Oklahomans survive deadly Asian tsunami

Friday, December 31st 2004, 6:07 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Oklahomans who survived a deadly tsunami that killed at least 117,000 people throughout Asia said they are lucky to be alive.

``I feel lucky for our group. I feel like the Lord protected us,'' said Tonya Zunigha, 24, of El Reno, who graduated from the University of Central Oklahoma in September 2003.

Zunigha was one of three Oklahomans who ran for their lives when a gigantic wave created by a tsunami scoured Patong Beach in Phuket, Thailand, on Sunday.

All three made it to safety and returned Tuesday to India with a group of 11 cultural exchange students _ five from Oklahoma and six from Arkansas.

``There were 11 of us, and we all had plans to be on the beach that day. For one reason or another, no one was there,'' she said.

Zunigha described her harrowing experience in an interview by satellite phone with The Oklahoman Thursday.

``I saw this wave,'' she said. ``It had to have been at least 15 feet, I would say. I knew I had to get out of there.''

Zunigha said she and her companions, Mark McEntyre, 25, of Muskogee and Josh Moseby, 23, of Tulsa took off running inland.

``I was running with Mark and Josh, but I outran them. I kept turning around and thinking, 'Where are they?' But I kept on running,'' Zunigha said.

``She was running like Quentin Griffin,'' McEntyre said. ``I was thinking, 'Man, I hope I don't get hit.'''

The wave was the smallest to strike Patong Beach that morning.

Zunigha said she was sleeping in her hotel room four blocks from the beach when she was shaken awake by what she now believes was the earthquake that caused the tsunami.

By the time she got up and dressed, McEntyre and his wife, Amanda McEntyre of Westville, had returned from an aborted motorbike trip. They turned back when they saw people running toward them from the beach.

``We immediately turned left away from the beach. Amanda saw a wave of water flow into the street we had just been on. She described it as a river,'' McEntyre said.

The fifth Oklahoman in the group, Crystal Reeves, 23, of Moore stayed at the hotel.

At the time, the young Oklahomans knew nothing of the waves.

``We were like, 'Tidal wave? What in the world?''' Zunigha said.

They went outside, where a crowd gathered.

``Me and Josh and Mark decided to go down to the beach,'' Zunigha said. ``I didn't know the seriousness of it.''

She grabbed her camera, and the trio slogged through water and picked past debris.

``The street going toward the beach was flooded. There were WaveRunners and Thai guys in the street catching fish.''

She said, ``All the businesses on the main strip that runs parallel to the beach were completely, utterly destroyed. All the glass was knocked out and cars were inside hotels.''

They had been on the beach about 10 minutes taking pictures when they saw a third wave rising out of the sea and ran to safety.

The group is spending a year in India arranged by International Cultural Exchange.