Fact Check: Girl's Warning Ahead of Tsunami Saved Hundreds of People on Thai Beach in 2004. Here's What Else We Found

A 10-year-old girl named Tilly Smith implemented quick thinking is credited with warning her parents and thus saving the lives of hundreds of people on a beach on the island of Phuket in Thailand during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
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The quick thinking of a 10-year-old English girl, Tilly Smith, is credited with helping to save some 100 lives just before the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 struck the island of Phuket in Thailand.


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On April 6, 2024, a user on X named Creepy.org (@creepydotorg) posted a story about a 10-year-old English girl, Tilly Smith, who reportedly was credited with saving the lives of hundreds of people on the island of Phuket in Thailand during the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004.

The post read, "Minutes before the 2004 tsunami hit Thailand, a 10-year-old girl warned her parents it was coming. While on the beach, she recognized the warning signs of a tsunami as she had learned them in geography class just two weeks earlier. She is credited with saving the lives of hundreds of tourists."

This story was true, according to credible reporting from The Associated Press, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), UNESCO's International Tsunami Information Center, and a brief documentary video published on YouTube by the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. Further, the story was also reported by the Thailand-focused websites Thaiger and The Nation.

Tilly Notices Sign of Oncoming Tsunami

On Nov. 4, 2005, AP published an article about Tilly, her family's stay at the JW Marriott Phuket Resort & Spa and the tsunami. The article was printed one day after Tilly had visited the United Nations in New York and met former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who was the U.N. envoy for the tsunami recovery.

The AP's story read, in part:

Two weeks before the Dec. 26, 2004, disaster that took at least 178,000 lives, Tilly had studied tsunamis in her geography class in Oxshott, a community of about 5,000 just south of London. The children were shown a video from an earlier tsunami.

Tilly was armed with that knowledge when the Smith family decided to go for a morning walk on the idyllic beach near the JW Marriott Phuket Resort and Spa.

Suddenly, "I saw this bubbling on the water, right on the edge, and foam sizzling just like in a frying pan," she remembered. "The water was coming in, but it wasn't going out again. It was coming in, and then in, and then in, towards the hotel."

She recognized it as an indication that earthquake-driven waves were only minutes away.

National Geographic's previously published warning signs of a tsunami include rapidly rising or falling coastal waters, a loud roar from the ocean or rumblings of an earthquake. Further, the article cited an expert in tsunami mitigation, Rocky Lopes, who said one myth is tsunamis always cause the ocean to recede before the powerful waves flood in. "In some areas, particularly on islands, water recession may not happen," he said.

Tilly Warns Her Parents

After recognizing the warning sign on the beach, Tilly worked to convince her parents, Colin and Penny, that a tsunami was coming.

In the U.N. documentary video, Tilly said, "I said there's definitely going to be a tsunami and my mom didn't believe me. She didn't react. And so she just kept on walking. And my dad sort of believed me, and Holly, who is my sister, was getting really scared, so she ran back to the pool. And then my dad went back with her. And then I said, 'Right, mom. I'm going. I'm definitely going. There is definitely going to be a tsunami.' And she [said], 'Bye then.' And so I went back, and so she was sort of reacting a bit more when I had gone. And so she went back to see if I was ok, and then the minute that she had come back, the water started coming up the beach."

Hotel's Chef and Security Guards Warn Beachgoers

According to AP's reporting, Tilly told the Japanese-born hotel chef of the danger. The chef recognized the Japanese word "tsunami" when she said it, and both the chef and at least one nearby hotel security agent both spread the warning to help evacuate the beach just minutes before the tsunami arrived. The article ended by noting the beach near the Smith's Marriott hotel was one of the few in Phuket where no one was killed or seriously hurt.

The video interview from the U.N. told a slightly different story, albeit with the same outcome. Tilly said, "Well, I told my dad, and my dad told the security guards, and the security guards told the people on the beach, because there [were] quite a few families on the beach, just in the water."

Tilly's quick thinking was believed to have led to the saving of "about 100" people from the beach that day, AP reported. The U.N. video cited reports with the number of "over 100" people who were saved.

A 10-year-old girl named Tilly Smith implemented quick thinking is credited with warning her parents and thus saving the lives of hundreds of people on a beach on the island of Phuket in Thailand during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
A 10-year-old girl named Tilly Smith implemented quick thinking is credited with warning her parents and thus saving the lives of hundreds of people on a beach on the island of Phuket in Thailand during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

 Tilly Smith and her family stand in silence on the first anniversary of the 2004 tsunami, on Bang Niang Beach in Thailand, on Dec. 26, 2005. (SAEED KHAN/AFP via Getty Images)

The Wave Arrives

On Jan. 5, 2005, SurreyLive reported details of what happened to the family when the tidal wave reached the same beach where the Smiths had just been leisurely walking:

Penny stayed on the beach but decided to go back to check that her daughter was safe. "I do remember her being really, really frightened," said Penny.

As she reached a high bank between the beach and the hotel, where Colin and the girls were now in the pool, the tidal wave struck.

"I sprinted back to the hotel and I was screaming," said Penny. "My husband was saying: 'What, what?' and I said: 'Get them out of the pool.' By then the water was catching up."

"It was like water chasing her," said Tilly, who saw the wave come up the beach and towards the hotel."

"It was right behind us and by then both of the girls were hysterical and I was screaming," added Penny. "I swear to God I thought I was going to die."

The family stayed in the lobby while people desperately tried to understand what was happening.

"I'm convinced that if Tilly hadn't said something I would have stayed on the beach," said Penny.

National Geographic also reported these additional details on Jan. 18, 2005:

The family took refuge on the third floor of their hotel. Set well back from the shore, it withstood the surge of three tsunami waves.

"Everything went in the swimming pool—beds, palm trees, the lot," Penny Smith said. "Even if you hadn't drowned, you would have been hit by something."

The reporting from SurreyLive said the family was able to return home several days later. Back at school, Tilly received a "B" grade for a geography report she had turned in prior to the vacation.

'The Power of Education'

Geography teacher Andrew Kearney of Danes Hill School in Oxshott, England, was the instructor Tilly credited with educating her about the warning signs of a tsunami.

"If it weren't for Mr. Kearney, then I would probably be dead and so would my family, so I'm quite proud that he's taught me that in the time, you know, that it was," Tilly said.

In the same U.N. video, Kearney said of the lesson, "The power of education is the difference between, I suppose, success and failure, life and death in this case, and there is nothing to substitute it for. Without education, I think people are powerless. With education, as can be seen here, they are very powerful in terms of directing their own lives."

Minimal Damage to Hotel

On Dec. 28, 2004, just two days after the tsunami struck, the asiatraveltips.com website published a report of damage to hotels. According to the page, the JW Marriott Phuket Resort & Spa sustained "no structural damage or fatalities," but the swimming pool, pool bar and beachfront restaurant were temporarily closed.

The New York Times also reported on Jan. 4, 2005, "Phuket, Thailand's main southern tourist destination and its largest island, [was] a place where most hotels emerged unscathed." The article cited Craig S. Smith, a Marriott general manager, who said just nine days after the tsunami, "When Colin Powell comes here (today), I hope the television reports will pick up that 75 percent of Phuket's beaches are normal, that 90 percent of the hotel rooms are open."

The Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 caused one of the largest natural disasters in recorded history, killing at least 225,000 people across a dozen countries, with Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Maldives and Thailand sustaining massive damage, according to Brittanica.com.

This story will be updated if Snopes is able to reach the Smith family for further comment.


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