THE SHAKING started at 6.48 am. Asleep in his beach bungalow on the island of Upolu, Samoa, Jack Batchelor at first thought one of his dogs was lying on the mattress, scratching itself. “Is it an earthquake?” he mumbled to his wife, Carol, who was already awake. “We’d better go outside,” said Jack.
On the front deck, they stared out at the placid turquoise South Pacific. The American couple had recently bought and renovated a beachfront resort, nestled beneath a lushly forested 200-metre-high cliff. Both had watched reports about the tsunami that had devastated Indonesia several years earlier, and they knew that the ocean rolled back before the huge waves hit. But the ocean was right in front of them. Nothing seemed amiss.
“Go put your running shoes on, just in case,” said Jack. Carol slipped into the bungalow and Jack went to the bathroom. But when he returned moments later, he shouted, “Carol, come here, you have got to see this!”
The waves that moments ago had lapped against the rocks were gone, leaving an expanse of bare, wet sand dotted with flopping fish. Where the reef bisects the bay 800 metres from shore, it looked like the edge of the earth. The ocean floor dropped off, and a vast, empty mud hole stretched 2 kilometres towards the horizon.
“Run, Carol!” Jack cried. “I’ve got to go get Kenny.” Their best friend lived with his family in a bungalow 100 metres away.
“Don’t go!” screamed Carol, terrified. But Jack was already racing off. Carol darted up the hill.
JACK AND CAROL Batchelor had been sweethearts since high school in Eugene, Oregon. He was funny, gregarious, tall, athletic; she was the quiet, sweet-tempered academic with a model’s good looks. They married when Carol was just 18 and Jack 20, and Jack joined his father’s construction business.
In time, Jack built Carol and their two children a Victorian home on 4 hectares, with plenty of room for Carol’s antiques and her two horses. For holidays, they escaped to the South Pacific. They loved the tropical climate – Jack had arthritic knees from his work and sports, and his body felt better there.
The Batchelors also loved the warmth and simplicity of the Samoan people. “They have nothing,” said Carol, “yet they’re always happy.” Some day, the couple dreamt of moving to Samoa – leaving behind the Oregon rain, the stress of Jack’s construction business and Carol’s job as a human resources director. “Other people can do it,” they said. “Why can’t we?”
In 2009, with their children grown, the Batchelors used their savings to buy a half-share in a resort they’d often visited, called Boomerang Creek. It was a collection of bungalows strung along a white sand beach on the south coast of Upolu. Behind the resort, a waterfall plunged down a cliff lush with ferns, wild orchids and coconut palms. For Jack and Carol, who renamed the resort Lupe Sina – Samoan for “white dove” – it was paradise.
But paradise came with corroded plumbing, faulty wiring and a septic system with a habit of backing up.
The classic Samoan dwelling is a round bungalow called a fale, built on concrete slabs, with partial bamboo walls topped by open or latticed sides and thatched or metal roofs. While Carol, then 48, kept the books and greeted guests, Jack, then 50, hired local workmen and began renovating the resort’s 12 run-down fales. They replaced the wiring, plumbing and septic system, added new metal roofs and painted the fales white with blue trim. Then they set about landscaping the grounds.
The minimum wage in Samoa is less than a dollar an hour, but the Batchelors paid many workers more than twice that, and continually tried to find ways to improve their lives. Every delivery person, garbage collector and repairman left the resort clutching a free cold drink or ice-cream. If the telephone repairman hadn’t eaten breakfast, Jack would invite him to sit down for a plate of scrambled eggs or anything else on the menu. “Jack, you can’t just keep giving away the food,” joked Carol. But that was Jack.
By September 2009, six months after they had begun renovations, virtually everyone on the island knew the big American in the Hawaiian shirt and Seattle Mariners baseball cap. “Jack! How are you!” people would yell as he drove by in the resort’s silver van. Carol, who’d hated leaving family and friends back in Oregon, realised they had found a new extended family in their Samoan friends and neighbours. “I was starting to feel like we’d made the right decision,” she says.
“RUN!” Jack yelled, sprinting towards Kenny’s house. Like most Samoans, Tini “Kenny” Suafai, 33, shared a bamboo bungalow with his extended family of 12. He had four kids, all under eight, and did carpentry, landscaping and odd jobs for Jack. Sometimes, when the work was done, the two men hung out. Although Kenny spoke very little English and Jack spoke little Samoan, they laughed a lot. “We just clicked,” says Jack.
Now, unaware of the danger, the muscular Samoan, surrounded by a gaggle of small children, was on the beach, a net over his shoulder, scooping up the floundering fish from the wet sand. He looked up, puzzled, at his yelling friend.
Jack pointed to the ocean and shouted, “Look!” He scooped up Kenny’s six-year-old, Michael, with his right arm, then grabbed another toddler – perhaps Kenny’s niece or nephew – with his left. He turned and sprinted towards the higher ground of the resort, gripping the children under his arms. Kenny swivelled and looked towards the horizon. Then he started running, too. But it was too late. Behind him, a 7-metre-high wall of water roared towards the shore.
THE TONGA TRENCH, a deep canyon in the Pacific floor 150 kilometres south-west of Samoa, is one of the most active earthquake regions on earth. For the most part, the seismic activity is deep and well offshore, and goes unnoticed by those on land. Still, geologists have known for years that a big enough quake at the right depth could spawn a tsunami, which could reach Upolu’s south shore in 11 to 12 minutes. There would be little warning and, with narrow beaches backed by impassable cliffs, nowhere for people to escape.
“When the tsunami comes,” Robin Yeager, the American chargé d’affaires in Samoa, used to tell visitors as she drove them along the beach road, “these people are going to be in trouble.” The Samoan government broadcast regular education bulletins on radio and TV reminding people to head for high ground in the event of an earthquake. But Samoa was last hit by a tsunami in 1960, and it was a small one on the east side of the island. So few residents worried about the danger. And no-one had mentioned it to Jack and Carol Batchelor.
But on September 29, 2009, two earthquakes measuring 8.0 and 7.9 on the Richter scale occurred within minutes of each other in the Tonga Trench. The force sent massive waves rolling towards the fragile string of islands.
THE FIRST WAVE slammed into Jack waist-high, knocking him to his knees in the wet sand. God save me, he thought, scrambling to his feet, still clutching the children. Behind him, he saw a foaming, white wall that stretched for kilometres up and down the shore. It was hurtling towards him at more than 550 kilometres per hour.
Jack had watched TV coverage of the Indonesian tsunami in 2004. Everyone who survived said they tried to swim with the wave. Now he dived into the water, attempting to ride the wave like a body surfer. Stay in front of it, he told himself. The churning surf carried him 100 metres across the beach road and through a banana plantation on the other side, tumbling his body over and over like a piece of driftwood, scraping him against tree trunks and stumps. The child under his left arm was ripped away.
The water’s roar was deafening. People screamed. Trees snapped. Buildings exploded. But Jack could hear nothing. He was in a world of spinning, boiling turbulence that rolled him 8 metres up the hillside, until he lurched to a stop – underwater.
A tangle of banana leaves, roots and rocks ensnared his legs. He could see blue sky and the green canopy of the jungle above the roiling surface of the water over his head. But he couldn’t kick his legs free. Under his right arm, Jack still clutched Kenny’s son.
Spying a rock that jutted above the surface, he made a quick decision: if he could somehow manage to launch the child onto the rock above, maybe the boy would survive. I hope you make it, kid, he thought, gathering the child to his chest, because I’m not going to.
With a burst of adrenaline and using both hands, Jack propelled the boy’s small body upwards against the resistance of the water. Jack prayed, Please, God, take care of this baby. Then, with his hands free, he reached back down and yanked at the roots that gripped his legs. God, I don’t want to die like this, he thought. Then, with his lungs out of air, Jack started swallowing salt water.
CAROL WAS in a nightmare of her own 100 metres away. Leaving Jack, she had dashed up the sloping driveway behind the resort. But Carol had broken three ribs the previous day after tripping over a piece of PVC pipe. Every time she gulped a breath, pain shot through her ribs and almost made her faint.
When she reached the end of the 60-metre driveway, where the cliff began, she felt she could go no further. The wave thundered behind her, showering her with salt mist. Her heart pounded. Where was Jack? Unlike her husband, Carol had never been a risk-taker. She’d hated selling her horses and antiques and leaving her beautiful house. But Jack had always taken care of her. “I’d follow Jack wherever he went,” she’d always said. “If he went to the moon, I’d go too.”
Now Jack was gone.
A little further, she thought. Grasping rocks, tree roots and vines, she pulled herself up the steep bank.
Then, without warning, the roar ceased. When Carol turned to look at the ocean, the water had receded and everything – road, bungalows, trees – was gone. The turquoise sea was calm again, the sky a brilliant blue. Above her, something silver glinted on the bank, catching her eye. It was a dead barracuda – a deepwater fish. Somehow, the wave had washed up the cliff in a V-pattern on both sides of Carol, leaving her untouched. Her feet weren’t even wet.
“Jack!” she screamed.
A voice called from the cliff behind her. The receding ocean had dumped Jack on the hillside, wrapped in banana leaves like a mummy. He was bruised, bloodied, his shirt ripped off, but alive. On a rock above him, Kenny’s child sat unharmed, staring in puzzlement, as if thinking, What just happened?
IN THE NEXT few hours, Jack and Carol converted the only resort bungalow not destroyed by the tsunami into a makeshift hospital. In a corner, a pretty young woman with long black hair sat on the floor, attempting to nurse her dead baby. Other survivors, bleeding and broken, staggered in and out, while the Batchelors rummaged in the debris for bandages, clothes and soft drinks – there was no water.
“Somebody’s in the ocean!” cried a man at one point. People rushed to the deck and started clapping when they spotted, far out in the bay, a middle-aged woman clinging to a log. But when rescuers ran to the beach to bring her in, they also found a dead two-year-old washed up on the shore. Another victim, a young woman who worked for the Batchelors as a cook and waitress, had been decapitated by one of the metal roofs.
The tsunami killed 143 people in Samoa, including four of the Batchelors’ employees (they had no guests at the time). The fales on either side of the resort – each cluster housing an extended Samoan family of ten or more – were largely destroyed. Kenny’s body washed up seven days later on a beach several kilometres to the east. Although Kenny’s wife, Tuli, and two of his four children survived, the child who was ripped from Jack’s arms was never found. Hundreds of Samoans fled the island after the disaster; Tuli took her two boys to New Zealand.
JACK AND CAROL spent the next days helping survivors. His van destroyed, Jack rented a car and delivered water, food, clothing and tarps to people who’d fled to higher ground.
The local newspaper, the Samoa Observer, ran a story on Jack, headlined “Man Saves Baby In Heroic Rescue”. But he didn’t feel like a hero. His knees had been badly injured and would need surgery. He had welts and sores that wouldn’t heal and a heavy chest cough. (He would later be diagnosed with “tsunami lung”, a type of pneumonia resulting from inhaling water contaminated with mud and bacteria.)
AT NIGHT, Jack was tortured by nightmares. Over and over, he heard the waves crashing around him, felt the baby ripped from his arms and saw Kenny swept away. At odd moments during the day, he found his eyes welling with tears.
As for Carol, she couldn’t eat, sleep or concentrate. If she tried to talk about the tsunami, she wept. Images of dead bodies kept floating through her mind.
Despite their grief, as days passed, Jack and Carol felt themselves oddly transformed. With no insurance, they had lost almost everything except the clothes on their backs. But they believe that God had spared them for a reason: to help their Samoan “family”.
“We want to have an impact that won’t be erased by a flood,” says Carol.
To that end, they withdrew the last of their US bank savings and Carol cashed in her retirement fund to invest in a new company, Northern Forest Resources, to mill timber from Fiji. The company plans to export some of the wood and import the rest to Samoa for the reconstruction, selling it at a reduced price to help local people who are rebuilding. And in keeping with their personal mission to help others, they have set up a Fijian trust fund so that 25 percent of earnings will go back to support schools, roads and development.
At present, they live in a friend’s home out of a few cardboard boxes filled with Red Cross clothes.
“[We used to have] a beautiful Victorian house, with the horses and so many things,” Carol muses. “And then all of a sudden we have absolutely nothing. And it really doesn’t matter.”
What matters now, she says, are the Samoan friends they have grown to love. “We don’t have anything,” she says, “but we have everything.”
3 of 7 Comments
|LYDIA on 04 December 2012 ,16:17 |
nice story a very interesting story, it is a type of story where in god do an action if you really believe in him, let's pray always and make this story as an inspiration of us .
|Jacqui on 10 October 2012 ,13:15 |
Carol, i am very blessed with your very selfless acts to help people. I know God will bless you more and more so you can still be channel of blessings to others. I am praying for a chance to visit your place. I am from the Philippines.. :-)
|Carol Batchelor on 30 June 2012 ,07:07 |
Jack and I would like to thank everyone for their help and their prayers. We have relocated to the beautiful hills overlooking the south coast of Upolu and will be opening the first and only luxury Treehouse in the South Pacific. Our new resort will feature a four story tall treehouse, complete with two bedrooms, kitchenette, bathroom with running hot and cold water and shower in the middle of the tree. It also has two balconies and a reading nook complete with chandelier. It has a breath taking view of the pacific ocean and the virgin rainforest of samoa. We hope you will come visit us. Check out our website at Lupesinatreesort.com God Bless, Jack and Carol
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