Volume 74, Number 35 | January 05 - 11, 2005


Unloading donated supplies at the recently opened Canal St. tsunami relief center on Monday.

Surviving the tsunami; helping out the survivors

By Ronda Kaysen

At first he thought something was wrong with the hotel’s plumbing. Michael Lyons, 38, who was vacationing in Phuket, Thailand, heard someone outside shout, “Hurry, hurry, hurry!” as they dashed up the hill alongside his room. Confused, he looked down at the hotel cafe he had eaten at a few moments earlier to see it completely submerged in water.

“It was so strange. There was no wind. You really expect big waves with a storm of some sort,” he told The Villager in a telephone interview from his Lower East Side apartment. “It was a beautiful big sky that morning.”

A few minutes later and standing in the hotel lobby overlooking Patong Bay, he watched the waves pound the shore. “The waves came in succession,” he said. “We were watching the water smash into the beach and destroy a very commercialized and built-up beachfront full of restaurants and bars and discos and T-shirt shops. All of that stuff was utterly destroyed.”

With the U.S. State Department’s recent announcement of 15 confirmed American deaths and as many as 5,000 Americans missing from the 9.0 earthquake beneath Sumatra, Indonesia, and the ensuing tsunamis that swept across the oceans of South and Southeast Asia, leveling coastal areas in at least 11 countries and killing as many as 155,000 people, Lyons is among the lucky survivors.

Although Lyons sent his friends and family an e-mail message immediately after the wave struck, no one heard from him again until two days later when his sister located him at a hotel in Bangkok. “He was listed as missing,” Alex Emanuel Grossman, 38, Lyons’ best friend since college, said in a telephone interview. “As we were hearing reports of disease and the aftershocks — I don’t think he had any idea that we were worrying — it was just trying not to fear the worst.”

Lyons, an English-as-a-Second-Language teacher, had thought his e-mail — he walked into town to locate a functioning Internet cafe to write it — would settle his family’s nerves. “I wrote them, they woke up, got the e-mail, didn’t understand the significance of it, turned on the TV and then they worried. It didn’t even work.”

In town, he found a mangled city. “The force of the water had pushed entire buses through storefront windows,” he said. “The water would push things around until it couldn’t push them anymore. You saw in a corner, you’d see five cars piled up into that corner. I was walking around. Everybody was walking around like ‘What happened here?’ ”

After getting a flight out of Bangkok two days later, Lyons arrived unscathed at J.F.K. Airport. He stayed up late into the night with Grossman, also a Lower East Side resident. “He looked like someone who’d seen a ghost,” said Grossman, an actor and musician. “We proceeded to stay up really late that night. I think he wanted to let off steam. He said cold dreary New York City never looked so good.”

Wozzy Dias, an East Village resident and native of Sri Lanka, is hoping to leave cold and dreary New York as soon as possible and head for South Asia. The death toll in Sri Lanka alone is nearing 30,000.

He first learned about the tsunami that devastated his native island when his brother called him from California on Dec. 26. The next day, he was making arrangements to return to the island he’d left behind 27 years ago.

“I want to shoot [pictures] and I want to write and I want to try to find some meaning out of this whole tragedy,” he said recently. Dias, 44, a freelance photographer who has worked for The Villager, hopes to find a sponsoring news agency for his trip, which may last as long as a year. He broke his arm in October while photographing a wedding at the South St. Seaport and does not expect to be able to assist in the relief efforts.

His immediate family has all left Sri Lanka — his parents live in England and his four siblings are scattered across the United States and England — but some of his extended family still live in the small island country. His uncle, Charitha Ranasinghz, was on the beach for a morning swim when the first giant wave struck. He watched the ocean pull back from the shore, exposing the base of the coral reef. In all his 70-plus years, he had never seen such a thing. “The ocean just tanked out,” said Dias. When the ocean came marching back a giant wall of water, Ranasinghz turned and fled. All of Dias’ family is accounted for.

Dias grew up in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and spent his weekends on the shore. Not much of a swimmer (“It’s pretty rough ocean, not much protection”) he preferred to watch his father swim to the coral reef offshore. During the week, he rode his bike along the railroad track to his math tutor. The track, a few steps from the ocean, was shattered by the tidal waves. His parents, both in their 80s and retired in England, still have a home in Colombo, but no immediate plans to return. “They’re shocked and saddened,” he said.

Dias is not alone in his desire to be part of what is shaping up to be the world’s most devastating natural disaster. Nick Spanos, founder of the Soho real estate firm Bapple, has set up a makeshift tsunami relief center at the west end of Canal St. Working in conjunction with the American Sri Lanka Buddhist Association in Queens, since Sunday Spanos has been collecting medical supplies and routing cash donations for the victims in South and Southeast Asia.

“I watched TV and I saw all these images and I wanted to help out,” he said. “I didn’t want to feel like my hands were tied behind the TV.” On Sunday, Spanos transported 79 boxes of medical supplies to a doctor heading to Sri Lanka. The Buddhist Association has filled five 20-foot containers for ship transport to Asia since it began its efforts, Spanos says.

Spanos plans to keep the center open as long as necessary and stay involved “until I find someone better than me to run it.” Volunteers, however, have been in short supply at his new center. On Sunday, 30 volunteers turned out to help. But by Monday there were only five. “The word didn’t really get out,” he said. Some of the donations have been surprising: one person offered to donate a cargo airplane.

Last Sunday, David Schwartz, who works in advertising, launched two similar donation centers of his own at two Manhattan Mini Storage centers. One is on W. 17th St. in Chelsea and the other is on W. 58th St. in Midtown. On Tuesday, he partnered with Spanos, dubbing the Canal St. location their operation’s headquarters. “I personally was very affected by [the tsunami.] I feel that we need to help,” Schwartz said. “It feels like another 9/11.” Schwartz says he has been receiving an e-mail an hour from people interested in lending a hand. But he hopes that in the coming days, more donations will trickle into the centers. “We need to get the word out,” he said.

Spanos worries the outpouring of support for the tsunami’s victims will wane long before the crisis is over. “They’re going to be affected for years,” he said. “Everyone should do what they can. You’ve got 150,000 dead. Even one dead person should move you to do something.”

People interested in making medical donations can leave drop-offs at 528 Canal St. at Washington St. near the West Side Highway anytime between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m., seven days a week; 520 W 17th St. at 11th Ave. between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m., seven days a week; or 600 W. 58th St. at 12th Ave. between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m., seven days a week. Call 646-879-5357 or e-mail srilankanyc@yahoo.com for pickup and volunteer information. Cash donations to build orphanages and deliver food to Sri Lanka should be made to www.helplanka.org or www.aidlanka.org.

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