Holiday turned nightmare for Berkeley grad

Faye Linda Wachs never envisioned she’d spend her tropical vacation hauling half-drowned survivors out of smashed buildings on improvised stretchers crafted out of doors, box springs or bamboo poles and plastic.

On the other hand, she never lost sight of how fortunate she was to be hauling stretchers and not languishing on one.

Wachs had been on a Thai vacation with her husband, Eugene Kim, whom she met at U.C. Berkeley, where they both graduated in 1992. Her parents, Martin and Helen Wachs, live in Berkeley and attend Congregation Netivot Shalom.

Fate, it seems, smiled on Wachs and Kim. When the killer tsunami hit the shores of Koh Phi Phi in Thailand on Dec. 26, they were in perhaps the safest place save atop a mountain: diving in deep water where the earthquake-generated jolt felt like only a sharp current.

“We started heading in and we still didn’t know what had happened. Then we started seeing things in the water. It looked like trash. But I saw furniture, TV sets and refrigerators floating by,” recalled Wachs, a professor of sociology at Cal Poly Pomona.

“Then we started seeing bodies.”

Wachs and Kim’s beachside cabana was smashed to bits as if it had been crafted out of Tinker Toys. All of their possessions were swept into the ocean, leaving them only their bathing suits and flip-flops to wear.

They soon volunteered their services to several vacationing doctors and nurses who had kicked off an impromptu medical effort and found themselves — literally — unearthing survivors and carrying them to safety.

“Apparently, the tsunami didn’t kill any mosquitoes. They were out in full force,” recalled the 35-year-old Wachs. “We had to keep the wounded covered so they didn’t get bites in addition.”

Many of the survivors had lost everything they owned. A pair of brothers Kim and Wachs spoke with had just tied up their life savings in a tailor shop that had been smashed to bits by the wave.

Speaking to j. from her Santa Monica home last week, Wachs was still struck by the rapid destruction the tsunami wreaked in just a matter of minutes.

“The devastation is unimaginable. It looks like a nuclear bomb hit. There are parts where nothing is left, there are feet and feet of rubble. And bodies are everywhere. I saw more dead bodies — well, I never wanted to see dead bodies,” she said.

“We’re talking about a pristine area, one of the top dive sites in the world. When we came back [from the dive], there were oil spills and propane and the lid of every single septic tank had been ripped off and sewage was in the ocean.”

Wachs strongly encouraged donations to aid those who have lost their families, life savings and everything they owned in addition to what she predicts will be a massive environmental cleanup.

“These people who had lost everything — they were comforting us,” she recalled.


Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.