Crashing Down

A Tsunami Stole His Family, But Nothing Can Take His Spirit

Sh!t You Should Know | Mia Rafowitz | April 5, 2016

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“When I looked out at the horizon, it was like the ocean was pulling back – sucking itself in,” Victor Israelsson, a 23-year-old senior, explains as we sit together overlooking the calm lake at UM. He tells me that the ocean then began to recede further, enabling him to see the reefs, as well as the fish jumping, almost dancing atop the water. Bystanders were fascinated, taking their video cameras out and documenting the scene as a cloud-like wall began to close in on the beach.

It sounds like a dream, but there was no waking up from the reality of what was about to occur.

On December 26, 2004, the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami struck the earth, killing over 230,000 people in 14 countries. It was the world’s second-most powerful earthquake, hitting a 9.3 on the Richter scale. When it reached Khao Lak, Thailand, 12-year old Israelsson was caught in its tumultuous horrors.

To survive a disaster like this, you have to be tough. And when you look at Israelsson, it’s clear that he radiates strength. It’s not just his sharp blue eyes or physical stature that give it away – it’s in his purposeful gaze, and in the way his words emanate certainty and passion. He is powerful, ardent in character, and has a “fuck it mentality”, he jokes.

Israelsson grew up just like anybody else. He had an older brother, Lucas, and younger sister, Sara, “without the H,” he clarifies. He was raised in the suburbs of Sweden, and had a sailing boat. His dad owned his own business and his mother was a P.E. teacher. The family spent time together playing sports and taking trips to Spain and Italy.

Israelsson’s brother, Lucas and sister, Sara
Victor’s mother and father, Gullan (right) and Hans (left)

But in 2004, the family ventured outside of Europe to vacation, visiting Khao Lak, Thailand to celebrate Christmas for the first time outside of Sweden.

“I was skeptical about going somewhere tropical,” Victor says. But as a mountain lover, Victor admits he quickly fell for Thailand, and the first few days of his trip were amazing.

They arrived on December 22nd, and spent days sunbathing and enjoying the beauty of Southeast Asia. What he didn’t know was that this vacation would alter the course of his entire life.

“It happened on the 26th of December,” Israelsson explains. He was 12 at the time, his brother 14, and his sister 7. The family woke up just like any other day at their resort. They had breakfast and headed to the beach. Upon arrival, they discovered their usual spot was full, so the family ventured further down to find a few chairs with an open area behind them. What happened next, nobody expected.

“I didn’t know what a tsunami was. I don’t think a lot of people my age- even adults knew what it was. Everyone was just on the beach with their video cameras.”

All of the sudden though, things changed. On the horizon, it looked as if a wall was coming towards the beach, “like very low-sitting clouds – coming towards us. We had no idea what was going on.”

“Until we realized – it’s a wave.”

Israelsson describes the moment he understood the immense volume of the wave. The Princess of Thailand was staying just a few miles down the beach, so military boats were everywhere. As one boat headed towards the wave, it flipped the ship completely over. A huge boat, in complete destruction.

When Israelsson realized the power of the wave, “It was already too late.”

His mother immediately grabbed hold of his sister, and the family began to run in the opposite direction. As they escaped downhill, they heard a loud noise – “like a plane or a train coming for you.”

And before he knew it, the wave hit. Israelsson was sucked into the water. He stood up after a few seconds of being submerged and started screaming. Just as quickly as he could stand, he was knocked down into the water again. But he didn’t surrender to the wave.

“At this point, it’s all survival”. He experienced getting hit by bricks, cars, and everything else the wave took down as he was thrown back and forth.

“When people ask me how it felt – I just say, imagine being thrown into a washing machine and someone pressing play for 10-15 minutes.”

As the flood began to slow and Israelsson was able to get his head out of the water, he saw complete chaos. He clutched some wood near a tree and sat down. Too weak to cry, he sat in silence – observing the destruction with adolescent eyes.

Destruction from the Tsunami in Phuket, Thailand

The memories don’t necessarily bother Israelsson, but they live vividly within his mind.

He recalls the moment he was finally able to regain his voice; he began to yell for his mother in Swedish. A different Swedish woman understood his cries and came to his rescue.

A pick-up truck then arrived and they jumped onto it with other wounded survivors of what had just been one of the deadliest tsunamis in history. They began to head towards the mountains to a base camp, where Israelsson met a Dutch girl around the same age as his sister and exchanged a few words in English with her before he passed out.

In the middle of the night, screams awoke Israelsson. Rumors of another wave were sending panic throughout the area. Even though they were too far up the mountain to realistically be hit by another wave, people were traumatized and thinking irrationally, so they began to run far up into the jungle. “There were insects, traps – I got tangled in all types of shit. And we spent a couple of hours up there in complete darkness.”

When the group realized nothing was happening they began to walk back down again. Still dark, ambulances started to arrive, and Israelsson was sent to a local hospital.

“The chaos at the hospital was like out of a movie”. Israelsson then alludes to an actual movie about the tsunami, The Impossible. “I mean, it’s Hollywood but the experience is a good reflection of what happened. They showed the exact same hospital that I went to. I could recognize and put myself into 90% of the film. I was there, I saw all of that. It’s very accurate.”

With limited space at the hospital, injuries like lost limbs took first priority, so doctors simply put some alcohol in Israelsson’s wounds and left him to sit on the floor – waiting, hoping. He then heard that there was a Swedish section at the hospital where Swedes were being summoned to exchange information, and let their loved ones know that they’re okay. Completely alone, he found this section and met a family whom he remains close to, to this day.

At this point, it had been about a day and a half since the tsunami, and the world had learned of the disaster. Back home in Sweden, Israelsson’s family had congregated together. But at 12, he couldn’t remember any number from the top of his head – except, like any true pre-teen, his best friend Anton’s. He called to let him know he had survived.

But his condition had begun to worsen. His wounds were infected and he couldn’t walk on his own. Through clouded eyes, he recognized a man who sold him and his father T-shirts on the beach earlier in the trip. The man tells Israelsson, “I’ve seen your dad. He’s here”. With newfound hope, he checked the list of people registered at the hospital, but with no luck. He never saw the man again, and his father was nowhere to be found. “I hated this man for giving me hope; for telling me my father was alive.”

Buses had then begun to take people to the airport in Phuket, but they were only taking families traveling together. The family Israelsson had met earlier at the hospital took him as their son – resolving to not leave without him. Without passports and at the epicenter of complete madness at the airport, Israelsson obtained a fake identification card stating he was a member of the family, and they all boarded a flight headed to Finland.

“People on their way to vacation saw us all busted up, and looked at us like we were aliens,” Victor explains. Once on the plane, he was lucky enough to have his own nurse the whole way. But he was weak, his lungs were full of water, and his fever was climbing.

After landing in Helsingfors, an ambulance took Israelsson away immediately, and he finally received real medical care for the first time. When relatives discovered he was in Finland, his aunt’s fiancé, Morgan – whom he’d only met a few times prior – immediately agreed to go see Victor. It was the first familiar face Israelsson had seen since the tsunami; his first sign of relief.

Israelsson recovering in Helsingfors, Finland just days after the tsunami

While in the hospital, “They brought in a psychologist. I was so young, they were trying to help me.” But Victor recalls the therapist breaking down crying after he told his story. “I just remember screaming at him, I went off. I was still in shock, and for him to start crying over something that he didn’t understand made me really angry.”

As his body began to recover, he returned home to Stockholm, where he spent a night at the children’s hospital. On New Years Eve, he finally returned to his home, the place he and his family had left just 9 days before.

Israelsson remembers climbing into his parents’ bed and curling up, laying motionless. He remained in a state of catatonic shock – not speaking to anybody for days. His family was still lost, and after 2-3 weeks of silence, he began to realize that he may never see them again.

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The Israelsson family

The headlines immediately following the tsunami had read, “600 people dead in natural disaster in Southeast Asia.” But in reality, more than 250,000 people had died. Four-hundred of those people were Swedish. And four of them were Israelsson’s family members.

Israelsson’s aunt, Carina, and Morgan moved into his childhood home. He didn’t know it then, but this was the best thing that could have happened. He kept his same friends, attended the same school, and remained as comfortable as he possible could.

But over the next four months, Israelsson’s received four separate knocks his door – from police officers notifying him that the bodies of his family members had been found. It’s a knock that is paralyzing to hear once in your life…he had to experience four times.

“I wouldn’t wish it upon my worst enemy,” he says.

After those knocks ended, Victor started a new life. “Yes, I experienced something very traumatic, but it would be wrong for me to say that I haven’t had a great life. I grew up with an aunt who taught me everything that my mother would have.”

Morgan became a father figure; he gave up his life to care for Israelsson. Carina passed away from lung cancer during Israelsson’s sophomore year at UM.

“I had a great life with them. I couldn’t have asked for anything more after that”. Israelsson embraced life like any other kid would have. He flourished in high school, played pro-soccer, and traveled the world. “I like living life, life is good.”

“Sometimes people ask me if I’m different because of what happened. But there’s no way for me to know that. I don’t know how things would have turned out or what my life would look like if any of my family members had survived – I just know my life would be totally different. But they didn’t survive. I can only live my life like it is now.”

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Israelsson pages through his family photo book

But he admits he has been shaped in one crucial way. “Very few things get to me,” he says. He talks about how people at UM will sometimes go crazy about a parking ticket or even cry over a test grade, but there are so many worse things in life. What he’s been through has helped put everything into perspective. “There are people dying every day, I’m just happy to be alive.”

Israelsson’s maturity is unparalleled. “I never compare sorrows. I never regret anything I didn’t have control over,” including his family’s trip to Thailand. He never uses his past to propel his future, either.

But what does the future look like for him? “I have been fortunate enough to meet people in my life who are like my family, but blood is always going to be blood,” He says that what he wants most from life isn’t a Ferrari or a house in the hills. He just can’t wait to be a father. “But not too soon, don’t get any ideas!” He jokes with a smirk.

In the nearer future, Israelsson is looking for jobs in the States. His dream job is to be a global marketing director for a company like Adidas, Nike, or Puma, but first he hopes to attend graduate school in Oregon. He’ll settle for plan B if that doesn’t work – a summer living in the Swiss Alps. Not too shabby.

Israelsson is relentlessly focused, driven, and passionate about living. As somebody who has known Victor since Freshman year, I can vouch for what an amazing soul he is. He is somebody who gets shit done and does it with everything he has inside of him.

When he’s not working towards his Sports Administration major, having an internship with the Miami Heat, or spending time dancing the night away at Blackbird, he does try and return home to Sweden. It’s there that he cherishes his time with his step-dad, grandparents, and friends. On the anniversary of the day the Tsunami hit, December 26th, he makes a special visit to the graves of his family members. Most days, he must simply carry their memory with him. In the end, he lives with the fact that, “They’re not here anymore.”

Though he is adamant that he won’t let loss dictate his entire future. “Just because you lose somebody doesn’t mean your life ends. There is still so much out there that can bring you happiness. There’s so much in life that’s awesome, and there are so many things I want to see and do.”

So you can see what I mean when I say that you can feel his strength. But careful what you say to Israelsson – he’s not a victim and he won’t let you make him feel like one. “I’m not strong. I’m just living. It’s the only option I have. I lost everybody I had but I can’t lay on the floor and have people feel sorry for me. I would never feel sorry for myself.”

If you see him around, don’t pity him. We all have sorrows, and we all have pain we carry with us. Some just weigh heavier than others’. Israelsson is living his life, and he’s doing it better than most. He then leaves me with one more reason to admire his attitude and spunk:

“Life’s good, Mia. Life’s good. Life’s unclear, but it’s good. Whatever’s next, bring it on.”

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Victor, now 23, sits at University of Miami where he is looking forward to graduating in May




Photos courtesy of:

Victor Israelsson