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THE PEOPLE

By Keith Miller, RE/MAX Times Associate Editor KHAO LAK, Thailand - Vacationing in what was a pristine coastal resort, Ron Rubin and Rebecca Beddall escaped December's tsunami with only their lives. Their money, passports, luggage, even the clothes on their back: gone - swept away in the torrent that devastated an entire global region. If not for the generosity of the local people, the two Seattle Sales Associates would have likely faced a dreadful fate of their own. And while many vacationing tourists fled the ravaged countries as quickly as possible, Rubin and Beddall have been moved to stay. They are now assisting in the relief effort, offering money and support to those most in need. "The Thai people gave us food, clothes, water and money when we literally had nothing," said Rubin, speaking to the RE/MAX Times from Thailand. "There is death and destruction everywhere here. We feel impelled to stay to do something for these people somehow." Wave of destruction Rubin and Beddall, with RE/MAX Metro, had discovered Khao Lak, a palm-lined resort on the Thai peninsula approximately 100 miles north of Phuket, three years ago. The unspoiled, tropical beauty and friendly locals lured them back each year, and it became a favorite vacation destination. Rubin stands among the debris Rubin, an 11-year RE/MAX veteran, had taken a leave of absence for an extended vacation to the tropical paradise. He met up with Beddall, who joined RE/MAX in 2002, to celebrate the holidays. The morning of Dec. 26, the two were asleep in their second-floor room, just yards from the beach. They were startled awake by a booming crash; as Rubin described, "like a plane had flown into the hotel." Their room overlooked the pool, and from the balcony, Rubin watched a wall of water wash in, destroying everything in its path, submerging the entire first floor and continuing to rise. "Within about a minute the entire second floor was under water," Rubin recalled. "It was like the ocean was filling up like a bathtub. The water raised 40 feet in just a few minutes. I had no clothes on, and there was no time to get dressed. I grabbed Rebecca by the arm and we made it to the third floor. We thought it was our last few seconds on earth." The two scrambled to the roof of the three-story hotel, joined by others also attempting to escape the devastation. Stunned, they watched the initial wave flush back out to sea, taking with it debris, cars and people. A second, final wave rushed in and washed out with even more force, leaving more carnage in its wake. "As we looked down, we saw buildings being wiped out and people drowning everywhere. There was death and despair in every direction," Rubin said. "It's a miracle that we survived. We were within seconds of dying. Twenty of the 25 staff members on duty and 80 percent of the guests at the hotel died, and 5,000 tourists in two miles in either direction were killed." With communications wiped out, the two had no explanation as to what had happened. They reasoned that a tsunami was to blame. Given the extent of the damage, they also speculated asteroid, nuclear explosion, and Armageddon. Front-page rescue Fearing another torrent, Rubin and Beddall sought higher ground. Locals gave them food and clothes. Along a jungle trail, they came across a blond-haired, blue-eyed child being cared for by a group of Thais. Rubin, Beddall, and 18-month-old Hannes Hannes Bergstrom, an 18-month-old boy from Sweden, had been separated from his parents. The bruised and mosquito-bitten toddler had swallowed some water and was going in and out of consciousness. Rubin and Beddall resumed care of the child, taking him to a hospital, where they stayed with him for eight hours. Once stable, Hannes was transferred to a larger hospital, while Rubin and Beddall remained behind to assist where they could. They visited a few days later to check up on him, and discovered the boy with his father there at his side. His mother is presumed to have drowned in the flood. "Amid so much chaos and destruction, seeing Hannes back with his father was a special moment," Rubin said. On their way out of the hospital, a reporter asked about what they had been through. From that, word quickly spread about the American couple who had rescued a young boy and reunited him with his father. Rubin and Beddall have since appeared on virtually all the major American news outlets, including such TV shows as "Larry King Live," "The Early Show," and "Good Morning America." Rubin said the attention has been largely misdirected. "The Thai people were the ones responsible for saving Hannes," he said. "We ended up getting the credit because we're Americans and the story was a focus of the American media." The two decided to use the attention for the greater good. "We have no interest in self-promotion, but feel obligated to raise money and awareness for the survivors here," Rubin said. "We've been blessed from the generosity of the local people. We're doing this because we want people to know what happened and to raise money to help where we can." Making a difference Rubin and Beddall wired themselves money, and have dedicated themselves to helping the locals regain their footing. "We feel that we're in a unique position to help, having witnessed what happened and being able to personally assist people who have been most affected by the catastrophe," he said. Rubin said the tourist areas received the brunt of the destruction, while Thailand as a country is functioning. However, virtually anything within a mile of the shore was destroyed, including many villages. The publicity of their television appearances has had the result they anticipated. Donations have come in from around America and beyond. Seeing an interview on CNN's "Larry King Live," a 9-year-old Florida girl was inspired to help. She was put in contact with Rubin and Beddall, and sent them $342 she had raised in her community. Every dollar makes a difference, Rubin said. "The average Thai person makes the equivalent of $100 a month, so you can imagine how far even a small donation goes," he said. "Twenty dollars can feed a person for a month here." Accompanied by Thai friends serving as translators, the two are traveling to refugee camps and giving money and assistance based on need, on a case-by-case basis. Rebecca has a master's degree in psychology, and is doing some counseling. They are currently assisting at a camp where 1,200 families have sought shelter. "There are a million different causes to pursue here," he said. "We're primarily focusing on helping the women and children." The two are also keeping in close communication with their Seattle office, which is involved in its own fundraising efforts. Patricia Fitzgerald, Broker/Manager for the 67-agent RE/MAX Metro, said Rubin and Beddall's involvement has struck a chord with the staff. "There were a few moments where we had no idea if they were OK, and everyone had a real pit in their stomachs. It was a huge relief when we heard that they were fine," she said. "That they are there and lived through the disaster has really personalized the tragedy for us." RE/MAX Metro is collecting donations and wiring the funds directly to Thailand, where Rubin and Beddall literally hand the cash to people in need. "There is no middle man or organization to take a cut of what's donated," Fitzgerald said. "What they are doing makes a difference on a very individual level." A new perspective The death and destruction that surrounds them has taken a mental toll, Rubin said. Grieving families, destroyed lives and death are their reality. In one instance, Beddall helped transport bagged bodies while Rubin assisted with the coffins. Ron Rubin takes a break near a stack of coffins. "We've been running on adrenaline all day, every day," he said. Dealing with the situation is a matter of taking it day by day, he added. One reason they decided to stay is that it's therapeutic to share stories with others who can relate, having gone through the same ordeal. The experience has given them a renewed perspective on life. "Striving for material possessions and professional clout becomes utterly unimportant in a situation like this," Rubin said. "We feel a need to help other people as much as possible. We've witnessed firsthand how quickly possessions can just go away." Rubin said they plan to return home toward the end of February. He doesn't know what to expect when he returns, but will surely approach everyday life differently. "It will be a shuffling of our priorities to spend time with loved ones, and helping other people versus helping ourselves," he said. He continued: "Many people don't realize how fortunate we are in America. An event like this really puts things into perspective. It makes you realize what's important in life and what isn't. The saying 'Here today, gone tomorrow,' becomes very real." Copyright © 2005 RE/MAX International Inc. 1/13/ 05 To read another news article about Ron and Rebecca, from the Seattle Times, click here.