July 3, 2008 -- Two years ago, Patrick Geryl, then 51, quit his job as a laboratory worker for a French oil company. He'd saved up just enough money to last him until December 2012. After that, he thought, he wouldn't need it anyway.
Instead, Geryl, a soft-spoken man who had studied chemistry in his younger years, started preparing for the apocalypse. He founded a "survival group" for likeminded men and women, aimed at living through the catastrophe he knew was coming.
He started gathering materials necessary to survive — water purifiers, wheelbarrows (with spare tires), dust masks and vegetable seeds. His list of survival goods runs 11 pages long.
"You have to understand, there will be nothing, nothing left," Geryl told ABC News from his home in Antwerp, Belgium. "We will have to start an entire civilization from scratch."
That's because Geryl believes the world as we know it will end in 2012. He points to the ancient Maya cyclical calendars, the longest of which last renewed itself approximately 5,125 years ago and is set to end again, supposedly with catastrophic consequences, in 2012. He speaks of the ancient Egyptians, who, he claims, saw 2012 as a year of great change too. And he points to science: NASA predicts a sharp increase in the number of sunspots and sun flares for 2012, he said, sure to cause electrical failures and satellite disruptions.
All this adds up, Geryl said, to unprecedented catastrophe. First, a polar reversal will cause the north to become the south and the sun to rise in the west. Shattering earthquakes, massive tidal waves and simultaneous volcanic eruptions will follow. Nuclear reactors will melt, buildings will crumble, and a cloud of volcanic dust will block out the sun for 40 years. Only the prepared will survive, Geryl said, and not even all of them.
These may sound like the ravings of a madman, or perhaps the head of a small apocalyptic sect. But Geryl is not the only one who believes in the apocalypse. Thousands of people worldwide seem to be preparing, in one way or another, for the end of days in 2012. Survival groups exist in Europe, Canada and the United States. A simple Google search for "2012" and "the end of the world" brings up nearly 300,000 hits. And the video-sharing Web site YouTube hosts more than 65,000 clips informing and warning viewers about their fate in 2012.
"It's bigger than Y2K," said Mark van Stone, a specialist of Maya hieroglyphic writings and author of a forthcoming book on 2012. "The year is like a pop song or a popular movie. You type in 2012, and you get hundreds of thousands of hits."
Dennis McClung, 28, a project manager for Home Depot from Phoenix, Ariz., runs one of the Web sites dedicated to 2012, an online survival supply store, which sells gas masks, knife kits, bullet-proof vests and more.
"I'm not a firm believer in one specific prophecy," said McClung, who runs his site with his wife, Danielle. "But I think we ought to be prepared for anything."
Even with December 2012 still 4½ years away, McClung said business is booming. His Web site, which features an "official 2012 countdown" clock and exhorts customers to "be smart, be ready," averages several thousand visitors a week. McClung's best-sellers, he said, are emergency medical supplies and water purifiers.
"I get a lot of hits from India. I get a lot of hits from the Netherlands," McClung said. "But my No. 1 customer is the U.S."
One of those customers is Thomas Lehmann, a 25-year-old factory worker from Cape Girardeau, Mo. Lehmann said he started researching 2012 when he was 12 years old, and still spends about two hours a day reading about the topic both online and in books. He said he is saving money for survival gear.
"Whatever happens, I'm just trying to be prepared for it," Lehmann said. "I'm just learning to be independent of the system. I mean electricity, vehicles, alternate sources of energy. I'm learning to live without gas, basically be self-reliant."
"If this stuff does happen," Lehmann said, adding, "I have a way to eat. I can hunt, I can fish and I can purify water. I think it's people in the big cities that need to be worried. People that can't provide for themselves."
But for all the hype, there is little evidence the ancient Maya ever intended for the end of their calendar to be read as a portent for disaster.
"These prophecies of doom really don't have any basis in what we know about the Maya," said Stephen Houston, a professor of anthropology at Brown University and a specialist of Maya hieroglyphic writing. "The Maya descriptions barely talk about this event."
Instead, Houston said, the Maya saw their "long count" — the longest of their cyclical calendars — coming to an end in 2012 but also beginning anew on that date, without disastrous consequences.
"Really, it's a conversion of people's anxieties about our times, and finding some remote mythological precedent or prediction of it," Houston said about the origins of the current 2012 myths. "People like to believe that ancient wisdom is somehow predicting this time of upheaval."
John Hall, a professor of sociology at the University of California Davis who is writing a book on the history of apocalyptic ideas, agreed. He said movements predicting the end of the world often reflect a much larger nervousness about the state of our society.
"Terrorism, 9/11, ecological disasters, floods and earthquakes," Hall said. "[There is] a sense that modern civilization has had its run. Those kinds of anxieties are much more widely shared than simply among people who believe in the exact date."
To Lehmann, though, those very events are warnings of what's to come.
"We had Hurricane Katrina, the recent cyclone in Myanmar," Lehmann said. "We've got major flooding in Iowa. We're always going to have natural disasters. But they are picking up quite frequently now."
Lehmann said he eventually hoped to move away from Cape Girardeau, built on the banks of the Mississippi River, to the higher plains of southwest Missouri to keep safe from the floods sure to follow the earthquakes of 2012.
Geryl and his Belgian and Dutch followers have similar intentions, though their plan will take them much farther from home. They are looking to buy a plot of land high up in African mountains, where they'll be able to withstand the monstrous tidal waves and wait out the cloud of volcanic dust that they said would block out the sun.
Geryl said the group has recently zeroed in on a location, but won't reveal his find for fear of tipping off rival survival groups in the United States and Canada. On that land, Geryl's group, whose core membership consists of 16 people but whose wait list supposedly lists hundreds, will build concrete dwellings or outfit caves for survival.
After the cloud clears, Geryl said, they will attempt to create a new, better civilization.
"A guiding principle will be to keep the world population as small as possible so as not to get into the same problems we face now," Geryl said, adding that the group is currently looking for sponsors and hopes to move to Africa in 2011. "There is too little oil, too little grain in the world now. Those are the kinds of problems we want to avoid."
One of the group's members, Jan, a 57-year-old carpenter from Amsterdam whose name has been changed because he doesn't want to be identified in the press, recently drove five hours to attend one of Geryl's meetings in Antwerp.
"I thought, if there's a chance that we can start a new civilization, I want to contribute," Jan told ABC News. "Because whether I make it or not, and there's only a small chance I will, this is important."
Jan, who has never been married and has no children, said he has lost friends over 2012.
"All the people I've ever told about this have declared me crazy," he said. "It makes people feel uncomfortable. Now I just keep it to myself."
Geryl said he found comfort in sharing his knowledge with others. Since "discovering" what the future holds, he has written three books on 2012 and maintains a Web site on the subject.
When asked what would happen if December 2012 were to come and go without the earthquakes and tsunamis of his predictions, Geryl fell silent.
"I don't really contemplate that possibility," he said. "[My predictions] are so spectacular, they can't possibly be wrong."