"When I looked out at the horizon, it was like the ocean was pulling back, sucking itself in," Victor Israelsson, a 23-year-old University of Miami senior, explains as we look out onto a calm lake at UM.
He tells me that the ocean receded further, revealing the reefs. Fish were jumping, almost dancing atop the water. Bystanders stood there fascinated, taking their video cameras out and documenting the scene as a cloud-like wall began to close in on the beach.
It sounds like a dream, but there was no waking up from the reality of what was about to happen.
On December 26, 2004, the Indian Ocean earthquake triggered a series of tsunamis that killed more than 230,000 people in 14 countries. It was the world's second-most powerful earthquake, hitting a 9.3 on the Richter scale. When it reached Khao Lak, Thailand, then-12-year-old Israelsson was caught in its tumultuous horrors.
To survive a disaster like this, you have to be tough. And when you look at Israelsson, it's clear that he radiates strength. It's not just his sharp blue eyes or physical stature that give it away — it's in his purposeful gaze, and in the way his words emanate certainty and passion.
Israelsson had an older brother, Lucas, and younger sister, Sara, "without the H," he clarifies. He was raised in the suburbs of Sweden, his dad owned his own business, and his mother was a P.E. teacher. The family spent time together playing sports and taking trips to Spain and Italy.
Photo courtesy of Victor Israelsson.
But in 2004, they ventured outside of Europe to vacation in Khao Lak to celebrate Christmas for the first time outside of Sweden.
"I was skeptical about going somewhere tropical," Victor says. But as a mountain lover, he admits he quickly fell for Thailand, and spent the first few days of his trip sunbathing and exploring the beauty of Southeast Asia.
That day, the Israaelson family woke up at their resort just like any other morning. They had breakfast and headed to the beach. Their usual spot was full, so the family ventured further down to find a few chairs with an open area behind them.
"I didn't know what a tsunami was," Israelsson told me. "I don't think a lot of people my age — even adults — knew what it was. Everyone was just on the beach with their video cameras."
Quickly, things changed. On the horizon, it looked as if a wall of "very low-sitting clouds [was] coming towards us."
"Until we realized … it's a wave."
The princess of Thailand, Chulabhorn Walailak, was staying just a few miles down the beach, so military boats were everywhere. As one boat headed towards the wave, it flipped the ship completely over. A huge boat, in an instant, completely destroyed.
By the time Israelsson realized the power of the wave, it was already too late.
Panic began to take over. His mother immediately grabbed hold of his sister. The family ran in opposite directions. They escaped down a hill, then heard a sound so loud it resembled a train or a plane coming at you.
Then the wave hit.
Israelsson was sucked under the water. He stood after a few seconds of being submerged and started screaming. Just as quickly as he could stand, he was knocked down into the water again. But he didn't surrender.
"At this point, it's all survival," he remembers.
Bricks, cars, and everything else the wave took with it struck him as he was thrown back and forth.
"When people ask me how it felt, I just say, 'imagine being thrown into a washing machine and someone pressing on for 10-15 minutes.'"
As the flood began to slow and Israelsson was able to get his head out of the water, he saw complete chaos. He clutched some wood near a tree and sat down. Too weak to cry, he sat in silence, observing the destruction with adolescent eyes.
He recalls the moment when he was finally able to regain his voice. He began to yell for his mother in Swedish. A Swedish woman understood his cries and came to his rescue, but it wasn't his mother.
A pickup truck arrived and they jumped onto it with other wounded survivors of what had just been one of the deadliest tsunamis in history of the world. They headed towards the mountains where there was a base camp. There, Israelsson met a Dutch girl around the same age as his sister, and exchanged a few words in English with her before giving into his exhaustion and falling asleep.
In the middle of the night, screams awoke Israelsson. Rumors of another wave were sending panic throughout the area. Even though they were too far up the mountain to realistically be hit by another wave, people were traumatized and thinking irrationally, so they began to run far up into the jungle.
"There were insects, traps, I got tangled in all types of shit," Israelsson said. "And we spent a couple of hours up there in complete darkness."
When the group realized nothing was happening, they began to walk back down again. Still dark, ambulances started to arrive, and Israelsson was sent to a local hospital.
"The chaos at the hospital was like out of a movie," Israelsson said. In fact, The Impossible, a movie about the tsunami, rung true for him. "I mean, it's Hollywood, but the experience is a good reflection of what happened. They showed the exact same hospital that I went to. It's very accurate."
With limited space at the hospital, injuries like lost limbs took first priority, so doctors simply put some alcohol in Israelsson's wounds and left him to sit on the floor, waiting, hoping. He then heard that there was a Swedish section at the hospital. Completely alone, he found this section and met a family that he remains close with to this day.
It had been about a day and a half since the tsunami, and the world had learned of the disaster. Back home in Sweden, Israelsson's family had congregated together. But at 12, he couldn't remember any number from the top of his head, except, like any true preteen, his best friend Anton's. He called to let him know he had survived.
But his condition had worsened. His wounds were infected and he couldn't walk on his own. Through clouded eyes, he recognized a man who sold him and his father T-shirts on the beach earlier in the trip. The man told Israelsson, "I've seen your dad. He's here." With newfound hope, he checked the list of people registered at the hospital, but didn't find his dad's name. He never saw the man again, and his father was nowhere to be found. "I hated this man for giving me hope, for telling me my father was alive."
Buses began to take people to the airport in Phuket, but they were only taking families traveling together. The family Israelsson had met earlier at the hospital took him as their son, resolving to not leave without him. Without passports and at the epicenter of complete madness in the airport, Israelsson obtained a fake identification card stating he was a member of the family, and they all boarded a flight headed to Finland.
Photo courtesy of Victor Israelsson.
"People on their way to vacation saw us all busted up and looked at us like we were aliens," Victor explains. Once on the plane, he was lucky enough to have his own nurse the whole way. But he was weak, his lungs were full of water, and his fever was climbing.
After landing in Helsingfors, Finland, an ambulance took Israelsson away immediately, and he finally received real medical care for the first time. When relatives discovered he was in Finland, his aunt's fiancé, Morgan — whom he'd only met a few times prior — immediately agreed to go see Victor. It was the first familiar face Israelsson had seen since the tsunami, his first sign of relief.
As his body began to recover, he returned home to Stockholm, where he spent a night at the children's hospital. On New Year's Eve, he finally returned to his home, the place he and his family had left just nine days before.
Israelsson remembers climbing into his parents' bed and curling up, laying motionless. He remained in a state of catatonic shock, not speaking to anybody for days. His family was still lost, and after two to three weeks of silence, he began to realize that he may never see them again.
"600 people dead in natural disaster in Southeast Asia," the headlines immediately following the tsunami read. But in reality, more than 250,000 people had died. Four hundred of those people were Swedish. And four of them were Israelsson's family members.
Morgan and Israelsson's aunt Carina moved into his childhood home. He didn't know it then, but this was the best thing that could have happened. He kept his same friends, attended the same school, and remained as comfortable as he possibly could.
But over the next four months, Israelsson received four separate knocks his door. Each time, it was police officers notifying him that a body of one of his family members had been found. It's a knock that would be paralyzing to hear once in your life, and he had to experience it four times.
"I wouldn't wish it upon my worst enemy," he said.
"I had a great life with them," Israelsson said of Carina and Morgan. "I couldn't have asked for anything more after that."
He went on to flourish in high school, played pro soccer, and traveled the world. "I like living life, life is good."
Photo courtesy of Victor Israelsson
"I just know my life would be totally different," Israelsson said. "But they didn't survive. I can only live my life like it is now."
He will admit he has been shaped in one crucial way.
"Very few things get to me," he says. He talks about how people at UM will sometimes go crazy about parking ticket or even cry over a test grade, but there are so many worse things in life. What he's been through has helped put everything into perspective. "There are people dying every day. I'm just happy to be alive."
Israelsson's maturity is unparalleled. "I never compare sorrows. I never regret anything I didn't have control over." And that includes his family's trip to Thailand, he said.
And he is adamant that he won't let loss dictate his entire future.
"Just because you lose somebody doesn't mean your life ends. There is still so much out there that can bring you happiness. There's so much in life that's awesome, and there are so many things I want to see and do."
In the near future, Israelsson is looking for jobs in the States. His dream job is to be a global marketing director for a company such Adidas, Nike, or Puma, but first he hopes to attend graduate school in Oregon. He'll settle for "plan B" if that doesn't work: a summer living in the Swiss Alps.
"I'm not strong. I'm just living. It's the only option I have. I lost everybody I had, but I can't lay on the floor and have people feel sorry for me. I would never feel sorry for myself."
Mia Rafowitz is a senior at the University of Miami and the editor of UMiami's The Rival. She's studying advertising and exercise physiology.