When Todd and Kara Alexander left for a month-long vacation to Sri Lanka a week before Christmas, the Oak Bluffs couple was looking forward to relaxing in the warm sun and white sand beaches of Arugam Bay.
Mrs. Alexander is in the early stages of pregnancy, and the thought of a beach resort they had read about in the travel guide sounded like an ideal tonic.
But after last weekend's deadly tsunamis tore through much of Southeast Asia, devastating Sri Lanka in the process, the Oak Bluffs couple returned home on Wednesday, unharmed and shaking their heads at their good fortune.
In a conversation with the Gazette yesterday, the couple talked about their experience at the epicenter of one of the worst natural disasters in recent history and how one seemingly inconsequential decision turned out to be a potentially life-saving twist of fate.
"You think about everything, you look back now on the devastation, and all you really think is that you were just in the right place at the right time," Mr. Alexander said. "We were very lucky when so many were not."
The Alexanders had originally planned to drive directly to Arugam Bay the day before the tsunamis struck.
But after flipping through their guide book and reading about a Buddhist temple situated among the hills, they opted to head inland to Kandy, a city high in the hills in the middle of the island.
"We wanted to see the temple," he said. "It was just a quick decision."
The next morning at 9 a.m. local time, the first giant wave struck the eastern rim of Sri Lanka at Arugam Bay, one of the hardest hit areas in Sri Lanka, where upwards of 28,000 people have reportedly died in the disaster.
"It's just fate," Mrs. Alexander said. "So many people went through so much worse, it even feels wrong telling our story. We didn't go through that hell. We just happened to be at the highest point on the island."
The vacation was supposed to be a three-week trip, but became a four-day odyssey. On Christmas Eve they flew from Paris into the capital city of Colombo, intending to make their way across to the east coast to Arugam Bay over the next few days. They spent the first two days in a hotel on the beach just north of Galle, before heading to Kandy.
Mr. Alexander, who is the Oak Bluffs harbor master, said with his wifes pregnancy, the couple's biggest concern was avoiding illness transmitted through food or water.
"We wanted a low-key, careful, less adventurous vacation," she said.
The Alexanders admit they didn't know the extent of the disaster until they were out of the country. Their primary source of information after the tidal waves hit was their driver, who insisted on taking them to the airport rather than to Arugam Bay.
"That morning, when we hadn't heard about it yet, our driver wouldn't take us to the beach," Mr. Alexander said. "We wanted to go, but he kept mentioning some storm. We were pretty confused because the weather was perfect, and he was being sort of weird. He never mentioned it specifically, and we definitely weren't thinking about a tsunami. At that time, why would we?"
The driver, whose brother had notified him about the flooding via cell phone, drove them straight to a hotel directly across from the airport. It was there that they saw the first images of the disaster.
"We should probably try to leave now," Mr. Alexander remembered thinking.
They booked a flight to Paris for the following Thursday, but as people began to flood the airport in search of flights, they decided to catch an earlier flight to London leaving at 4:30 a.m. on Tuesday. At the gate, they witnessed for the first time the scale of loss.
"There were lot of weeping passengers in the terminal," Mrs. Alexander said. "But even then, we had no idea how bad it really was."
On the plane to London, the couple sat next to a woman with a bandaged leg who was swept out of her hotel room and driven down into the basement of the building.
"She was sucked down, like she was in a drain, with all the deck chairs and furniture," Mr. Alexander said. "She said when they pulled her out she had only inches of room left to breathe."
When the couple landed in London, there were reporters and cameramen waiting at the gate. They saw the headlines. Mrs. Alexander recalled a story she heard about a 20-week old baby in Indonesia that was found alive on a floating mattress.
Since Sunday, family and friends have been trying desperately to contact them, Mr. Alexander said. The couple's cell phone and e-mail were flooded with inquiries, but they didn't have access to either until they returned to the United States.
Gordon Healey helped notify other friends and family members that the couple was safe. He even left an outgoing message on their answering machine notifying callers that the Alexanders were okay.
While the experience has left them relieved, the couple said they mostly feel humbled.
"Families are going through hell right now, and we don't really feel like we deserve to be telling this story," Mr. Alexander said. "We are the lucky ones. What else can you say?"