An openly gay Chicago interior designer and frequent guest on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Nate Berkus, tells CNN.com that he survived the world's worst earthquake in 40 years--and ensuing wall of water known as a tsunami--by hanging on to a telephone pole. Berkus was vacationing in Sri Lanka when the devastation occurred. His friend, photographer Fernando Bengoechea, was torn away from the same pole, and Berkus said he hasn't heard from him since.
Sunday's massive quake of 9.0 magnitude off the Indonesian island of Sumatra's northern tip sent 500-mph waves surging across the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal in the deadliest known tsunami since the one caused by the 1883 volcanic eruption at Krakatoa located off Sumatra's southern tip, which killed an estimated 36,000 people. The death toll stood at more than 22,000 on Monday night, including thousands in Sri Lanka, where Berkus was.
Bodies washed up on tropical beaches and piled up in hospitals Monday, raising fears of disease across a 10-nation arc of destruction. Thousands were missing, and millions homeless. Humanitarian agencies began what the United Nations said would become the biggest relief effort the world has ever seen. Eight Americans were among the dead, and U.S. embassies in the region were trying to track down hundreds more who were unaccounted for.
Berkus, who now runs a Chicago-based interior design service, called his mother on Sunday morning. This was the message that greeted her on her answering machine: "Mother, it's Nate. Listen to me very carefully, OK? There's been a horrible natural disaster in Sri Lanka. I am fine. I just want you to know that I am fine and that I will call when I have an opportunity."
Berkus described the tidal wave to CNN: "All of a sudden the roof was ripped off the cottage, and my friend and I were taken out to sea. We were able to hang on to a telephone pole with a mattress wedged between us for literally 30 seconds. There was a calm in the storm, and then another wave hit. Both of us were torn away from the phone pole."
Berkus said he climbed to safety on the roof of a home. But he has not heard from Bengoechea.
Bengoechea, who has photographed such celebrities as Donna Karan and Naomi Campbell, was born in Buenos Aires and grew up mostly in Brazil. Fluent in five languages and well-traveled, he arrived in New York to study cinematography and photography.
The disaster could be the costliest in history as well, with "many billions of dollars" of damage, said U.N. undersecretary Jan Egeland, who is in charge of emergency relief coordination. Hundreds of thousands have lost everything, and millions face a hazardous future because of polluted drinking water, a lack of sanitation, and no health services, he said.
Dazed tourists evacuated the popular island resorts of southern Thailand, where the Thai-American grandson of King Bhumibol Adulyadej was listed as one of more than 900 people dead. Scores more died in Malaysia, Myanmar, Bangladesh, and the Maldives. A large proportion of southern Asia's dead were children--as many as half the victims in Sri Lanka, according to officials there. A bulldozer dug a mass grave in southern India for 150 young boys and girls, as their weeping parents looked on.