Sis. Lew Lee-fen and her family were originally from the Alor Setar church in the northern region of West Malaysia. Currently, her mother, elder brother and his wife, and their two daughters live in Penang, and worship at the Penang Bayan Baru church. Sis. Lee Fen and her husband live in Singapore, and worship at the Adam Road church.
Hallelujah! In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, I testify.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.” (Ps 23:4)
On December 26, 2004, a tsunami in the Indian Ocean hit Southeast Asia and killed over 150,000 people in nine countries. When the locals and tourists headed out to enjoy the beaches that day, they never expected that they would perish there within a few seconds. How fragile life is indeed! Every moment of our lives lie in the hand of God.
In Malaysia, the city of Penang bore the brunt of this tsunami and its aftershocks. Penang had the highest number of casualties, deaths, and missing persons. Even though it has been several years since the tragedy, I can still vividly remember how my family and I witnessed this astounding disaster at the Batu Feringgi beach in Penang that day. Thank God that everyone in my family was kept safe in His everlasting arms.
AN INNOCENT DAY AT THE BEACH
That year, I happily returned to Penang for my year-end vacation. My sister-in-law and her three sisters wanted to give the children a treat, so they planned an outing to the beach on December 26. I was also eagerly looking forward to it since I had not been to this beach in 12 years after I moved to Singapore in 1992.
Around 9 am on December 26, my older brother was still sleeping in bed when he felt some earthquake tremors. He immediately got up and went to the living room to tell my mother and my sister-in-law, but because they had been walking around the house doing chores, they did not feel the minor earthquake that had indeed struck the city. At that time, I was asleep so I had no idea what had happened either.
We set off at 11:30 am for an afternoon picnic by the seashore. Altogether, there were 18 of us—my brother with his wife and two children; my mother and I; my sister-in-law’s parents; and my sister-in-law’s three sisters with their husbands and children. When we arrived at the beach, the children went off to play while I went on a slow stroll with my aged mother. The sand was more moist than usual, which made it hard for one to walk. Since my mother could not stand for too long, we then went to one of the coffee stalls along the beach where we had tea and chatted. Not long after that, my brother and one of my sister-in-law’s family members also joined us.
At noon, I received a text message from an old friend in Alor Setar telling me that they had felt a minor earthquake at 9 am and asked if I had felt it in Penang. I was stunned because Alor Setar was only 100 km north of Penang and I hadn’t heard about any earthquakes in the area until that day. I immediately relayed this to my brother. Overhearing this, the coffee shop owner confirmed that they had also felt a minor earthquake that morning. We concluded that these were probably tremors from a severe earthquake in Sumatra. Despite all these, we remained seated there and continued to enjoy some delicious Penang laksa. As I sat facing the ocean and endless horizon, I felt uplifted in my spirits. No one could have predicted that the calm and gaiety that surrounded me at that moment would be shattered in a few minutes.
ADMIRING THE WAVES
At around 1 pm, there was a distinct change in the serene ocean. I was the first in the family to notice it. Suddenly, scores of white foam waves appeared on the horizon—they were so tall, they even covered half of the sky. From afar, these elaborate rippling waves looked magnificent — forming various differing patterns as they rolled towards the shore. At the time, the weather was sunny and calm, so none of us expected these to be the precursors of a tsunami. Everyone on the beach took out their digital cameras to capture the unusual phenomenon before our eyes.
At that time, I overheard my sister-in-law telling her sisters and the children to come out of the water and to get changed in the public changing rooms; they did so. However, the six of us—all the men, my mother, and I continued to stand along the shore to watch the magnificent waves. The first waves were large, but nothing out of the ordinary and were not very powerful; a few beach-goers praised their unusual magnificence. People continued to linger on the beach, and a group of five youths even sat on the sand to watch the waves. They may have been frequent visitors to the beach who were not intimidated by the size of the waves. As time passed, more onlookers gathered to watch. As the first series of waves receded, my family still continued to stand around to wait for the next wave. Even though my mother was also attracted by this wonderful scene, she also cautioned us to be careful as we took more photographs.
As the second series of waves approached the shore, these appeared much stronger than before—churning up not only seawater but mud. Sensing something amiss, some people immediately got up and left the beach, but those five youths remained seated on the sand. Suddenly, the white waves increased tremendously in amplitude and force, roaring like the sound of thunder, and a wave as tall as a two-story building raced towards us carrying water and sludge. Seeing this, we immediately ran for our lives.
A TOTAL DISASTER
My mother and I stopped under a large tree by the road. Worried about the safety of their wives and children, my brother and another family member were at a loss as to how to proceed. The whole event had taken place in only three minutes. We were worried that they could not make it to the public bathrooms and then to higher ground in time. With mixed emotions, my mother and I prayed beneath the tree—asking God for courage and peace.
After we prayed, I told my mother to wait under the tree while I returned to the site of the disaster to help my brother. But she was in shock and fretted about my safety. I insisted on going and promised her that I would take extra precautions. I am quite timid by nature, but thank God that He gave me some courage during this chaotic time.
When I returned to the shore, there was utter disarray. The waves had totally flooded the beach, destroying the souvenir and coffee stalls along the shore. I saw my brother and brother-in-law desperately calling out and searching for their wives and children. They were covered in mud from having fallen on the beach.
A janitor told my brother that there was no one in the public changing rooms. Some bystanders suggested that we try searching in the bathrooms. As we approached the bathrooms, we saw my sister-in-law and the children coming out one by one from the back door of the bathroom complex. Our hearts were filled with great thanksgiving to God for His mercy—while we were rushing about like anxious ants on a searing pot, He had already opened a way for us.
According to my sister-in-law, the moment they walked into the bathroom they heard the sound of huge waves. She wanted to go out with her second eldest sister to see what was happening, but the gigantic waves they saw rolling towards them forced them to stay in the bathroom. A kind stranger told them not to be afraid and advised them to wait until the winds had ceased and the waves had receded, then they could leave the bathroom by the back door.
After everyone had been accounted for, the other family members immediately went to the parking lot to retrieve their cars while I ran back to the tree to look for my mother. Although there was utter confusion everywhere, my entire family finally got into our cars. As we slowly inched our way back towards town, we saw that the once-charming Tanjong Bungah Beach was completely flooded. In a matter of a few hours, everything had changed. Who would have expected the beautiful waves to turn into killer waves instead? Houses, cars, trees, and flowerbeds along the seashore were all covered with sludge. Many sat weeping beside motionless bodies.
The waves were very attractive initially, which lulled many of us into letting down our guard. Then, when the waves revealed their true selves—gigantic walls of water like roaring lions…
However, we were not out of danger yet. Traffic had slowed to a crawl on the narrow road. On our left, we could no longer see the beach, but the ocean; on our right was craggy mountain face. If the waves continued to press forward, we literally had nowhere to turn. Suddenly, the eight to ten kilometers of road ahead felt long and arduous to finish. We continued to pray silently, asking the Lord to guide our path.
Moreover, there were major detours ahead because of the roads that had been flooded. That afternoon, it took us one and a half hours to finish a journey that was normally only 20 minutes. Upon arriving home, the entire family was exhausted and famished, but our hearts were filled with thanksgiving. It was only when we watched the news that evening that we realized that the tsunami was an international disaster. We were once again filled with thanksgiving at the remarkable protection of God.
SORROW AND GLADNESS
Looking back, I can still see and feel the moment when the thundering waves suddenly crashed towards us. I was astounded by the scene. In the blink of an eye, three of the five unprepared youths were swept away by the waves before my very eyes. I was greatly saddened by the fact that I could not help them when they most needed help. This has really troubled and grieved me for a long time.
However, this disaster was a good reminder of the need for vigilance in our Christian lives. The waves were very attractive initially, which lulled many of us into letting down our guard. Then, when the waves revealed their true selves—gigantic walls of water like roaring lions, seeking for people to devour—only those who were vigilant were saved. A natural disaster is not restricted by location or boundaries. In those tense and chaotic moments, no matter what one’s nationality or background was, everyone was fair game. Everyone had to try and flee in order to save their lives. Indeed, being able to survive and live from day to day has been an enormous grace from God.
My sister-in-law, in particular, deeply felt God’s protection. If she had not told the children and her sisters to go back up to shore, we cannot imagine what could have happened to them. My relatives, who were not yet believers in the Lord, also felt the help from God and were able to experience peace which surpasses all understanding during that time.
From experiencing the earthquake’s aftershocks in the morning to our safe return home, I saw how God watched over and protected us every step along the way. I can only offer unending thanksgiving, with gladness and praise for His glory. Truly, He had given us peace in the midst of the storm. Amen!