PHUKET, Thailand – With the change of a tide, a family Christmas sailing trip around the world brought a Toms River, N.J., couple from paradise into a life-or-death situation.
The Meusches were sailing around the world with about 25 other sailboats. On Dec. 26, the day of the tsunami, they arrived off of the island of Phi Phi (search).
Most of the crew stayed on their respective boats that fateful morning, but Helen and Ed Meusch ventured shoreward. They decided to walk out into once covered land, as did many others.
They remember fishermen in the distance yelling and waving as the tsunami (search) came toward shore. They turned and began to run away. Ed said he knew they were in serious trouble when a motorboat came crashing down near them. The boat scattered into pieces as the couple decided to bear hug and ride out the endless wave.
The water "flattened us against the sand," said Helen. "It seemed like it kept us down there for a minute."
Ed remembers being washed over the beach where he once stood.
"I kept waiting to hit something ... a tree, a building ... a boat," he said. "I figured the water would eventually stop. We couldn't possibly cross over this island."
But they did.
The main land portion of Phi Phi sits between two large rock formations. The strip is about a half-mile long and about 300 yards wide.
Within a minute's time, the Meusches were washed from the east bay across the island to the west bay, hit by several hard waves and kept under water most of the time.
Ed kept hold of Helen. He saw that she was turning pale and grasped for anything to pull his head above the water.
"While under a boat for a second I thought it was over and there was a peacefulness about it," he said.
At that time his hand latched onto an overturned motor that was attached to a small boat. He pulled himself up and got Helen's head resting on the boat. He could see she was dying.
Just then a fisherman in another small boat spotted the stranded couple. He picked them up and got them out of the water. Helen and Ed said they saw seriously injured people screaming for help and many other bodies just floating like dolls in a bathtub.
Finally, a charter boat approached and took the couple aboard. The crew gave oxygen to Helen, which she desperately needed because her intake of water had been severe.
Ed and the captain grabbed one person and tried to help another, but then Ed was faced with the decision of a lifetime, he said.
Either leave the island and head for Phuket (search), which was three hours away, and get Helen, who was fading fast, to a hospital. Or, risk letting his wife die to look for others.
Ed made the call for the hospital.
Helen has since recovered after days in intensive care and a bout with pneumonia (search). They will rest on the island of Phuket for the next six weeks, then fly to Africa to rejoin their sailing friends.
"I feel like I belong to the people of Thailand," Helen said tearfully. "They saved my life, this hospital saved my life, my husband saved my life."
Ed remains very grateful and thankful his wife has survived, but he is battling with the life or death decision that he made to rush his wife to safety.
"I remember their faces, each and every one. I will never forget them. I have to live with the fact that we left for Helen and I didn't try to save more lives," he said.