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Deathly tsunami teaches important life lessons

  • DeanMurinik
When Boxing Day tsunami survivor Dean Murinik chose to go back to Phuket, Thailand, in 2010, he went to face his fears and come to terms with the deaths of his friends. He also met the woman he was to marry.
by JORDAN MOSHE | Aug 23, 2018

The day he got there – six years after his life-changing experience – he met a couple from Johannesburg who said they had someone to introduce him to. Today, not only is he married to Lisa Gordon, he also travels across the globe telling people how the most terrifying day in his life was also the one from which he learned the most.

Murinik shared his story at the 125th annual general meeting of the Jewish Women’s Benevolent Society at Arcadia Children’s Home in Sandringham, Johannesburg, on Wednesday morning. He survived, but about 300 000 others lost their lives on 26 December 2004 in a 500km-long tsunami that ravaged 13 Asian countries with the force of 23  000 Hiroshima-strength nuclear bombs.

“I was part of the perfect family living in Sea Point,” says Murinik. “Memories of my childhood are full of laughter, love, and music. Bad things always happened to other people, but not us.” One of three children, an avid sportsman and talented actor, this self-proclaimed ‘singing soccer player’ enjoyed the ideal childhood. At the age of 21, Murinik joined his father in the life assurance industry, and his life could not have been more perfect.

In 2002, his father, Ralph, was diagnosed with depression. Murinik battled to understand what his father was going through, and the next two years were marked by utter chaos and madness for him and his family. Ralph attempted to take his own life on several occasions, and his son always arrived at the crucial moment to save his father’s life. “I was both victim and rescuer,” says Murinik. “ I felt sorry for myself, and lamented my life.”

It was in 2004 that Murinik chose to remove himself from his home environment and relocate to Johannesburg, leaving his family behind in an attempt to gain independence and freedom. Although he admits to being wracked with guilt and to crying throughout the flight, he joined Liberty Life in April, and felt like a new person.

However, his father continued to deteriorate. “One day, I signed a huge deal, and phoned my dad to tell him about it,” says Murinik. “A police officer answered his phone and said that he’d found my father in his car parked at a Cape Town lighthouse suffering from a severe overdose. Although he had tried a few times already, this was a very serious [attempt on his life].”

By some miracle, his father woke from his coma two weeks later while in hospital. It was at this point that Murinik felt it was time for him and his family to get away from their hellish existence and escape for a holiday.

“We needed to break away from the pain of reality, and the answer presented itself. We’d go to Phuket, which had always been one of the ideal holiday destinations for us as a family.” Together with his parents, and close friends, David Gordon, Rael Levitt, Morris Isaacson, and Dolores Ribeiro, he arrived on the island on 25 December.

While lying on his bed in his fourth-floor hotel room the following day, Murinik says he felt a violent tremor beneath him, and feared an earthquake. Still, he dressed and descended to the breakfast terrace on the ground floor, about 50m from the beach, and found his parents and friends, Gordon and Levitt. Isaacson and Ribeiro had gone to the local convenience store, and were to meet them later on the beach.

“At 09:50, I heard a ‘bang’, and immediately thought it was a terrorist attack. I couldn’t identify the noise. I looked at David, who shouted, ‘Get up and run!’. The noise got louder, I turned around and saw a mass of water coming at me. It was carrying boats, cars, and bodies. It was huge and loud, and I was absolutely terrified.”

He froze in disbelief, but realised that if he didn’t act fast, he would die. He looked back to find his parents lying on the floor, having fallen over one another in their hurry to flee. With strength he didn’t know he had, Murinik picked them both up, and clung to them as the water came hurtling towards them. “With both their heads bobbing up and down next to me, I told them that we could survive this together. I wasn’t afraid to die, but I couldn’t allow them to die in front of me.

“I looked at my dad, desperately trying to stay afloat, and thought how ironic it was that a man who had tried on numerous occasions to take his own life was now fighting for it.”

In this surreal chaos, against a current of glass, vehicles, and rubble, they were washed into the hotel conference room. Murinik realised that he didn’t have the strength to assist them as the water levels rose and their heads almost reached the ceiling. Overcome with exhaustion, he realised that he might die, and couldn’t hold them anymore. “I said to them, ‘Mommy, daddy, I love you both so much, but I have to let go.’ We let go of each other, and said our goodbyes.”

The gushing subsided, and the water level dropped. The three swam to the foyer, moving towards the staircase and the safety of the rooftop. The scene was tumultuous. He says, “People screaming for loved ones, individuals helping strangers. This was no space for egos.”

Although he discovered that Gordon and Levitt had also survived, none of them had seen Isaacson or Ribeiro. After booking return flights home, Murinik set out on a 13-hour mission to locate them. Jumping into a bakkie at random, he visited hospitals and morgues in his search for his friends. He eventually identified their bodies at the Patong Clinic.

He, his parents, Gordon and Levitt, returned to South Africa. Today, he conquers each day as it comes, and now has his own family.

“I’m a survivor. After a catastrophe in which more than 300 000 lost their lives, I am fortunate to tell you my story. How lucky I am to be alive!”

The tsunami taught him many lessons. “I realised that vulnerability shows strength. Being spared made me realise that Hashem had plans for me. Life needs to be lived with purpose and gratitude.”

He says we all need to learn to tread water in our lives. “Our experiences test us to great levels, but the important thing is to emerge as survivors. These experiences should make us better people, not break us down.”

He and Lisa have three children, two of whom were born to Lisa and her late husband, Michael, who died in the Comrades Marathon aged 33. “Michael gave them life, and I believe I have been spared to show them how to live their lives,” says Murinik.

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