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December 27, 2004

Tsunami survivor describes underwater horror

From: Haaretz, Israel - Dec 27, 2004

By Karen Kaufman

"Our boat was lucky. We saw a cruise liner stuck near the islands with three people dead," said Londoner Naomi Hayim from her boat off the coast of Phuket yesterday.

Hayim, who is deaf, and 13 other people (including another deaf person) were diving at Richelieu Rock, a collection of submerged pinnacles renowned for its visiting whale sharks north of the Surin Islands (about 60 kilometers off the west coast of Phang Nga province) when the tsunami hit.

"We realized that the wave went right over us as we were diving," she said yesterday via SMS messaging on her cell phone. She said the giant wave created a whirlpool with incredibly strong currents. The divers were swept under, completely losing each other and severely hampered by poor visibility. All 14 eventually surfaced and found each other, though an exhausted Hayim could not be certain yesterday how long they had actually been submerged. Luckily all 14 were unharmed.

Hayim, 26, was brought up in London's Maida Vale and is a divemaster and marine biologist. She also studied clown fish and sea anemones at the Institute of Marine Biology in Eilat in 2000. A battle with meningitis when she was just a baby left her deaf. She has never, however, let this stop her from doing anything she put her mind to and graduated from Queen Mary, University of London with a degree in marine and freshwater biology.

Hayim is part of Worldwide Dive and Sail, a company that offers seven-day sailing and diving trips aboard a 21-meter yacht. Her ability to lip-read and sign enables her to teach deaf and hard-of-hearing people how to dive.

The yacht left Phuket on Friday for what was supposed to be a week-long underwater adventure for holiday-makers who joined from Britain, the Netherlands and Austria. There were no Israelis on board - as Naomi put it "I'm the only Jew here."

Yesterday afternoon, the boat and its passengers turned back toward Phuket, but by early evening they were instructed to stay out at sea for fear of aftershocks and because the port at Phuket had been ruined.

Hayim said that they are now waiting to hear from the Thai authorities when they will be able to go back to land. As the trip was due to last a week, the boat still has enough food and equipment for several more days.

Hayim's group was one of several diving excursions that were at sea when the tsunami struck. "We are very lucky that nothing terrible happened," she said last night.

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