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MIRACULOUS ESCAPE

 

Only days after the tsunami struck Asia, David Staniforth, related the story of his flight to survival. Kevin McCallum, Chief Sports Writer for The Star newspaper in Johannesburg, tells how he fled for his life and how he helped others to safety.

 

South African goalkeeper David Staniforth, who narrowly escaped death in the tsunami disaster, is, as any of his teammates will tell you, a man you would gladly go into battle with. He is also, as are goalkeepers, a little mad, a rolling ball of energy who is also quite possibly the best tender of a goal in the world.


Just after Christmas last year Staniforth learnt something new about himself in the tsunami disaster that took so many lives in south east Asia. He learnt that under the most intense pressure, when others are verging on mass hysteria, he can be a leader and show guidance. The most important thing he learnt was the fine line between life and death and how quickly and easily it can be snatched away.


Staniforth and his fiancée, Julie Onody, were an hour away from losing their lives at the beach resort of Railey on mainland Thailand. A boat that was supposed to pick them up at 10am was an hour late, arriving at 11am. Staniforth had a small argument with the boatman for his tardiness as they pushed the boat out on to the water. They weren’t going too quickly and when Staniforth looked over the edge of the boat saw that the beach had receded by 10 metres. He got out to help push and when he looked up saw a massive wave about 80m out rushing towards the shore. He grabbed his fiancée, his bags and ran for his life.


“We still can't believe how lucky we are. We met so many people on the beach, people we became good friends with and we don't know how many of them survived,” said Staniforth, who tells the story best in the email he sent home and which is included at the end of this story.


He set up a committee of the survivors to facilitate the passing on of information and to give comfort to those still bewildered by the destruction of the wave. It was the same sort of leadership and determination that has followed Staniforth for most of his hockey career. As a youngster growing up in Durban, Staniforth was never what one would call a star and played in “B” teams for most of his early hockey career.


He made his debut for South Africa against Italy in 2001 and, along with Chris Hibbert, has been a regular in the team ever since. Under Paul Revington, though, South Africa have used a policy of revolving their ’keepers and while Hibbert is a fine tender there is little doubting that Staniforth is the best in South Africa right now. He was voted as the best goalkeeper at the BDO Champions Challenge in Randburg in South Africa in 2003, but his proudest moment came last year during the qualifying for the Olympics in Madrid.


After the disappointment of the team not being selected for the Sydney Olympics because of some political infighting, South Africa were desperate to get to Athens. They had a topsy-turvy tournament in Madrid and in the final match to decide the final place in Athens, Greg Nicol had scored the equaliser with just 20 seconds to go. The match went into a penalty shootout and Revington made one of the biggest calls of his young career. He sent on Staniforth as a replacement for Hibbert.


Staniforth delivered, saving the flick from Jean-Philippe Brule, putting South Africa through to the Olympic Games. Once there Staniforth shone, particularly at penalty corners. Not a man fond of logging at corners, Staniforth flung himself left and right, particularly against Argentina, the only match South Africa won, coming from behind to take 2-1. Staniforth has frighteningly quick reflexes and kept them in the game at penalty corner time.


The Durban ’keeper turns 29 in a few months time and wants to play in at least one more Olympic Games before calling it a day. One can only believe that his experience in Thailand, his brush with death, will push him to enjoy every day like it’s his last.

Here is Staniforth’s account of what happened on the fateful day the tsunami hit, sent in an email to his friends and family:
Wednesday, December 29, 2004 11.40am
“What a terrible tragedy. I don't think the Western world quite
understands how terrible this disaster is. We have, obviously, spent a lot of time with survivors of the tsunamis and heard some really sad stories; stories of people losing limbs, loved ones and in some cases, their homes and businesses.


“These stories we will tell you when we home as it upsets me to even think of them. All I can say is that God has spared our lives and given us another chance.


“(The boat) was being pushed into the water by the boat men when the water got sucked from under the boat. All of a sudden we were on dry land again. Not only on dry land, but about 10 metres up the beach. It was unbelievable. We all had to get off the boat to push and I told Julz to stay on the boat. She jumped off and said there was no ways she was staying on without me.


“We looked over the sea at the beach next door and saw what was an absolutely perfect wave racing, and I mean racing, to the shore. It didn't look that big until it hit a cliff and we saw an enormous spray. I looked out at sea and saw boats tumbling towards us about 80 metres out on a huge perfect wave.


“I grabbed our bags and sprinted, screaming to people on the way to run. I looked back and just saw chaos behind us. We ran through our resort, through a construction site, over a fence and up a hill. We ran barefoot through the construction site and over paths with thorns, broken glass and sharp stones and didn't even suffer a scratch. I fell quite badly over a fence as I was carrying all our luggage, which I ripped off the boat from under about 20 people's bags. I don't know how I found the strength to do it.


“About 500 people were stranded with us and they were screaming and crying. There was mass hysteria. All of a sudden we saw two massive waves about 3km out at sea rushing at an incredible pace towards Krabi and people started going crazy. It was really weird because I assumed control and stood on a table and started shouting to everyone to relax and stay calm. I believe people would have died from trampling towards the cliffs behind us and warned them that we were in more danger from ourselves than from any more waves.



“I spoke to the people every 20 minutes or so and reassured them of our safety telling them that we were far away from the sea and high enough to not have to worry. I also organised a chain to move all the tables off the deck we were standing on as I believed this could also be dangerous if we were surrounded by water. It also gave something for the people to do and took their minds off the massive waves. We set up a medical area where we had four doctors helping out. After a while four more people joined me and we set up a committee: there was a German, an Aussie, a Pommy girl and one other girl who were receiving information.


“People were told to come to us with information and we would pass on all the details to everyone when required. People would come to us in tears seeking reassurance and we all agreed to put on a brave and confident show. We were petrified ourselves as we heard the various information being relayed to us.


“The Thai people were scared as they were receiving news on radio from the other islands and we heard of the many deaths. I am not to sure how many people died on our beach or even on our boat but I pray that there weren't too many.


“We spent the night up on the hill and as you can imagine it really started to smell. There was a terrible whiff of sewerage as there weren't many toilets. People were very good to each other and the Thais even opened a bar - quite a few people drank the night away, which I think was the only way to get their minds off the tragedy.


“We went back to the resort the next day and found it in ruins. The island was shattered. We were eventually rescued by two ferries and a few army boats and made our way to Krabi were there were thousands of people looking for friends and family. It was very sad. We caught a bus to the airport, booked ourselves on the next flight, which was only the next day, booked into a hotel and watched the death toll climb on TV. We are slowly getting over the disaster. We still struggle to sleep and have had terrible nightmares every time we have gone to bed. I hope they stop soon. I hope to hear from you all soon and apologise if you have been upset while reading this rather horrible email.


'All our love, us.'



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