The 25th anniversary reunion of the 1994 G-Land, Java tsunami.
At 1.17 am on June 3, 1994 an earthquake registering 7.2 on the Richter scale fractured the Indian Ocean floor, 15 kilometres deep in the Java Trench, Indonesia. It took about 40 minutes for the vibration of energy from this massive displacement of land and water to radiate out and cross 130 kilometres of open sea to reach shore. This means the waves were travelling at about 300 kilometres per hour when they hit the coast.
This kind of wave is called a tsunami; Japanese for ‘Harbour Wave’. A completely different type of wave from other sea waves, which are wind driven and whose limited power plays out mostly on the surface. What’s going on with a tsunami is all happening underwater. They encompass the entire vertical water column, from seabed to surface. A tsunami may not be evident out on the open ocean, as very little appears above the surface, but the depth, width and speed of a tsunami all become apparent when they strike land.
The 1994 East Java tsunami was big enough and fast enough to create what’s described as a 14 metre run-up; which means it would reach almost 50-feet high in places when it hit land. One similarity a tsunami has to wind waves is that given enough time, it will organise itself into sets. There’s usually between three to six waves in a set.
So, at two that night I was fast asleep on a foam mattress, under a mozzie-net, on the timber floor of a bamboo hut, perched about 10 metres up and back from a sandy beach, at the edge of the jungle in G-Land, East Java, where I had arrived that very day to shoot a surf film with pro-surfers Rob Bain, Simon Law, Dog Marsh, Shane Herring and Richie Lovett.
At around 2.05 am I was awakened by a loud sound, which I imagined to be monsoonal rain. I sat up and saw what appeared to be a splash of water at the door of my hut. I jumped up, grabbed my torch and looked out onto the moonlit beach. I was confused to see that it was full tide, when I knew it should have been low. What should have been an expanse of dry reef was under a metre of water.
I stared in disbelief as that entire inexplicable body of water lunged inland as one huge mass. It came in and up at an incredible speed. There was water rushing everywhere, around trees and rocky outcrops, like a flash flood. It wasn’t a frothy, bubbly wave like I was used to, it was solid water like a fast flowing river. It seemed like the whole ocean was behind it, surging inland. The equivalent of six hours of tidal rise in six seconds. I realised it was a tsunami.
The sound of the water moving in and across the land was terrifying; cracking and breaking wood and a crunching mass movement of coarse sand. I had never seen nature unleash such power. I felt minuscule, insignificant, potentially at the very end of my life. A big old, dead, uprooted tree down on the beach – which must have weighed twenty tonnes – was lifted like a matchstick and flicked past the side of my hut. I was at the mercy of whatever was going to happen and felt completely powerless as I watched three more consecutive surges lift the sea level to about 14 metres above, and 200 metres inland from where it should have been. All in a matter of around 30 seconds.
Miraculously, the rapid influx of water stopped dead at the exact level of the floor of my hut. An inconceivably large, flat, brown sea of water extended out as far as I could see into the darkness. I knew one more wave would wash me away. Silence for a moment. Everything stood still. Then it fell, even more quickly than it had risen.
The speed at which that immense body of water rushed back out to sea was extraordinary. The biggest and fastest movement of anything I had ever seen up close. The dark water was streaked with rip-like, white tear marks. I knew that if I took one step forward – out of the door of my hut and into the water – I would be dragged far out into the blackness, likely never to be seen again. At that very moment, some of my friends in G-Land were under water, desperately fighting not to be sucked out to sea; while just across the bay, 223 people were drowning.
In one gigantic sweeping motion, all that water vanished from my sight, leaving behind nothing but dry reef. I stood still for a moment, like a stunned animal frozen in the headlights, staring out into the abyss, trying to process what had just happened. I had no previous experience with anything like this and didn’t know what to expect next. It seemed unlikely that something of this magnitude could just retreat so mercifully.
A terrible inner knowledge of the behaviour of waves churned my stomach. Waves come in sets. Was that the full set? Or just the first wave of many? Perhaps much bigger ones were on the way. Before I had any more time to think, from behind me in the darkness came the first of the desperate cries for help.
I shone my torch over to where Bainy’s hut had been. All I could see was a collapsed thatched roof; the silence was awful and confirmed my worst fear. ‘Well Bainy’s gone…sucked out to sea, I wonder how many more we have lost’. A muffled yelping emerged from underneath the pile of debris that had been Rob’s hut. It grew quickly to a stricken shrieking which I will never forget; like a trapped animal that knows it’s about to be killed, squealing in terror. I imagined him twisting and writhing under the mess of timber, bamboo and straw. He was obviously terrified and fighting for his life. I wanted to find my way inland to safety, but knew I had to get Bainy out first.
Twenty-five years later – a couple of months ago – I received a call from Bainy “Bobby Radiasa (the G-Land surf camp operator) is organising a 25th anniversary reunion of the tsunami in G-Land, we’re going, aren’t we?” What could I say? “Yep, I’m in.” Simon Law also contacted me and told me he was going too.
Only five of us from the original 30 or so ‘Tsunami Brothers’ made it back for the anniversary. Robbie Bain, Simon Law, John Philbin, John Betts and me. I asked Rob Bain first what he remembered from that night.
“I was asleep one minute and then I was caught in my mosquito net, rolled up in it, doubled up in my mattress. I was pushed out through the back wall and sucked under the collapsed floor. I didn’t realise it was a tsunami, I just thought, ‘shit, has the swell just jacked up 20-foot and the tide come up?’”
I asked Rob if he remembered screaming out for help. “Yeah, it was this animal instinct, I had no idea what it was, it was just so powerful, so black, so noisy, so fucking … raw. My body went into some, weird, animal ‘fucken gotta fight it’”. Tears well in his eyes and he croaked with a profound sincerity, “It was fucking scary.”
I asked him what it felt like, trying to fight when he didn’t know what he was fighting. “My body just took over and said, ‘you’ve got to get out of here’. It was only after the water had receded that I heard everyone screaming in the darkness, then I started to scream, and you came and helped me. I just remember you were freaking out because we didn’t know if it was coming back.”
“... A muffled yelping emerged from underneath the pile of debris that had been Rob’s hut. It grew quickly to a stricken shrieking which I will never forget; like a trapped animal that knows it’s about to be killed, squealing in terror ...”
I asked John Betts what he remembered of the night. “We arrived in camp, the waves were pumping, everyone had an early night, then very early in the morning I heard this big roar, roaring like a jet, and I thought a jet is going to smash on us. Next thing, the roof collapsed, and I got blasted out through the back of the hut into the jungle. But it all happened so quick and it was so dark. You can’t run, where you gonna run? You’re in the jungle and you don’t have any lights. I could hear other people screaming and the noise from the animals was amazing, like nothing I have ever heard before. I was hanging onto a clump of bamboo while the water was trying to drag me back out. We all somehow got out of where we were and met up and started to help each other. It was just lucky that we were all surfers, so no-one was actually killed here in the camp. We couldn’t get out for a few days, but when we got back to Grajagan fishing village, across the bay, we really saw the impact of the tsunami. There were big fishing boats on top of the mosque. Everybody was just in awe of what hit that village. A lot of people died in Grajagan village. Lots of houses were destroyed. I think the wave must have come down the side of G-Land and gone straight into Grajagan village”
I asked him if he felt the experience had changed him. “The emotional impact of it is something you wouldn’t wish on anyone. It took a couple of months for me to accept what had happened. For a long while I tried to be strong and just hold it in, but sometimes you might have a bit of a cry, usually when you’re alone. It made me realise how precious life is. You can be here one minute and gone the next. So, I live every day now, to the fullest”
John Philbin’s story was a little different. “I was in a little hut that was slightly elevated right on the tip of the point. I go to sleep, middle of the night I heard water and I think why am I hearing water? When you’re in G-Land you’re very tide oriented, and I knew it was low tide, so why would I be hearing water? I sit up in my bed and go, ‘that’s the fucking loudest thing I’ve ever heard’, and then a wall of dark water covered me, and the roof and the mosquito net all came down and squished me into a ball. I was wrapped tight in a ball by my mosquito net with a board on me and a tree, and I don’t know if it was five or 10 feet of water going over my head. I didn’t know what was happening, I just knew I was under water and trapped. So, I’m like… time to relax, just take it easy, just don’t breathe. I held my breath as long as I could but I was drowning, and I started to hallucinate, I imagined the whole world had opened up and all of this water had rushed in and we were all under water, and I knew if I just had a surfboard, I could wrap myself around it and I would pop up somewhere out in the Indian ocean, and all I would see would be the tips of volcanoes and I would paddle to the tip of one of the volcanoes … but then I started to panic, I just didn’t want to die all curled up like a little bug, so I just took the net I was wrapped in and I ripped it as hard as I could. All of a sudden everything started sucking back out. As I fought to stand up, the water dropped down to my thigh and I could breathe again, and the surfboard I had put in my rack hit me on the leg on its way out to sea and I grabbed it and I just ran up into the jungle yelling, “Everybody grab a board!”
I asked Simon Law what he remembered from the event. “I was pretty deaf at the time and it was pitch black, so I had no idea what was going on. One minute I’m asleep and the next I’m pinned to the ground and I can’t move, I’m under this mass of really heavy fast moving water, heavier and more powerful than anything I have ever felt before. I didn’t know what it was, I thought maybe a water tower had collapsed.” I asked him how he coped with the situation. “I went into this other place mentally, just like a little animal which has to work out how to survive, I somehow grabbed a hold of a tree and climbed it. That’s what saved me from being sucked out to sea. After the waves had passed, I could hear someone calling out to me to come down out of the tree, but I didn’t respond, I was in a dream, thinking, ‘why would I come down out of the tree? This is the safest place’. It was every man for himself.” I asked him if the experience had changed him. “I feel like after that, we got a whole extra life given to us, marriages and children, I mean how many kids have we all had that might not have been? An extra 25 years of friends and fun so far, and so much more surfing, even back here in G-Land.”
Talking to the guys reminded me of how blessed we were to have survived. Especially when so many didn’t. Also, how lucky I had been personally, to have only witnessed it and not to have had to fight for my life underwater the way they did. Still, I really related to what some of them said about feeling like a small animal when faced with such violence. The scale of it was so out of the ordinary, out of proportion to anything else we had ever been through, including huge surf in Hawaii.
Visiting G-Land this year, with some of the boys who I shared this life-changing event with, was surprisingly healing. G-Land surf-camp operator, Bobby Radiasa, organised a couple of really special multireligion ceremonies which affected us all deeply. In the darkness during the first evening ceremony, Bainy came up and thanked me again for helping him that night. He had caught me off guard and I didn’t know what to say. “That’s OK,” I laughed.
Standing there, in silence together, watching the Hindu priest light and place candles between the low tide reef and the deep, dark jungle, I recalled so clearly, that moment 25 years earlier. When I went from thinking Bainy was dead, to realising he was still alive. There was intense joy in that moment. I remembered jumping down out of my hut, glancing only briefly out onto the dark low tide reef, the rumbling I could hear from out there, wondering how much time I had before more waves might come, climbing into the wreckage, squeezing in between the dripping wet fallen roof and water soaked collapsed floor of his hut, lifting the broken roof with my shoulder, shining my torch into where I could hear him calling from, calling out to him, his head appearing from beneath all that debris, the look of shock on his face, us running to safety together.
The day after the final ceremony, I looked out over the low tide reef and pondered why none of us had died that night. Our first piece of luck may have been the time of day the tsunami hit. Since we were all in bed asleep and none of us were in the surf or walking out across the reef, we weren’t washed across hundreds of metres of sharp volcanic rock or coral. The next was that as the waves struck at low tide, they would have been slowed down somewhat by the friction of crossing over 100 metres of dry reef. The third stroke of good fortune was that all of those washed into the jungle under water were surfers, familiar with holding their breath while spending time thrashing around under water. Added to this, the lightweight nature of the collapsing bamboo structures in which we were housed, which not only didn’t crush anyone, but were easy to move when retrieving buried friends. And finally, the jungle itself, which gave the boys something to grab a hold of and even climb, which saved them from being dragged back out to sea.
It’s amazing to think that it’s been 25 years since the tsunami burst into our lives that night. But what’s even more amazing is how it never really left us. It affected us all deeply. We all remember what we saw, heard and felt, like it only happened yesterday. I suppose one’s perception is heightened when something as unexpected and dramatic as that happens.
Before the 1994 G-Land tsunami none of us had seen footage of other tsunamis. Now everybody knows what they look like. All of us ‘Tsunami Brothers’ agreed that whenever we see video of a tsunami now, we re-experience the fear of that night and shudder at the thought of what may have been.
For a couple of months after the tsunami I was on cloud nine. Some near death experiences can have that effect on people. The realisation of how fragile life is can be uplifting. I recognised that every single moment is a gift. For many years after the tsunami I had nightmares though. A recurring dream where I’m running for my life, from what I don’t know. In this dream I feel a primal fear, like a little animal trying to escape from a much bigger animal. Until I recognise the sound behind me is not an animal, it’s rushing water.
SEE MONTY WEBBER’S COMPELLING MINI DOCO ‘TSUNAMI BROTHERS’ AT TRACKSMAG.COM