The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

The Valley

March 27, 2013

Tsunami survivor from Mifflinburg to talk about ordeal

LEWISBURG — Karl Purnell, of Mifflinburg, who survived the disastrous tsunami in Thailand by climbing a tree on Phuket Island, will discuss his near-death experience before the showing of the movie “Impossible” at the Campus Theater on Friday and Saturday.

The film, starring Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor, tells the story of a family caught in the tsunami where Purnell was located on Christmas Day 2004. The cinematography of the film shows the huge power of the waves and how little chance there was for most people to survive.

When the 30-foot wave struck at 9:30 a.m., Purnell was trapped in a small cybercafe next to Patong Beach where he had gone to email holiday greetings to friends and family. The wave immediately washed up a large desk against the door from an outside patio, blocking the only exit. However, a few minutes later, just before the room filled up with sea water, a second wave crashed onto the beach and floated the desk away, allowing Purnell to push the door open, jump into the waves and climb a nearby tree.

About 40 others also trapped in the small shops on the same beachfront street died before being able to escape. Purnell said he heard them screaming as he escaped the cybercafe and realized they were all drowning because they wouldn’t take a chance on leaving the shops and leaping into the wave.

The tsunami claimed  the lives of 5,000 people in Thailand and an estimated 230,000 in other southeastern Asian countries.

Purnell, who grew up in Mifflinburg, is a former Vietnam War correspondent and writer who has written several books about adventure travel, including a “Mountain Too Far,” which describes his experiences climbing high-altitude mountains around the world. He said that because of his own survival experiences, he has tried to analyze why some people live and others perish in a disaster.

“Luck is the most important factor. If you don’t have that, you die,” he said. However, he believes survivors also follow certain rules of behavior that often allow them to avoid being killed.

He calls these rules “The Tsunami Principles.”

“They’re the same principles you have to follow in order to survive the difficulties of everyday life,” he said.

While escaping the tsunami waves, Purnell suffered minor cuts and had a hole punched in his arm. “I went to the Patong Hospital, but there were so many wounded and dying people stacked in the reception area, there was no time for my small wound. I came back the next day, and they operated on my arm with no anesthesia since it had all been used the day before, he said.

Purnell’s talk will begin at 7:15 p.m., and the movie will start at 8 both days.

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