Couple remember tsunami horror that changed life forever
ELISABETH Auffenberg and Adam Smith will never know why they were both spared in the Boxing Day tsunami that claimed 230,000 lives in south-east Asia 10 years ago.
But the Peregian Beach couple do have a theory or two.
"The only conclusion is that we are still on a mission. We still have something to do here, that we are needed in some way," Elisabeth said.
"The other explanation and I know it sounds corny, is that maybe we were meant to be together, maybe we were meant to have more time together.
"And we both took action. We both didn't give up."
Adam, 59, and Elisabeth, 50, were surfing off Ahangama, on the southern tip of Sri Lanka, when the giant wall of water hit at 9.10am on December 26, 2004.
Elisabeth, a learner, was about 30m offshore and Adam was about 700m offshore with five more experienced surfers when the sea level began to rise and waves started to roll in.
Concerned about their belongings on the beach, and oblivious to the imminent danger, Elizabeth paddled in, a move which may have saved her life.
"I managed to reach a structure at the same time the top of the wave crashed on the structure," she said.
The wave washed her into the bottom floor of a 300-year-old hotel building.
As submerged objects smashed into her and shards of broken glass 50cm long swirled dangerously close, Elisabeth, one arm already cut to the bone, tried to navigate along the walls towards an exit and was washed out on to a tree.
"I was hanging with one good arm out of a tree. The other arm was cut so badly I could see the flesh hanging down and the bone - nature's warning sign, the red and white."
When the water subsided, she was rescued by two people and taken to the upper floor of the old hotel, the only building still standing on the beach, for first aid. She assumed Adam was dead, and then he walked in "like a ghost" with his surfboard under his arm.
An experienced surfer, Adam had recognised the warning signs of tsunami and had headed in as fast as he could, urging his companions to do the same as the sea retreated in readiness for what they believed would be a second wave.
"Adam told them to run, run. He just ran to terra firma. At that stage, he also had to navigate the sea floor. He recalls the sea creatures gasping for air. He was trying to get to land. They were trying to get to water. It was a big meeting."
With a body hardened by years of bricklaying and surfing, and driven by sheer determination and adrenalin, Adam carried Elisabeth, "bloody like a pig" out to higher ground.
"He was scared. We were all scared. He saw train lines, with heavy sleepers, hanging like spaghetti in the palm trees."
They made their way over the next three days to Colombo, where Elisabeth could receive proper treatment to her seriously infected wounds. It was only there that they learned exactly what had happened.
"We really weren't sure what else was standing, and what damage had happened to the rest of the world," she said.
"The full extent only occurred to us when we were watching television. There was no communication. People couldn't get in touch with their relatives. It took a while for the full extent to trickle through to the cities."
Ten years later, Elisabeth paints a vivid picture of the disaster but she described her memory as "snapshots."
"There are 'black spots'. I have no idea of the time, how long it took for Adam to find me in the hotel," she said.
They have both been back to Sri Lanka and to Banda Aceh, near the epicentre of the earthquake that caused the tsunami. Adam returns once or twice a year, for the surf and the people.
"Adam knows people who are so much worse off, who have experienced so much of the horror Adam and I have experienced, for example, the sole survivor of a family of 28."
"He loves talking to them. He's impressed at how they carry on with their lives without being victims. They just try and work in their dedicated jobs and carry on."
Although she is at peace with the ocean now, Elisabeth was fearful of it in the years after the tsunami.
"For the first few years, I would not go near a small beach break, but I like the water. I never took to surfing though, I never really tried it out."
To this day, the approach of Boxing Day brings on feelings of apprehension for both her and Adam.
They were offered counselling but declined, dealing with their memories in their own ways.
"During my medical treatment, I could relive a lot of nightmares and things, during the anaesthetic. I had a way to release it," Elisabeth said.
"Adam was trying to release it through talking to people but I don't think he's done with it yet."
She said one of the "greatest teachings" of the tsunami for her was to always be willing to offer someone help.
"I was rescued from the tree by two people. If they had ignored me, I wouldn't be here, definitely not. If someone needs your help, have a good look," she said.
She said the tsunami had not changed their lives - she works as a professional translator, Adam as a bricklayer, and they live in the same house he has owned since 1978 - but it has changed the way they approach life.
"We carry on as before but with a lot more depth and way more gratitude and thoughtfulness for everything," Elisabeth said.
"Honestly, as human beings, especially here in the first world, we take things for granted because we are bombarded with consumerism.
"Even if people here are not well off, we have so many things. People are not starving in Australia. If we do complain, it's first world worries.
"I thought I was already an aware and mindful person but it's changed all that."
Since the tsunami, Adam has lost close friends and relatives in other circumstances and Elisabeth has survived cancer, further glimpses of the fragility of life.
"I think we've had wake up calls that make us remember how precious a relationship is because the other person can be taken away so quickly."
The couple consider Boxing Day a defining moment in their life as a couple.
Elisabeth calls it their "birthday" and is considering having a few drinks to mark the occasion.
"In a way, I think of 'us' as being 10 years old," she said.