BASKING in the hot Thai sunshine, Maria Alvarez smiled as her three sons played with their dad in the hotel pool.
It seemed like the perfect Christmas break for the Spanish family of five.
But then the splashing and laughter were drowned out by a deafening roar and Maria watched in horror as a towering wave pushed in from the sea and ripped through the hotel.
The family’s Far Eastern holiday over Christmas 2004 had ended in disaster — caught up in the Boxing Day tsunami which killed around 240,000 people in 14 countries.
Now their amazing tale of survival has inspired the film The Impossible, which opened in cinemas this week and stars Ewan McGregor, Naomi Watts and teen newcomer Tom Holland as ten-year-old Lucas Alvarez.
Recalling the moment the tsunami struck, Maria, a doctor, says: “The wave is big on the cinema screen but in real life it was so much more. It was everything.”
In an instant, she found herself separated from Lucas, husband Quique and younger sons Tomas, eight, and five-year-old Simon.
The wave smashed her against a plate glass window which exploded behind her and she was swept through the hotel.
She says: “I remember being pushed against walls. You could feel them trembling and breaking, feeling them as they gave way, one after another.
Survivors ... Maria Alvarez with husband Quique and sons Lucas, Simon and Tomas at premiere of The Impossible
“Some of the walls did not collapse — that’s why people died. They were trapped.
“I was under the water for a long, long time. I was not in physical pain but the drowning sensation was like being in a spin-dryer.
“The doctors said I was underwater for more than three minutes because my lungs were absolutely full of water. I saw many lights under the water, tunnels with lights at the end, that people tell you they see when they are going to die.”
Like Lucas and Maria, Quique doesn’t know how long he was underwater.
He says: “I thought, ‘That’s it, I’m not going to make it.’ But I needed to try. I saw a light above me, so I tried to push myself up and get my head out of the water.”
He surfaced in the torrent, more than half a mile downstream from the hotel, and says: “The only thing I could see was water and the tops of the trees. I was alone.
“I thought there was no way my children had made it. I started to cry and then I thought, ‘Why are you crying when there is no one to comfort you?’”
Quique managed to grab hold of a tree and thinks he hung on for about half an hour as the raging waters roared past him.
He says: “Then I heard Tomas’s voice. He was shouting, ‘Papa! Mama! Lucas! Simon!’”
Against the odds ... Ewan McGregor as Quique in movie The Impossible
The eight-year-old was perched on top of a tree, about 200 yards away. Quique swam over and recalls: “We both felt we were the only two who had made it.”
They started shouting for the others and after about 40 minutes they heard Simon’s voice. Though he was only five and had only just learned to swim, he had also managed to escape up a tree.
When the waters sank, Quique took the children to the safety of the roof of their hotel, the Orchard Resort in Phuket.
Meanwhile, as the raging water swept Maria along, she was convinced her whole family had been killed. She says: “I thought life was not worth living if I was alone.” And then she surfaced, in the middle of the torrent. She says: “I was devastated. I was all alone.” She grabbed a tree, then miraculously she saw Lucas being swept past in the water. She says: “When I saw him I thought how stupid I had been. I thought I would spend the rest of my life hugging Lucas again — that was my only purpose in life.”
Maria let go of her tree and fought her way through the water to reach her son’s side.
Lucas — who is now 18 and studying medicine at University College, London — recalls: “I had never seen anything of the scale of that wave. It might as well have been the apocalypse.
“I remember my mother screaming my name. I jumped into the swimming pool — I don’t know why. It probably saved my life but I didn’t think about it.
“I don’t know exactly what happened next. The entire time I was underwater I must have been unconscious. The next thing I remember is seeing my mother.”
Fighting for life ... Naomi Watts as Maria Alvarez in the flick
As the wave hurtled on, Maria and Lucas were battered along together, only to be separated again by the undertow.
Finally the waters calmed and they found themselves waist deep in a swamp. It was then that Lucas noticed Maria’s leg had been torn open and she had deep gashes to her chest. Shock had made her oblivious to her injuries.
He then spotted a huge tree which he thought they could climb to safety, but as they waded towards it, they heard a child crying.
Lucas, terrified the wave was going to return, and convinced his brothers were dead, didn’t want to stop — but Maria insisted.
She says: “What if that child was Simon or Tomas? It was important that I showed my son the right way to behave, particularly as I was dying. You feel it.”
Lucas says: “I realised if we didn’t get out of there, things could go very wrong. I was only ten — I had no idea what was going on. But I really started to see Mum might be dying. She kept going in and out of consciousness.”
Maria and Lucas found the little boy they had heard — a Swedish toddler called Daniel — trapped beneath the flotsam.
Lucas then managed to carry both Daniel and his mother to safety, as by then Maria was far too weak to fend for herself.
The three were finally rescued by villagers who took them to hospital in the nearest town, Takua Pa.
The hospital was overflowing with wounded, dying and the bereaved who were desperately searching for family members.
Real-life story ... The Impossible is out now
Then began the next stage of Lucas’s ordeal. He says: “Mum was bleeding internally very badly and had to be operated on. She had infections from everything she had swallowed, and from her wounds.”
After Maria’s operation, the overworked staff misidentified her and Lucas returned to his mother’s bedside to find she had vanished.
He says: “I thought they had taken her away because she had died. It was the first time that I properly panicked. I thought I was completely on my own. For there was no question in my mind that my father and brothers were dead.”
But his father was alive and was looking for them. His search took several days, but the family were eventually reunited.
Since the tsunami, many survivors have returned every Christmas for remembrance ceremonies but, feeling awkward about their relative good luck in all living through the disaster, the family have not kept in touch with other survivors.
Lucas says: “I spoke to a Swedish boy at the hospital. He had come to Thailand with both parents and four siblings and he was flying back with his mother. Everyone else was dead. It felt really unfair.
“Everyone in the family had one person they connected with in the whole thing.
“For my mother it was Daniel. We have always wanted to find out what happened to him.”
Maria says: “I feel like I have another son somewhere living in Sweden. I would love to know how Daniel has grown up.”
The Impossible is in cinemas now.
240,000 killed by tsunami including 149 Brits
98ft height of the waves
£8bn donated to relief fund
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