January 31, 2005 12:00 PM

It was an image that captured the murderous fury of last month’s tsunami. On Dec. 26 Supat Gatemanee was working at a beachfront cafe in Phuket, Thailand, when the sea invaded—swallowing the 19-year-old waiter and everything else in its path. Captured by photographer Hellmut Issels, his plight brought the disaster home to millions. But while one of his coworkers perished, the young Thai survived. Now he tells his amazing tale.

It began like an ordinary day. I remember seeing foreigners playing in the sea as I put out tablecloths. Then I went into the kitchen, and when I opened the door to go back out, the water crashed in. As it rose steadily up to my chest, I thought, “I’m dead.” I wanted to help my friends, but the water pushed me inland. I remember seeing Tim, our main cook, floating about 16 feet in front of me, then disappearing. I never saw her come up again. Somehow I kept my head above water and was pulled toward the Sheraton hotel terrace, which was on higher ground. I managed to latch on to the terrace railing, and a Thai man who was standing there saw me struggling and pulled me up. From where I stood, I saw another one of our cooks, an elderly lady who was clinging to the trunk of a nearby palm tree, crying. So I waded out, chest deep, and pulled her through the rushing water to safety at the hotel. I thought it was over and returned to the terrace. But a second wave hit. This one was about twice as high, more than seven feet, and it tossed me back into the water. I grabbed on to a floating piece of a thatch roof but was forced to let go. Luckily, the water pulled me back to the hotel, and another man helped me out.

Later I found my boss and some other employees. The restaurant had been bamboo with a thatch roof. In a blink the second wave tore it apart. We rode to my boss’s house. No one spoke, no one cried. I was in shock. The next morning, I went back to help look for the dead. We found Tim’s swollen body in a canal. We were good friends. She has two daughters.

It was good luck that saved me. I really enjoyed Phuket. It was my first time living by the sea. It was beautiful and it was big. Now I’m never going back.

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