From Fear to Survival: Knowledge Is Key

Tilly Smith used schoolwork to save her family and others from the 2004 tsunami.

ByABC News
January 20, 2009, 3:47 PM

Jan. 22, 2009— -- Every bit of information can make a difference in a disaster. Just ask Tilly Smith.

In December 2004, the 10-year-old English schoolgirl was vacationing on the coast of Thailand with her parents and her younger sister Holly.

"It was like paradise -- white sand and blue turquoise sea," Tilly remembered.

On the morning of Dec. 26, the family went for a long walk on the beach. But Tilly, now 14, noticed something was very different about the ocean that day.

"The water was really, really frothy. It wasn't calm and it wasn't going in and then out," she said. "It was just coming in and in and in."

She remembered that everything she was seeing reminded her of a lesson on tsunamis she'd had at school just a few weeks before.

Tilly's mother Penny Smith remembered that her daughter began to get hysterical as she desperately tried to convince her parents to return to the hotel.

"She kept saying, 'It bubbles, the water bubbles.' That's what she kept saying to me like that -- and it goes round and round. 'It's the water,' she kept saying, 'It's the water,'" Smith said.

Tilly's parents ignored her, but she persisted. "There is gonna be a tsunami, listen to me," Tilly said she told her parents,

She finally convinced her father, Colin Smith, to turn back to their hotel, where he approached a security guard stationed on the beach.

"And I said, 'Look, you probably think I'm absolutely bonkers, but my daughter's completely convinced there's gonna be a tsunami,'" he said.

Thankfully, the security guard listened to Colin Smith and his daughter Tilly that day in Thailand and began warning visitors. As dozens of tourists began streaming toward the hotel, Colin Smith waved frantically at his wife to return.

They were moving just off the beach when the massive tsunami surged toward shore.

"And then the next thing I remember is, Penny running, screaming 'Get the kids!'" Colin Smith said. "And I looked round and the water was just coming out of the sea."

Everyone has a so-called "disaster personality" -- a personal way of reacting in a sudden crisis, such as the way Tilly handled the oncoming tsunami.

And while a few people behave heroically, the truth is that most of us will simply helplessly freeze. But all that can change if we've done one simple thing.