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About Utah: Tsunami is long nightmare for Y. alumnus

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Craig Smith felt the tremor the morning after Christmas and thought little of it. There was no question it was an earthquake, and some folks in the city of Phuket, on the west coast of the southern tip of Thailand, were alarmed, but Craig had lived previously in Peru and Mexico City, where earthquakes happen with regularity, so he shrugged it off. "I was not frightened," he said, "although I did think it strange because Thailand is not near a fault line."

But he was frightened a short while later when the phone rang. He was about to begin LDS Church services in his home, about a mile inland, when he got a call from the J.W. Marriott Hotel, where he is general manager.

"They said the ocean was acting strange," remembered Craig, "and I should get there right away."

The veteran hotel manager — after graduating from Brigham Young University, Craig has taken his family around the world while managing Marriott International properties in Cancun, Mexico City, Peru, the Caribbean and, since a couple of years ago, Phuket (pronounced "Poo-ket") — quickly jumped on his BMW 650 motorcycle and headed for the coast.

By the time he arrived at the hotel, the tsunami had already arrived. A wall of rushing water 30 feet high appeared suddenly and roared across the beach, up a natural embankment of about 20 feet that helped protect much of the hotel, and wiped out the presidential suite while flooding the restaurant, littering the swimming pools with boulders and furniture and depositing a tree of unknown origin.

"I didn't see it happen. I was on the freeway when it hit," said Craig. "Luckily, we had people at the hotel who made good decisions and quickly cleared people off the beach. When a tsunami is coming, the ocean recedes at first and the natural tendency is to walk out to look at it. Basically what happens is then the tide starts rushing in and rising so fast, maybe 30 feet in less than a minute. It's not like in the movies where one wave comes on dry ground. It's just rushing tide. Our lifeguard was tossed 30 feet and our food and beverage director broke his hand, but we didn't lose anybody. We were very lucky."

Smith delivered his eyewitness tsunami report via telephone earlier this week as he was still mopping up from the destruction that swamped southeast Asia following the epic earthquake that hit just off the coast of Indonesia — about 150 miles southwest of Phuket — during the morning hours of Sunday, Dec. 26, 2004.

He reported that he didn't sleep for three days after the wave hit and hasn't slept much since. "It's been a long week and a half," he said. While the hotel he manages was spared serious damage, a sister property three hours north in Khaolak was almost totally destroyed. "People died there," said Craig, who rushed to the scene late that first day. "I saw a car upside down, carried a mile and a half by the water. It was just devastating."

After doing things in Khao Lak he never dreamed he'd have to do — administer first aid, find clothes for people whose shirts and pants were ripped from their bodies, try to reunite separated families, distribute food, identify the dead — he finally got back to his home in Phuket two days later.

"I came in the door and just hugged my wife," he said.

"I've seen a lot of things in my life," he said. "I've felt earthquakes and been through hurricanes in the Caribbean where the cleanup lasted for months. But never have I seen anything so decimating, that took so much life so fast. It's humbling, I can tell you that. It's definitely humbling."

Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com and faxes to 801-237-2527.