today.

I’m sure some people at the restaurant I was going to eat at must be dead. It’s totally destroyed. And where I always sat was in the front row on the beach. When I went there about two hours after the water, I didn’t see anybody that works there, so I have a bad feeling about it.

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, Dec. 26, 2004, six 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 was 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.

I’m not sure what to do now. Wait for more info and for the phones to start working. I’m praying for no more aftershocks with tsunamis.

I actually feel very blessed as Buddha was definitely watching over me today.

Monday morning, Dec. 27, 2004

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.

Monday night, 27 Dec. 2004

Tonight I went to Patong again. It’s the largest beach and shopping area and where the largest group of tourists are. 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.

The road has four to six inches of sand all the way back three blocks. 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 three meters 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. They hadn’t really talked to anyone as she was staying at the hospital with him. Their hotel was without power.

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.

People were sucked out into the ocean screaming for help and being slammed by cars, boats, etc.

I heard today the death toll in Patong alone is close to 1,800, but it’s only rumors.

Tomorrow my South African friend and I are going to a different hospital in Phuket town, where the nurse said there were many many foreigners who would appreciate a visitor.