Trading the Dream: One Family’s Story of Purpose

Hilary Alan: "In 2006 we let go of everything that was familiar to us. … Nothing would ever be the same."

After the first tsunami wave struck, it was followed by a second and then a third. The waves were so deadly that hundreds of thousands of lives were claimed in a matter of minutes. The waves were high enough to knock off the top of a 10-story-high lighthouse. The same waves carried boats that were miles out at sea onto previously dry land. Wave-borne boats crushed homes and people in their paths. A huge 10-megawatt diesel power plant that had been mounted on a barge several miles offshore landed atop several homes in the middle of a village five kilometers inland. It remains there today.

There were people living miles inland who, though unaware of the devastation being wrought along the coast, somehow knew to run. Maybe it was instinct, maybe it was panic and maybe it was divine intervention. Many of them started running even before the deadly invading waters were visible. And those who remained behind, traumatized from the earthquake, soon saw the water racing toward them.

The dangers were mounting, and those who had not followed their instincts to run were now forced to confront what at first appeared to be minor flooding. But within seconds, low-lying areas filled with water, and it kept coming. The water level rose several stories high. People were killed by advancing waters because they had no time to react.

At the time, this province had no tsunami warning or sophisticated communication system to alert the people to what was happening at the coast. In a panic, people responded the only way they knew—they ran for their lives. Men, women, children—old and young—climbed on anything that was above what they anticipated to be flood level. But even those who tried to run were overcome by the explosion of rushing water. In seconds, deadly debris raced into the city as corpses, body parts, vehicles, fragments of buildings, boats and the debris of unidentifiable wreckage was swirling in blackened, poisonous waters. The screams of fleeing city dwellers were suddenly silenced as the waters overtook them.

In a matter of minutes, approximately 230,000 human lives were claimed by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami. And while this cataclysmic, life-changing event took place in Southeast Asia, I was half a world away and completely unaware.

When the Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami hit Southeast Asia, it was still Christmas night in North Carolina. I was safe in my comfortable home, doing what I’d been training all my life to do. I was living for myself.

At the time of the greatest natural disaster of my generation, I was a 41-year-old, upper-middle-class Christian American living a charmed life. The only thing I really cared about was making life as wonderful as possible for my family of four. So while thousands of people were losing their lives on the opposite side of the world, I was packing for a winter vacation in Florida.

The following Monday, news outlets in the West were reporting the horrific events that had transpired in the East. I was traveling south with my family in our Volvo station wagon. Thankful for the car’s heated seats and munching on snacks from Whole Foods, my thoughts involved the hope that we would make good time as we headed toward Crystal River, Fla. The four of us were looking forward to swimming with manatees.

In the late morning we took a break at a rest stop just across the state line in South Carolina. It felt good to stretch our legs after driving the first few hours of a 10-hour road trip. It was a beautiful, sunny day in the southeastern United States, and the temperatures were mild for late December. But when I got back in the car, tragedy struck.

My seat belt wouldn’t latch.

I tugged and pulled and then yanked on the belt, but it wouldn’t click. I wasn’t going to ride on I-95 in the front seat of a car without a seat belt, but I didn’t want to spend the rest of my vacation riding in the less-comfortable back seat either! There wasn’t anything we could do to fix a seat belt at a rest stop in South Carolina, so I climbed into the backseat between my son, Jordan, and my daughter, Molly. Curt got back on the highway, and I started calling Volvo roadside assistance, demanding immediate attention. This was definitely a case where quick action was really needed.

We found a Volvo dealer in Savannah, Ga. The service attendants were polite, even though they were stuck having to work on the Monday after Christmas. For my part I was thankful they were working so they could rescue us when we really needed it.

We were led to a comfortable waiting room where a television was tuned to a news channel. As we pulled lunches out of our cooler, we noticed the TV was showing footage of a disaster on the other side of the world. Since I was the one distributing sandwiches and drinks, I was only half watching and half listening. I was more concerned with getting everyone fed so we could be on our way as soon as the seat belt was repaired. While I ate my lunch and waited for what I considered to be my own little road-trip tragedy, I saw my first images of the Asian tsunami. CNN was covering the disaster, broadcasting from Phuket, Thailand.

“Wow. That looks really bad.”

I felt for the people who were suffering as the result of the earthquake and tsunami, but with typical feelings of detachment. None of this was happening within the borders of the United States.

I’ll be honest. The distance I felt from what I was seeing was both emotional and physical. I was much more concerned with how much time we would lose due to the interruption of the broken seat belt.

Plus, I had never heard of Phuket, Thailand. To my way of thinking, if a natural disaster wasn’t affecting the United States, let alone the interstate highway between North Carolina and Florida, I didn’t think it was anything we needed to be overly concerned about.

Just as we finished our lunch, a service technician appeared and said the magic words: “Okay, you’re all set!”

It turned out that this stop had not been too inconvenient. And it was so much nicer to eat in a comfortable waiting room rather than a roadside rest stop.

“Wonderful! Let’s get to Florida!”