BANDA ACEH, Indonesia—Yusmadi Sulaiman sat cross-legged on the drab concrete floor, taking another drag from his cigarette. With the electricity still out in much of Banda Aceh, in the northwest tip of Indonesia's Sumatra island, the faint light of a candle illuminated his tears as he told how the giant wave of the tsunami—a word Sulaiman had never even heard a few days earlier—had reached out and swallowed his family whole like some nightmarish scene from a Hollywood movie.
One moment, Sulaiman told me, his 4-year-old son was clutched in his arms as father and son clung to a coconut tree. The next moment, the boy was gone. Sulaiman heard his wife calling out to him a few feet away, as she held on to their 8-year-old daughter.
"Hold me, Bang, hold me," the wife cried, using the Indonesian term of reverence for a spouse. Soon enough, she and her daughter were gone, too, washed away in the flood that some of the locals came to know scornfully as "Black Sunday."
It was three days after the Dec. 26 tsunami when Sulaiman and I first spoke. A spry, youthful-looking man of 60 who drives a delivery truck for a local food company, Sulaiman had been searching for days for his wife and four children in the streets and alleys of his hardscrabble village, streets now lined with bodies and rubble, and he would keep looking for days after that. He would not find them.
Yet even amid such overwhelming tragedy, Sulaiman and many other survivors with whom I spoke in the days after the tsunami carried an air of hope and of optimism. They talked of rebuilding, and they displayed a generosity that was unmistakable. Sulaiman exhibited that spirit when he overheard that my translator and I were looking to reach an area of devastation some miles away. "Let me drive you," he interjected. "No, no—that's not necessary," I told him.
"Please, let him," said his employer, a Jakarta businessman named Yusi Pura who had ventured up to Banda Aceh to see if Sulaiman and other employees were still alive. "He wants to help. It would make him feel better. Please."
It was only by fluke that I was even in Indonesia. Visiting friends in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, I was on a tiny motorboat that Sunday morning en route to Krakatoa—a volcano that, coincidentally or not, set off one of the last major tsunamis in 1883 when it erupted and killed 40,000 people. Our boat was rocked by swells so strong that we were drenched in seawater and left grabbing for the life preservers; it was not the casual Sunday boat ride we'd expected, to be sure, but we had no idea until many hours later, after an exhausting jaunt to the top of the still-smoldering volcano, that we had just survived a major calamity centered immediately to our north.
Even some eight hours later, after we saw the first CNN crawl about a strong earthquake, the damage appeared to be focused in Thailand and Sri Lanka, and we had no idea of the enormity of the event. Indeed, the Indonesians themselves would not realize for several days just how badly they had been hit—until they began to receive reports of tens of thousands of dead in tough-to-reach coastal regions south of Banda Aceh.
Soon enough, it became clear just how big a story this was—a human drama far removed from the staid press conferences and congressional hearings that I normally cover for the New York Times in Washington, D.C. Starting my reporting in Jakarta, I was in the office of Mike Elmquist, the disaster coordinator for the United Nations in Indonesia, when he received an alarming report: An employee in the region said as many as 40,000 people might be dead in the town of Meulaboh, several hundred miles to the south of Banda Aceh. The report couldn't be confirmed, he said, but if it was true. … His voice trailed off. Within days, as authorities reached Meulaboh by boat, air, and land, it became clear that the number might well be even higher.
I was able to get a commercial flight up to Banda Aceh, surrounded by Jakarta residents packing boxes of water, noodles, and Dunkin' Donuts for friends and relatives. Some travelers bribed airline ticket agents to get on the jammed flight.