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Tsunami Survivor's 15 Days At Sea

Lying prone on the bobbing wooden plank, Ari Afrizal looked left and saw the fiery red sun dipping into the watery horizon. Weakly, he turned his face the other way and saw a pearly white full moon rising in the east.

All around him, the sea looked like it was sprinkled with chopped leaves of gold, shimmering in the sun's glow. Afrizal had never seen a more wondrous sight.

It was dusk on Dec. 26, and Afrizal was adrift in the Indian Ocean.

"I was not prepared to die," the 21-year-old carpenter said.

Against all odds, he didn't.

That morning, when the ground began to shake, Afrizal was on a scaffolding, hammering nails into a plank, part of a crew building a beach home along Sumatra's western coast in the Aceh Jaya region, about 45 miles south of the Indonesian provincial capital Banda Aceh. Frightened, the crew moved away from the house and squatted in the sand.

"Then the waves started coming," Afrizal said.

The first one, 3 feet high, ripped the scaffolding down. A minute later came the big one, a bluish-white wall about 30 feet high.

"It produced a deep sound like whooooooo," Afrizal said this week from his hospital bed, in an interview with The Associated Press. "It destroyed the house. The wave hit the houses with a terribly loud sound — phang! phang!"

Afrizal felt as if he were caught in a giant washing machine. Tossed 1,500 feet inland, he banged against a mango tree and grabbed a branch.

"I saw my friends also hanging on to trees. I thought the world was coming to an end," he said. "I kept praying hard to Allah for my life."

As the tsunami receded, it pulled him under and sucked him out to sea. Swimming desperately, Afrizal could see the hills of Aceh receding fast.

He swam and floated for an hour before his first stroke of luck: A wooden plank about 5 feet long drifted by and he clambered aboard.

"My throat was burning. The sun was hot," Afrizal said. "I had cuts all over my body. The salt water was stinging."

Five bodies floated past. About 300 feet away two other men clung to debris.

"I couldn't even find my voice to call out," Afrizal said. "Eventually they all drifted away and I was all alone."

Exhausted, he lay on the plank all day, weak and hungry.

Coconuts were drifting by, caught in the mass of debris swept out to sea by the tsunami. Afrizal used his teeth and a piece of wood to split open a coconut, which yielded tender white flesh and sweet milky water.

That night, he barely slept, afraid he would fall off the plank and drown. He found solace in nature's beauty, watching the simultaneous sunset and moonrise over the water.

The next day, a leaking, listing fishing boat drifted by. Afrizal swam to it and found no one on board.

As he drifted, he thought of his parents, his two elder brothers, a younger brother and a sister. He knew the giant waves were too powerful to have spared their home, only a mile from the shore. His girlfriend's house was not too far either, he said, the brown eyes misting slightly.

"I love her very much," he said. "I miss her."

He still doesn't know whether they survived, or if they are among the tragedy's 150,000 dead in 11 nations.

"I was not prepared to die," he said. And so he prayed: "Allah I seek your forgiveness and I seek your help for myself and my parents" and my girlfriend, he said again and again in the Malay language, spoken in Malaysia and Indonesia. "Please give me life. Please give me life."

But for days, his prayers were not answered.

He was adrift in a busy shipping lane near Sumatra, where ships carrying cargo from Europe, India, Africa and the Middle East steam toward Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. Many ships passed by Ari's small boat, barely noticeable in the vast carpet of water. He was sure one of them would notice him sooner or later.

"But after five days," he said, "I began to lose hope."

By then, the fishing boat was listing badly, the leak worsening. The sun was harsh and it burned his skin.

"But I never got angry," Afrizal said. "I was grateful to be alive. The heat comes from God. The cold comes from God. Death and life also come from God."

His thoughts turned to his beloved soccer teams, Manchester United and Real Madrid. He replayed scenes from his favorite Indian movies — Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (Something Happens) and Mann (Soul) — in his head.

He'd been drifting for seven days when he spotted a large, unmanned raft with a hut on it. Abandoning the sinking fishing boat, he swam to the raft and found a gallon bottle of water to slake his thirst. Coconuts were still plentiful in the sea.

Around him, six shark fins pierced the gentle water.

"The sea belongs to them," Afrizal said. "I was not afraid because I did not do them any harm."

On Sunday, the 15th day, Afrizal awoke to the sight of the bow of a container ship looming over him.

It was close, too close to miss him, he thought. He pulled his shirt off and waved it. He stuck his fingers in his mouth and whistled. He shouted in Malay "Tolong! Tolong!" — Help! Help!

The Al Yamamah, a container ship heading from Oman to Malaysia, eased past his raft, leaving in its wake a foamy slurry of sea water.

But then the ship slowed down, came around and sounded the klaxon three times: Poom! Poom! Poom!

"When I heard that I knew I was saved," Afrizal said. "I looked up and saw people on the ship looking at me with binoculars."

John Kennedy, the New Zealander who captains the Al Yamamah, did not expect to find anyone alive on the raft. After all, it had been more than two weeks since the tsunami.

"To our surprise, a frail-looking man emerged," Kennedy told reporters.

The crew threw Afrizal a line, and he climbed aboard, certain that his survival is a gift from Allah, the fruit of his devotion. He hugged Kennedy, then fell to his knees on the deck and prayed. And at last he sobbed, the first time he had cried in 15 days.

Officials said he was found in the open ocean about 75 miles east of Great Nicobar Island, the nearest land, and about 110 miles north of Banda Aceh at the northern tip of Sumatra.

Fed by the crew, Afrizal showered and got a bunk all to himself. A day later he was in Malaysia, resting in a hospital in Klang. There, he was placed in a room with Rizal Shahputra, another Indonesian from Aceh Jaya who survived the tsunami.

Shahputra, too, had been sucked from the shore by the tsunami, and was plucked from the sea by a Japanese-owned cargo ship after eight days.

That is a long time to be alone in the water, yet it is barely half as long as Afrizal was adrift, the longest time any tsunami survivor is known to have been at sea.

Now, they are swapping survival stories.

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