U.S. Water News Online
NEW YORK -- Tilly Smith, just 10 years old at the time, put
her geography lessons to good use: By quickly recognizing the warning
signs of a tsunami, the English schoolgirl saved about 100 people
from near-certain death at a Thai resort.
Tilly, now 11, visited the United Nations recently and met former
president Bill Clinton, the U.N. envoy for the tsunami recovery.
"My mum didn't realize what was happening on the beach because she
wasn't taught about tsunamis when she was younger," said Tilly, who
was in New York with her mother, father and sister. The Smith family
all escaped the lethal waves after Tilly's early warning during their
vacation on the island of Phuket.
Two weeks before the Dec. 26, 2004, disaster that took at least
178,000 lives, Tilly had studied tsunamis in her geography class in
Oxshott, a community of about 5,000 just south of London. The
children were shown a video from an earlier tsunami.
Tilly was armed with that knowledge when the Smith family decided
to go for a morning walk on the idyllic beach near the JW Marriott
Phuket Resort and Spa.
Suddenly, "I saw this bubbling on the water, right on the edge,
and foam sizzling just like in a frying pan," she remembered. "The
water was coming in, but it wasn't going out again. It was coming in,
and then in, and then in, towards the hotel."
She recognized it as an indication that earthquake-driven waves
were only minutes away.
Tilly turned to her mother, Penny, "and I said, 'Mum, I know
there's something wrong, I know it's going to happen -- the
When her mother replied that it was just a day at the beach,
"Tilly went hysterical," recalls her father, Colin, who decided to
return to the hotel with her 8-year-old sister, Holly.
While Colin Smith relayed Tilly's warning to the hotel staff, the
girl dashed back toward the beach filled with about 100 people. She
told the Japanese-born hotel chef of the danger, "and he knew the
word tsunami because it's Japanese. But he never saw one."
The chef and a nearby hotel security agent both spread the warning
and the beach was swiftly evacuated -- minutes before the devastating
The beach near the Marriott Hotel was one of the few in Phuket
where no one was killed or seriously hurt.
Tilly was welcomed at U.N. headquarters by officials of the
International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, a Geneva-based U.N.
agency that is trying to educate people worldwide on proper disaster
During last month's earthquake in India and Pakistan, scores of
schools were destroyed and many children died under the rubble.
"Tilly's story is a simple reminder that education can make a
difference between life and death," Clinton said before his meeting
with Tilly. "All children should be taught disaster reduction so they
know what to do when natural hazards strike."
Later, the former president sat next to Tilly on a couch at a
midtown Manhattan hotel and asked her to tell him about what
In countries such as Japan, Cuba, Iran and Bangladesh, people have
learned to live with frequent natural hazards such as floods and
earthquakes, said Salvano Briceno, who directs the Geneva-based U.N.
disaster strategy agency.
"When you have only a few minutes, it is important to know the
actions you must take to reduce your risk, such as running to higher
ground to avoid the flood water," Briceno said.
Soon, Tilly will be back in school -- and in her favorite class.
"I like geography," she said.
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