On the day after Christmas in 2004, (one decade ago today,) an enormous magnitude 9.1 earthquake hit beneath the Indian Ocean off the coast of Indonesia. If the massive earthquake weren’t enough, what was generated next was an enormous tsunami, which is now one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history. The tsunami took 230,000 lives in 14 countries, with Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand facing the worst of the wave. When unbelievable disaster like this strikes, it can be hard to believe in stories of hope — but digging through the wreckage of the death and heartbreak there always are. In this case, one of those stories was the quick thinking of one little girl who managed to save 100 lives.
Her name is Tilly Smith. At the time of the earthquake she was 10 years old, vacationing on Maikhao Beach in Phuket, Thailand with her family from the UK. Smith had only weeks before had a lesson back home in England on tectonic plates, tsunamis, and the earthquakes that can cause them. When the water began acting strangely, she was paying close attention.
“The water was swelling and kept coming in,” Smith’s mother Penny recalled to National Geographic. “There was froth on it like you get on the top of a beer.”
“Tilly said she’d just studied this at school — she talked about tectonic plates and an earthquake under the sea,” Penny Smith continued. “She got more and more hysterical. In the end she was screaming at us to get off the beach.”
Good thing Tilly was paying attention that day in school. Thanks to her observations, she and her family fled the beach, warning other tourists and hotel staff of the potential danger. More than 100 people took shelter thanks to the Smiths’ advice. When the three tsunami waves hit, the family was taking shelter in their third floor hotel room, which withstood the surging water.