THAILAND and INDONESIA, Jan. 6, 2005 -- Thai. Swiss. Sumatran. American.
This is a tragedy that has only one noble purpose -- reminding us that we're not a planet of strangers after all, but just different faces, each with striving, longing, strengths, fragile hope.
As we traveled thousands of miles by helicopter, plane, ship, car and foot, it remained impossible to register that all of our mighty modern engines can do nothing against an earthquake -- the equivalent of a hundred atom bombs in a single heave -- and the wall of water it spawned.
Watch the home videos again: All the portraits of unrelenting force and human disbelief. So many of the people running, yelling to their loved ones, fighting with all of their courage and strength, but they could not make it.
'Oh, My God!'
The ones who did survive simply astonished us:
A 2-year-old tossed onto the top of a tree by his mother.
A woman who floated on a palm tree for days, eating parts of the tree to stay alive.
A young woman who tried to save her mother: "In that situation, there wasn't anything to do," she said. "Ami had the grace that she always does in any situation."
And of course, there also was the father and sister from Salt Lake City who came to a day after day to search photographs of the bodies at a Thailand morgue -- and then, on the eighth day, with us by their side, saw the red halter top in one photo that extinguished hope.
"This is her shirt -- the one that she bought," said Shonti Breisch, 18, of her 15-year-old sister Kali.
"Oh, my God!" said the teens' father, Dr. Stuart Breisch, weeping.
We walked through the makeshift morgue. It was tough, for the smell, and the scope. And we marveled at all the dedication of volunteers there from all over the world, who came to this grim place just to help clean and carry the dead.
Meanwhile, the monks were working overtime, in shifts, praying as Buddhism teaches, that the 150,000 wandering spirits would find peace.
And there was already light, beyond religion.
There was the tireless American military, working non-stop to deliver the goods for life -- the Air Force flying its cargo planes; the aircraft carriers suffused with the smell of bread, baked for those who are helping.
There were the children excitedly singing about the return to school, and sweeping the mud from their schoolroom.
There was the monk, who tried to give me some of his rations.
And there was so much compassion from all the Americans watching and willing to give what they have.
'Imagine All the People'
"Imagine," the famous John Lennon anthem goes, a world living in peace.
I suppose the message is always -- when you come halfway around the world -- that we're all living on just one planet, now a planet with a vast and terrifying wound.
I don't know how you feel about God and suffering. I don't know how you feel about the logic that tries to reduce anger.
But I do know that even nature's glory and ferocity are no match for the hundreds of thousands of faces, and the sound of all those billions of hearts beating -- faces of hunger, loss, despair, some stunned and broken, some waiting with a steady hand. And so many of them deciding, with the sunrise, it's time to live again.
Postscript: We also would like to extend out deepest thanks to the men and women of the U.S. Air Force, especially the 36th Airlift Squadron of the 374th Airlift Wing, from Yokota Air Base in Japan. They let us tag along on their C-130 Hercules transports, carrying us from Phuket, Thailand, to the heart of the devastation in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, and back to Thailand. These crewmembers fly day and night, delivering everything from Red Cross trucks to high-protein biscuits. Their commander, Col. Rod Gregory, from Columbus, Ohio, summed up their mission in a nutshell: "It does give us an extra sense," he said, "that we're really trying to do something good to help our friends and neighbors."