Thomas Testa expected to awaken Dec. 26, 2004, and hear the familiar sound of waves softly breaking on the shores of Patong Beach in Thailand.
Instead, the San Joaquin County prosecutor heard screams.
Before the morning was over, Testa would watch as the ocean waters receded, then silently and quickly returned -- a gentler version of the tsunami he had avoided by mere minutes.
He would try in vain to recover the bodies of those who had shared the beach with him.
"Part of me wishes I had actually been on that stretch of the beach because I might have been able to help, but I don't know how anyone could survive that destruction," Testa said Friday, hours after arriving back in the United States in time to return to work prosecuting murder suspects.
Vacation like no other
The 53-year-old deputy district attorney had found himself in the midst of a tsunami that would claim the lives of more than 150,000 people. He left Thailand with horrific images still fresh in his mind, with questions of whether he could have somehow helped save victims and with a vague sense of guilt because he survived when others did not.
How you can helpSeveral organizations are accepting donations for victims of the Asian earthquake and tidal wave. Donations to the International Response Fund can be sent via the San Joaquin Chapter of the American Red Cross at 747 N. Pershing Ave., Stockton, CA 95203-5152 or 466-6971.
The office will be open today from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. to accept donations. Visit http://www.sanjoaquincounty.redcross.org for more information.
It is estimated that the International Federation of Red Cross will need $6.5 million to help the half-million people affected. As of noon Wednesday, approximately $18 million had been donated.
The Salvation Army is also on the front line of the "South Asia Disaster relief, providing mass feeding, shelter, clothing, drinking water and medicine "around the clock." Donors who want to support this effort can send their check to:
The Salvation Army-DHP, Attn. South Asia Disaster, P.O. Box 348000, Sacramento CA
You can also call (800) HELP-NOW; or visit http://www.redcross.org.
Among local churches accepting monetary donations:
• The Buddhist Church of Lodi will accept donations at its services and forward them to the Buddhist Churches of America headquarters in San Francisco. The national headquarters will distribute contributions to the proper relief agencies.
• St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Galt will begin collecting money on Sunday, and envelopes will be available for donations. Anyone in the community not connected to a church may drop off donations at St. Luke's on Tuesday, when the office is open. They may also be mailed to St. Luke's Episcopal Church P. O. Box 897 Galt, CA 95632.
• St. John's Episcopal Church in Lodi is participating in the Episcopal Church Relief Agency appeal. The community is invited to public prayers at 8:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. weekdays at the church for people who were killed, their families, those who lost their homes and livelihood, and for the governments and relief agencies.
• Bear Creek Community Church is accepting donations, which will be forwarded to World Vision, a relief organization. Checks may be made out directly to World Vision.
• First Baptist Church of Lodi asks that contributions be made directly to World Vision through its Web site, http://www.worldvision.org, or by calling (800) 777-5777.
• Emanuel Lutheran Church in Lodi is taking contributions to the disaster relief fund organized by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
• Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church in Galt encourages donations to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America's relief fund.
• St. Joachim Catholic Church in Lockeford will accept contributions at Masses this weekend and the weekend of Jan. 8-9. The Stockton Diocese will consider accepting donations Jan. 8-9.
For nearly 25 years, Testa has vacationed in Phuket, Thailand. Every morning, he would go for an hourlong swim.
But, for the first time in the two weeks he'd been vacationing, Testa's routine changed that Sunday morning.
His companion of six months was running late and fussing with some hair extensions, a Christmas present Testa had given her the previous night. So, for once, Testa didn't get to Patong Beach on time. He credits her with saving his life.
Because he was delayed, Testa only learned of the earthquake-caused tsunami after he heard shrieks.
"We heard this screaming outside of our hotel. We ran out and all this water was gushing down the road and piling debris -- beach chairs and refrigerators -- outside our hotel. I just thought it was flooding because I've seen flooding up to my waist many times," he said.
But as he headed toward the beach, it was soon apparent that something else had happened.
"The devastation I saw a quarter mile from the beach was jaw dropping: Refrigerators in the streets, cars stacked up on top of each other, motorcycles thrown inside shops. The closer I got (to the beach), the more damage there was," he said.
Testa and his companion, who was in tears, soon got to the beach. He saw a few bodies, and little else.
"My big question was, 'Where are all the people?' There weren't even any rescuers; there were just a few onlookers. I found out later that the people who would usually be there were dead or washed out to sea," he said.
Gone in a blink of an eye
Over the years, Testa has gotten to know many of the residents and frequent tourists who populate the beach getaway. But when Testa next returns to Phuket, some people won't be there.
Gone is the man who had survived polio, the young employees at a coffee shop Testa frequented daily, the woman and her 6-year-old son who sold fruit on the beach.
"I suspect that a lot of them didn't want to put their fruit down and run because they needed their two or three dollars to make a living," Testa said.
As Testa stood on the beach and tried to figure out how solid concrete shops could simply vanish, he saw the ocean water begin to withdraw.
"The water receded almost as far out as the eye could see. I just stood there transfixed, because I don't think the human mind is wired to run when the water is receding," he said.
The expert swimmer, sailor and scuba diver didn't move, watching in awe as the water disappeared, leaving sea life behind. Seconds later, the water had returned quickly and silently, covering Testa's ankles.
It was only a "mini-tsunami," but then Testa began to understand what had happened.
"Your first instinct isn't to run. I wonder what I would have done had I been on the beach and seen this natural ebbing," he said, his voice trailing off.
Testa soon joined in the recovery effort, hoping to lend his skills to those who had survived. He began at a shopping center basement, where the equivalent of "a small Safeway" had been filled with water, likely trapping people inside.
The store was still full of water, so Testa knew he was on a recovery mission, rather than a rescue operation.
But after an hour, Testa had to stop. The experienced scuba diver was hyperventilating underwater and could no longer help. It came as a surprise to the prosecutor, who has seen countless dead bodies over the years and worked on some of San Joaquin County's most grisly homicide cases.
He spent more than a year on the case of Woodbridge resident Larry McNabney, whose body was found buried in a shallow vineyard.
More than once, Testa prosecuted Wesley Shermantine and Loren Herzog, two men suspected of multiple murders and rape. He got murder convictions for two young men accused in the slashing death of 16-year-old Lodi resident Carlos Ramirez.
Patong Beach wasn't a crime scene he'd ever seen before.
There was something different, Testa said, about being underwater with lifeless victims whose bodies were already bloated.
"Plus, there's this guilt of the survivor. I've heard about this in my homicide cases -- the shooting survivor who lives when another victim does not. If I had been on the beach five minutes earlier, would I have been able to help? There's this certain guilt that I survived when people much younger than me died," Testa said.
Destruction of paradise
All around him, the chaos was growing.
Thailand didn't suffer as much destruction as some countries where the deaths number in the high tens of thousands. But at least 5,000 people were killed, many of them tourists on vacation in Phuket.
Patong Beach, where Testa was supposed to be swimming that morning, was the hardest hit.
There was no electricity and no clean water. Food was running out. Fish was still available, but Testa didn't know where it came from, since no boats were in the water.
Aftershocks from the 9.0 earthquake sent everyone scrambling for higher ground.
Only one road goes into or away from Phuket, and it jammed as survivors tried to escape what they feared might be another deadly wave. When traffic came to a stop, people abandoned their cars and continued on foot, Testa said.
He knows the language, but that wasn't of much help. Testa's swimming and sailing skills were useless because no boats were going out on the water.
In a way, the area had returned to the conditions Testa remembers from more than two decades ago, when the area was a "backpacker's paradise," and when bungalows rented for 50 cents a night.
This time, it wasn't a paradise for anyone.
So, rather than staying and becoming yet another person trying to eat the remaining food, Testa left early.
After the local airport reopened, Testa waited five hours and got a flight out of Phuket. Thursday night, he was in Japan, waiting for a flight home. In the meantime, he replied to an e-mail from a reporter who wondered if he'd been swept away.
Testa survived, as did his companion -- though as of Friday when Testa talked to her by telephone, she wanted to move inland and never again live near the water.
Testa, however, plans to return to Phuket. He even hopes to make a short trip in a few months.
Things won't be the same, though. Some of the people Testa's come to know over the years will have vanished into the sea.
"For me, this is very painful because a lot of those people are still missing. A lot of those people I knew are going to turn out to be dead. Some already are."
Contact reporter Layla Bohm at email@example.com.