By W.F. Meyer
Bobby Darden and I were surf casting off a wide strip of sand facing the Atlantic side of the Cape Hatteras Seashore of the Outer Banks. Round Hammock Bay was directly behind us just on the other side of route 12. It was warm. There was a stiff breeze coming off the ocean and the fishing was pretty good. I caught a Spanish Mackerel and a Sea Trout, and Bobby already caught a couple of Bonito’s and was in the process of reeling in another catch when an enormous blinding white light streaked soundlessly across the southern hemisphere and disappeared over the horizon deep into the Atlantic ocean.
I stopped in the middle of tying on a new lure and stared. I’m sure other fishermen and beach goers were doing the same. Bobby turned to me eyes big as saucers, slack-jawed and said, “What the hell was that?”
I returned his stare, shrugged and started to say, “Perhaps it was…” when the ground shook beneath us. We both looked down at the earth as if it were a living thing undulating under our feet. A deafening boom ripped the air and hot wind blasted across the ocean and beach and knocked us flat on our backs, our fishing rods and creels went flying. We scrambled to our feet; Bobby was as wild-eyed as I’m sure I was.
“What the hell’s going on? What was that?” Bobby said. It was then we noticed that where moments before there was crashing surf, there was now just wet sand, shells rock and ocean vegetation exposed to direct sunlight, as far as we could see.
Bobby and I slowly turned to each other, the dawning horror etched on our faces…Tsunami!
I stood rooted to the ground not knowing what to do. Bobby bolted for his truck parked on the side of the road. All I could think was, ‘He’s leaving without me….he’ll never get off the Outer Banks before that wave hits. He’s doomed…I’m doomed.’
I watched as Bobby tore open the door to his truck jump in, start the engine, tires spewing dirt and gravel as he sped up the road in a vain attempt to outrun the inevitable, leaving me alone on the beach. A strong wind blew my hair across my face, and riffling my shirt like a flag. I looked back to where the ocean used to be. There was a bank of evil looking storm clouds on the horizon, then realized that wasn’t a bank of clouds…it was the ocean. It was a wall of water the height of a mountain range, racing towards me. As the mountainous wall of water approached the coastline, it loomed even larger. A menacing blue-gray wall filled my vision.
I knew I was going to die and there was nothing I could do about it. In a nanosecond the thoughts of would it be painful? Would it hurt? Would I suffer? – flitted through my mind. I was so scared; my stomach felt like it was doing flips and thought I’d lose control of my bowels. I felt infinitesimally small as the killer wave rushed to destroy me.
There was a brief memory of when I was a kid living on Long Island, and how I liked to body surf the waves. While waiting for ‘my wave’ I would dive under others and pop up on the other side of them as they swept onto the beach.
Instinct kicked in. I was going to die regardless. Before I knew what I was doing, my feet were moving and I was running down the beach. I ran to meet the wave, and my destiny. I had to try.
The sloping hard packed sand gave way to looser sand as I ran. I remember having to jump over a small ridge of rocks and vegetation. I thought I saw a shark stranded and thrashing in the sand. I ignored it and ran on.
At the base of the wave, a maelstrom of white water the size of a building raged. I gulped a breath of air and dove low as onrushing whitewater swallowed me.
I was smashed into the ground, and then swept up. Everything went from white to green, to black. I was pummeled and thrown around like a boneless doll. I felt like I was in a washing machine gone berserk threatening to tear me to pieces. I felt large things hitting me – hard. My eyes stung and I clamped them shut, I tried stroking and swimming, I didn’t know which way was up, I flailed as best I could but my efforts were useless. My lungs ached and burned – the pressure on my chest and head was immense. I needed to breathe but knew as soon as I opened my mouth the ocean would rush into my lungs and I would die a searing, struggling death.
The tumbling and pummeling stopped, but it was still dark. I was deep in the water and totally disoriented. I couldn’t hold on any longer. Bubbles of air escaped my lips, my lungs screamed for air. My eyes were open. I was losing the battle to keep my lips clamped shut and saw a silver bubble of precious air escape and float in front of my eyes.
I could see the bubble! The light of the surface was above me. I tried paddling and kicking for the light, but without oxygen to feed my muscles they cramped and every movement was torture. I was going to drown before reaching the surface. I couldn’t hold on any longer. The air began to force its way out of my mouth and through my nose. In a last ditch panic I used all my strength to propel myself upward before I breathed in lungs full of sea water and was finished.
With a last burst, all the air escaped my body and I clenched my teeth and lips against the encroaching salt water. My chest shook with the effort of trying to prevent the involuntary action of my lungs wanting to draw in a breath. My vision began to blacken although my eyes were open, I relaxed my mouth, cold salty water entered – and I broke through the surface.
I paddled weakly and vomited up sea water. I took in heaping gulps of cool ocean air. I made it. I survived the wave.
The sky was a purple-gray color. The sea lunged in enormous gray waves all around me. When I reached the peak of a wave all I could see was water. I’ve been washed out into the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
I laughed in bitter irony. Here I survived the tsunami only to drown in the middle of the ocean when my energy gave out. Should I try to swim? No, it wasn’t a good use of my energy, besides; I didn’t know which way to swim. I tread water for a while and took stock of myself. My shoes were gone, but amazingly my shorts and shirt remained in place. There were several places on my body that hurt and stung. I guessed they were from cuts and abrasions irritated by the salt water. I decided not to look at those injuries. It wouldn’t do me any good anyway. The water was cold. Perhaps I wouldn’t drown. Perhaps the cold would sap my strength and I’d fall asleep and die of exposure. I guess that was better than drowning.
I wondered if Erica and the kids would ever find out about what became of me. Then I wondered if the wave could have reached them. No, couldn’t have. They’re almost 200 miles inland near Raleigh, over 300 feet above sea level. Erica, Shelby and Amanda are safe. They’re just going to have to get used to not having me around. I pictured their smiling faces and I began to cry. I’ll miss them terribly, and I’m sure they’ll miss me. How I wish I could kiss Erica’s full lips one last time and run my hand through her long dark hair and over her body and tell her how much I love her. How I wanted to gather up my beautiful girls and hug them and kiss them and swing them around, their long brown hair wrapping around their faces.
No! I’m not gonna die dammit. I’m gonna live. I’ve got to find a way.
I continued to tread water. I felt renewed, determined. I found my first piece of flotsam a short while later as the waves became less intense. It was a couple of beams with planks nailed to them. I figured the wreckage must be part of some siding from one of the older beach houses. I was thankful to get to hold onto something to give my arms a rest from treading water.
The waves calmed down to a normal one or two foot chop. I floated and bobbed in the water for another length of time when I saw the top of a broken tree bobbing up and down in the water. All that remained was the jagged top; its branches were stripped away leaving only thick ragged stumps where large branches had snapped off. I was floating right toward it as if drawn there. I wondered if it’d be better to cling to the tree or stay with my piece of housing. I figured the tree would be more buoyant and was going to swim to it, but I didn’t have to as my make-shift raft drifted right into it. It was odd that the tree seemed to be bobbing straight up and down in the waves instead of lying over on its side. The root ball must still be intact, holding it vertical.
I gave up my raft and grasped onto one of the branch stumps then wrapped my arms around the bobbing tree trunk. I was able to clamber onto the tree and straddle one of the longer stumps and sit my butt in the crook where the branch joined the trunk. I wrapped my arms and legs around the trunk to ride out the waves until something better floated by.
I began to realize that the tree wasn’t bobbing in the waves, but the waves were washing up against the tree. About that time I noticed that my hips and butt were now out of the water. It was now below the stump I was sitting on, and only my legs dangled in the salty water.
Debris began to appear all around me. There were tons of branches and pieces of trees, planks of wood and even part of a plastic garbage can. They were all floating past me as if with some purpose. The water level continued to drop and now I was completely out of the water. Looking down I could see the ripples of water wrap around the trunk of the tree as it flowed in a definite direction. I guessed it was receding back into the ocean. So I wasn’t out in the middle of the ocean after all. The wave washed inland. The tree I’m clinging to must be across Pemico Sound in one of the preserves or maybe even as far out as Bellhaven. I wondered if Bobby made it.
I clung to the tree as more debris bumped into it, washed around it and continued out to the ocean. Other flotsam like grasses, small branches and vinyl siding wrapped around the tree trunk. As the water rapidly receded, it became apparent I was up a fairly tall tree. Not wanting to be caught high up when the water completely receded, I began to shimmy down the trunk from one branch stump to another until I was about ten feet above the rushing water. I watched warily as other trees floated by, hoping they wouldn’t ram into my tree and knock it over.
The air was warm, but I was shivering. I think it might have been mild shock. I stared down the trunk of the tree fascinated by the receding wreckage choked water. Once I thought I saw a pale form floating among the detritus. It could have been a human body, but I couldn’t be sure. I did see the body of a large animal. It may have been a young cow or a deer, I couldn’t see the head.
Suddenly, the water was gone. What was left was a devastated landscape of flattened trees and large piles of rubble. I shifted my weight and looked around the trunk of the tree to watch the receding water. What I saw froze my soul.
I was up a tree, on a hill. As the water receded, the tops of other hills emerged. There were lakes and ponds of water between the hills. As those lakes and ponds continued to drain back toward the Atlantic coast, the hills grew ever higher. The lakes and ponds gave way to valleys and the hills grew into…mountains.
I stared in utter disbelief. Once the receding water stabilized, I sat 15 feet up a tree on top of a small mountain overlooking a valley several hundred feet below me. Hundreds of feet. I craned my neck around to look inland behind me, and there were even larger mountains in the distance. Where was I?
There were no recognizable buildings or landmarks remaining to suggest where I was. There was nothing but absolute destruction all around me. In a nearby valley, there looked what appeared to be a jumble of cars mixed in with smashed vegetation and parts of homes or buildings, but they were too far away for me to make out any details. I know there are no mountains like this near the coast in Virginia, North or South Carolina. Have I really been swept all the way down to Georgia? Did they have mountains near the coast? I wasn’t sure.
I needed to get out of this tree and find out where I am. I looked around the base of the tree and the wet junk piled around it. I looked for the best place to climb down where I wouldn’t further hurt my already battered body. I clung to the trunk and tried to shimmy down carefully, but the flood and wreckage in it stripped the bark off the tree, leaving slick, pale yellow wood and I slid down falling heavily onto a thick branch and assorted pieces of broken building material. I hit my right leg hard and it hurt. I thought I broke it at first but was thankful when I realized I hadn’t. I was going to have one hell of a bruise to add to the others that peppered my arms, legs and torso. I also managed to punch a small hole in my upper right arm when I landed on a board with a nail sticking out of it.
Not having any shoes on my feet, I had to watch where I stepped. There wasn’t an inch of ground that wasn’t covered in some sort of garbage. I looked for a way to protect my feet so I can pick my way down what was left of this mountain and see if I couldn’t find someone to help me.
I began looking through piles of junk. I came across a piece of heavy blue tarp, with a rope line entangled with it. Frikkin Eureka! I pulled and yanked on the wet mess and was finally able to yank it free from the rest of the pile. I sat on a downed tree trunk and began trying to fashion coverings for my feet.
As I sat there working, out of the corner of my eye I saw white writing on a dark background. There was a sign in the pile where I removed the tarp. I stopped what I was doing and went back to the pile. It was a large wooden sign with white lettering on a brown background. The letter OKY was on the first line and NS below it. I worked on clearing the rubble. I moved branches and other garbage then gripped at the edges of the board and pulled and yanked, then cleared some more then pulled some more. I could see the other end of the board was broken and the end splintered.
I was able to get most of the large board free of the pile and cleared off the mud and grass. I stood back and read
I stood there stunned. The Smoky Mountains? Those are in Tennessee, over 500 miles from the Outer Banks. It can’t be it just can’t be. Some of those mountains are up to 6,000 feet in height. No, no, that couldn’t happen. Didn’t happen. I looked around me in the fading light of the day, across the now treeless and ruined mountain tops. If the wave reached all the way into the Tennessee mountains, then the whole east coast is gone, North Carolina is gone, Raleigh is gone…Erica, Shelby and Amanda…are gone.