Elizabeth Auffenberg of Peregian beach and the surfboard she was on in Sri Lanka when the Boxing Day tsunami hit.
Elizabeth Auffenberg of Peregian beach and the surfboard she was on in Sri Lanka when the Boxing Day tsunami hit. Geoff Potter

The look that saved me

SIX years on from the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, Elizabeth Auffenberg takes nothing for granted.

Her body isn't the same as before and she walks in a different way, but she believes the second she took to look over her shoulder saved her life.

Ms Auffenberg sits at a large wooden table in the dining room of her Peregian Beach home.

As she rests on the table, a slight scar is visible on the underside of her right forearm.

It is a scar that reminds her of the moment she cheated death and beat the odds.

Ms Auffenberg and her partner, Adam Smith, were enjoying a surfing holiday on the west coast of Sri Lanka.

They took a day trip 45km south of Hikkaduwa to Kabalana, a popular tourist surfing destination.

Their rental van sat five metres above the beach on higher land next to a hotel.

While Smith surfed out on the reef, Auffenberg paddled around closer to the shore.

Ms Auffenberg thought two ripples she saw flow past her seemed unusual, so she turned to look over her shoulder.

“On the horizon, it looked like everything was elevated a bit and I looked in front of me and realised at that moment, the spot that was five metres above the water line, was maybe two metres above the water line,” she says.

“Everything had filled up all of a sudden.”

Ms Auffenberg, worried her clothes would get wet, proceeded to paddle to shore.

The beach was filling up like a bath tub and the land was vanishing, right in front of her eyes.

She paddled faster, and could hear screaming.

The ocean was level with the five-metre-high wall now, and as Ms Auffenberg climbed under a wire fence to the rental van, her ponytail was caught.

She freed herself but the surge swept her into the pillared, undercover hotel area.

Heavy, antique furniture had already been smashed by the might of the water and surrounded Ms Auffenberg as she swam for her life.

“I was just focused on not drowning,” Ms Auffenberg says.

“A brick wall next to me collapsed. The noise was like a cargo train. There was broken glass everywhere.”

Ms Auffenberg had one metre left before the water would reach the ceiling, but it was still rising – and quickly.

She got weaker and was struggling to paddle. She lifted her arm out of the water and could not believe what she saw.

A sizeable chunk of flesh was hanging from her arm and her bone was showing.

The adrenaline had prevented her from noticing the vast gash.

“I'd also been cut across the top of my hand and I couldn't move my fingers anymore,” she said.

“I thought, ‘there is a real danger that I die here'.”

Ms Auffenberg, an artist and translator, could have lost her hand.

All the tendons were severed and the bone had been injured.

This would usually mean an end for a painter, but fortunately, Ms Auffenberg paints with her left hand, despite being right-handed.

After the initial wave, a whirlpool began to form, with debris floating around her and being thrust through the water.

Ms Auffenberg also suffered a severed achilles tendon, which hung by a thread, and a large cut to her neck which stopped just before her spinal cord.

Doctors later told Ms Auffenberg if her spinal cord had become infected, she would be a paraplegic.

The water rose closer to the ceiling still, and Ms Auffenberg dived under and swam outside.

The water thrust her towards a large wall which then, luckily, was demolished by the force of the water. She was propelled further, over the fallen wall, and found herself clinging to a tree with her uninjured arm.

“The water stopped all of a sudden and I was hanging in a tree,” she says.

“I couldn't get down because I couldn't move my legs anymore because my tendons had been severed and my legs were bleeding.”

Ms Auffenberg yelled for help. Two Sri Lankan men and an Italian tourist responded to her native German “Hilfe! Hilfe!”, and helped her out of the tree and carried her to the hotel where the rental van had been parked.

It was the only building in the area that still stood.

Ms Auffenberg's thoughts went straight to her partner.

“Adam, in my eyes, was dead,” she says. “It was sheer, black, terror.

“That moment you realise you have survived, but nobody can have survived that when one is out there.

“That's what I was certain of. I was incredibly sad for him.”

Ms Auffenberg started to focus on her own survival, and to her complete shock and tremendous joy, a man walked through the door. It was Mr Smith.

WHITE zinc covered his face and he held his surfboard under his arm. Just as overwhelmed as she was, all that managed to escape his lips was “you're here” and “what the hell was that?”

He buried his head into her as she lay in her own blood-soaked sheets. A minute went by and the screaming started again.

A second wave came.

It lapped the floor of the room the survivors had gathered in.

The survivors sought higher ground.

As Mr Smith carried Ms Auffenberg, they saw train tracks hanging in palm trees, resembling conventional power lines.

Smith grew tired and borrowed a local's pushbike to balance Ms Auffenberg.

Other selfless locals had a car, which they put Ms Auffenberg in.

A few hundred metres further on they arrived at a temple. Then the looting began.

“People started grabbing whatever they could,” Ms Auffenberg said.

“The locals had already organised themselves in a sort of militia and they were beating up the looters.”

Ms Auffenberg spent the night in the temple, wrapped in rags to cover her wounds, and lay on a bench in an attempt to repel fleas and mosquitoes crawling on her and feasting on her wounds.

The next day saw Auffenberg and Smith share a ride with locals to Colombo.

The locals had no fuel so Smith siphoned the remaining diesel from the rental van and used it as their ticket out.

Ms Auffenberg spent three days in hospital in Colombo.

Although she still has some trouble with her injuries, she doesn't like to think of it as a negative experience. “My body definitely isn't the same as before. I even walk in a different way because all of the tendons had been cut and everything healed on its own. I have a different level of control over my feet.

“But it's a reminder. A constant reminder not to take anything for granted.”

“Things like waking up in the morning and being able to breathe properly.”

She has visited Sri Lanka three times since the tsunami, and she'll be back again.

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