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Pitkin deputy survives quake

Chad Abraham
The body of a man is left in the ruins as tourists with their belongings head for the pier in an evacuation of Phi Phi Island Monday. Giant waves swept through this famous tourist resort in Krabi province, southern Thailand. (AP Photo/Apichart Weerawong)
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A Pitkin County deputy who was in southern Asia on a scuba-diving trip when a massive earthquake and tsunami devastated the region Sunday was unharmed, his sister said Monday.Randy Smith, an avid scuba diver and 16-year veteran in the sheriff’s office, e-mailed his sister and told her he was safe after the magnitude 9.0 quake, the fourth largest ever recorded. He also said he was staying behind to assist in what the United Nations said would become the biggest relief effort the world has ever seen.

The natural disaster has killed 22,000 people in 10 countries and left millions homeless. Thousands remain missing and the death toll is expected to climb far higher.The region is one of Smith’s favorite travel destinations, said investigator Bruce Benjamin. Smith’s sister, who lives in Maryland, called a dispatcher in the Pitkin County communications center to pass on word that he was not hurt.”She wanted to make sure we knew that he was OK,” Benjamin said. “We were concerned about him.”Smith was planning on staying in Phuket, a hard-hit island resort in Thailand, but it was unknown if that is where he was when the quake struck. Chaos erupted at the airport in Phuket yesterday as hundreds of tourists, many wounded and weeping, tried to board planes, The Associated Press reported.For Smith, Thailand was an ideal spot to indulge in his underwater passion.

He has been “scuba diving most of his adult life,” Benjamin said. “He’s traveled to Thailand previously and it’s one of his favorite vacation spots. Randy’s a single guy with no kids, so he really enjoys traveling internationally, particularly in Thailand.”Southern Asia is a popular destination for Aspenites, partly because of its low cost, said Lynn Rosenfield of The Travel Agents.”It’s inexpensive and it’s got nice beaches,” she said. Rosenfield hadn’t booked a trip to Thailand for anyone before the epic storm hit.”Most everybody here travels in the spring and fall,” she said. “Once a disaster happens, it will keep them away for a while.”The quake was caused by an ongoing collision between the India plate, beneath the Indian Ocean seabed, and the Burma plate under the islands and that part of the continent, seismologists with the U.S. Geological Survey said. It unleashed a tsunami, a series of waves generated by underwater seismic disturbances, that blasted villages and resort areas with 40-foot walls of water.

Dazed tourists evacuated the popular island resorts of southern Thailand, where the Thai-American grandson of revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej was listed as one of more than 900 people dead. Scores more died in Malaysia, Myanmar, Bangladesh and the Maldives. The waves raced 2,800 miles across the Indian Ocean to Africa, killing hundreds of people in Somalia and three in the Seychelles, according to The Associated Press.Eight Americans were among the dead, and U.S. embassies in the region were trying to track down hundreds more who were unaccounted for.Officials in Thailand and Indonesia conceded that immediate public warnings of gigantic waves could have saved lives. The only known warning issued by Thai authorities reached resort operators when it was too late. The waves hit Sri Lanka and India more than two hours after the quake.But governments insisted they couldn’t have known the true danger because there is no international system in place to track tsunamis in the Indian Ocean, and they could not afford the sophisticated equipment to build one.Australian Prime Minister John Howard said he would investigate what role his country could play in setting up an Indian Ocean warning system. The head of the British Commonwealth bloc of Britain and its former colonies called for talks on creating a global early warning system for tsunamis.

For most people around the shores across the region, the only warning Sunday of the disaster came when shallow coastal waters disappeared, sucked away by the approaching tsunami, before returning as a massive wall of water. The waves wiped out villages, lifted cars and boats, yanked children from the arms of parents and swept away beachgoers, scuba divers and fishermen.Smith is due back at the sheriff’s office on Jan. 14.The Associated Press and The New York Times contributed to this report. Chad Abraham’s e-mail address is chad@aspentimes.com


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