Survival

Mum’s Boxing Day horror: I had to choose which son to save

'I knew if I didn't decide, we would all die'

The Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 is believed to be the deadliest tsunami in history, killing more than 230,000 people across 14 countries.

15 years on from the devastating disaster, Jillian Searle from Perth, Australia, shares her incredible story of survival, including having to make the agonising decision of which of her sons to save as the wave approached her family.

‘Merry Christmas,’ I smiled to my boys, Lachie, five, and Blake, almost two, as they ripped open their presents.

After a last-minute decision to go away for the holidays, my husband Bradley, then 33, and I decided on a beach-front hotel in Phuket, Thailand.

The boys wanted to test out their new buckets and spades, so we went to the beach to build sandcastles.

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Lachie, Blake and me just before our holiday in Thailand (Credit: Supplied)

The next morning, we grabbed breakfast before heading to the hotel pool.

After dressing Lachie in his blue rashie, I noticed the clip on Blake’s swimming nappy had broken. So Brad went to fetch another one from our fourth-floor apartment.

Rubbing sunscreen over the kids, I glanced up at the bright blue sky.

Another beautiful day, I thought.

That’s when I noticed hundreds of birds flying away from the beach.

Suddenly, a loud roar echoed around me. It sounded like a jet plane.

Then, a massive wave crashed over the hotel wall, destroying everything in its path – now it was headed straight for us.

‘Run, run, run!’ I screamed.

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The massive wave was heading straight for us (Credit: Getty Images)

Grabbing both the boys, I sprinted to the hotel lobby.

I could hear the water getting closer but I couldn’t bring myself to look back.

I ran to the breakfast bar so we could climb on top of it. But, full with other guests, there wasn’t enough room for all three of us.

‘Someone please help me,’ I cried.

When a teenage girl held out her hand, I knew I had to make the agonising decision to let go of one of my sons.

It broke my heart, but I knew if I didn’t decide we would all die.

Aged just 20 months, there was no way Blake could survive on his own. So I reluctantly passed Lachie to the stranger.

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I had to make the agonising decision to let go of one of my sons (Credit: Supplied)

Within seconds, the wave hit me with an almighty force and pulled me under. Pinned below the surface, it felt like Blake and I were underwater forever.

He’s going to die in my arms, I fretted.

When we managed to resurface for air, I was relieved to hear Blake’s screams. But as the swirling water pushed us towards the car park, I thought we’d be crushed to death.

Thankfully, when the water changed direction, we were pushed up against a wall instead.

And just as quickly as the water had come in, it started to recede. Somehow Blake and I had survived.

I spotted the teenage girl up a tree nearby. But Lachie was nowhere to be seen.

‘I’m so sorry,’ she cried. ‘I had to let him go.’

Just then, Brad appeared.

‘I’ve lost Lachie,’ I howled.

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I told my husband I’d lost Lachie (Credit: Supplied)

But before we had the chance to start searching for our boy, sirens warned us a second wave was coming.

Running to a nearby playground, I anchored myself to a wooden platform while Brad went to find Lachie.

Wrapping one arm around the post and the other holding onto Blake, we had no choice but to sit and wait for the destruction to come to us.

Please don’t take my babies, I prayed.

Thankfully, the second wave wasn’t as big, and once it had passed, we moved fast. Wading through the water and debris, we made our way to the hotel rooftop where others had sought shelter, including Brad.

‘He’s gone,’ Brad choked.

Collapsing on the floor, I was inconsolable.

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Satellite images before the tsunami struck (Credit: Getty Images)

Almost two hours had passed when I heard a man talking about someone he had found.

‘He’s got a blue rashie on,’ he said.

Wiping away my tears, I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Lachie was alive!

I rushed over to wrap my arms around him. Somehow, my boy had escaped with just a scratch on his head.

‘Mummy, I’m really dirty and I need a shower,’ he said.

After being separated from the others in the lobby, he had stood on a toilet nearby. I felt like I’d won the lottery.

Salvaging what we could from our hotel room, we went in search of a ride to the airport.

Wading through the black water full of lifeless bodies, the smell of death lingered
in the air.

Thankfully, we were able to board a flight back to Perth at 2am the next morning.

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The aftermath of the tsunami. It killed more than 230,000 people (Credit: Getty Images)

Back home, we all shared abed for the first few weeks as Lachie still suffered terrible nightmares.

But after undergoing counselling, he was able to overcome his fears.

Now, 15 years on from the Boxing Day tsunami, I feel so incredibly blessed.

Brad and I have since separated. Lachie recently celebrated his 20th birthday and is a sporty and social young man, while Blake, 16, has a soft nature and kind soul.

While Blake was too young to remember anything of the tsunami, Lachie can recall every single detail.

Thankfully, he isn’t fazed by being near the ocean at all. And he understands why I did what I did.

‘You made the right decision in letting me go,’ he’s said.

Sometimes I catch myself staring at the boys, amazed that we made it out alive.

Every moment we get to spend together is a miracle.

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Blake, me and Lachie today. Every moment we have together is a miracle (Credit: Supplied)

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