“The water was really, really frothy,” she said.
It was odd, and seemed to remind her of something. The tide was just coming in, she thought, not going out like normal. When she saw a log spinning round and round in the sea, she suddenly remembered a film she’d seen in science class, and then she panicked.
She knew it was a tsunami.
Desperately, she tried to convince her parents to go back to the hotel. They assured her it was just a stormy day and kept walking, but she became hysterical.
When her little sister also started crying, their father agreed to take them back to their room. Tilly begged her mother, Penny, to get off the beach, but finally left her there, running after her father alone.
Meanwhile, her father, Colin, approached a Japanese security guard.
“Look, you probably think I’m absolutely bonkers,” he remembers saying, “but my daughter’s completely convinced there’s going to be a tsunami.”
The guard knew that there had been an earthquake, and he immediately began calling for everyone to get off the beach. Nearly 100 people rushed to the second floor lobby of the hotel, and then watched in horror as a giant wall of water raced in from the sea. When the water receded, the devastation below them was shocking.
Tilly remembered her classroom lesson and warned everyone to stay, that there would be more waves to follow.
Altogether, the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and the tsunamis it spawned killed more than 230,000 people in 14 countries, but, thanks to Tilly Smith, not one person died on the beach of her Phuket Island hotel.
Dubbed “The Angel of the Beach” by magazines, Tilly received several honors for her quick thinking.
She appeared at the United Nations in November 2005, where she met U.N. Special Envoy for Tsunami Relief Bill Clinton.
On 9 September 2005 She received the Thomas Gray Special Award of The Marine Society & Sea Cadets from Second Sea Lord, Vice-Admiral Si r James Burnell Nugent.
An asteroid, 20002 Tillysmith, has been named after her.
In December 2005, She was named “Child of the Year” by the French magazine Mon Quotidien (a magazine targeted to young readers).
At the official commemorations on the first anniversary of the tsunami held at Khao Lak, Thailand, Tilly read a poem to thousands of spectators.
On the tenth anniversary of the tsunami, Tilly, now age 20, returned to that beach in Phuket and threw rose petals into the sea, in memory of those who were lost.
Watch the video below to see footage of the tsunami, and to hear an interview with Tilly and her parents.