Unlike most parts of Indonesia hit by the tsunami, Sarah says the beach she was standing on was slowly flooded with water rather than one big wave. It gave her enough time to scramble up to safety to the top of a nearby building.
“Suji saw it first. The water seemed to be a lot higher than it should have been, then it came in like a fast-flowing tide,” Sarah recalls.
“That was the first wave for us – a tide that just kept on going. Our legs were getting lapped by water when we were previously standing on dry land, so I rushed up these stairs and the water was literally following me as I walked.”
Finding relief on a balcony, Sarah looked back to see Suji had not been behind her as she thought. But there was no time to panic – the structure beneath her feet was giving way.
The only thing Sarah could do was jump into the dirty seawater swirling underneath.
“I just thought to myself, ‘I’ve got to jump’,” she says.
“Debris was flowing past; I saw a log and even a motorbike. Once I was in, I held my breath and let it take me. As I was flying along, I remember thinking, ‘Right, Suji is dead. And if you panic, you’re going to die too’.”
In a harrowing life-or-death situation, Sarah was swept 800m through the fast-moving water. At one point she tried to hold on to a palm tree, but the force of the water ripped her from it.
After what felt like an eternity, Sarah finally reached a rooftop where a few villagers were huddling.
“I lifted my hands and they hauled me up with a plastic lid. I stood up there screaming for Suji for a bit,” Sarah says.
“I came out so lightly – I only had a cut on my foot and a scrape on my back.”
After a while, Sarah set off through knee-deep water for help, wearing nothing but her bathers. She soon found Suji’s body, lying on a surfboard.
“I was just in shock,” Sarah recalls. “I wanted to make sure he didn’t end up in a mass grave.”
She eventually had to leave Suji and walk into town for shelter and medical help.
The beautiful, pristine beach town Sarah woke up to that morning had been utterly destroyed. But she had no idea just how far the devastation had spread.
“We assumed it was isolated and that it was just in Sri Lanka. Later we realised it was all over Indonesia,” she says.
Before the second wave even hit, Sarah located a phone and called her mum back home in Adelaide. She gave the news matter-of-factly: “A tidal wave has hit us and Suji is dead”.
But the danger wasn’t behind her – Sarah noticed people fleeing again and she needed to get to even higher ground.
The next day, Sarah reached Colombo and she was able to get a flight home to South Australia by New Year’s Eve. She may have been physically unscathed, but the emotional scars of that terrible day run deep.
“I didn’t feel safe for a long time after. I felt like the earth would open up and swallow me at any time,” Sarah says. “I remember crying at Christmas lunch that first year.”
Now married with kids, life is good for the ex-Survivor contestant. Every Christmas, Sarah spares a thought for Suji and all those who lost their lives. But she’s also grateful.
“I quite often say to myself: ‘Sarah, you are on your second chance’,” she adds.
“I was on the beach that day, I should actually be dead. I feel like I’m on my second chance, and I live it that way.”