In August 2004, the Ridgely family left the UK for a two-year adventure travelling across the world. Having sold their home in Hertfordshire they drove across Eastern Europe in an old camper van and were thrilled at the prospect of realising their dream of spending 18-months living under the sun in Sri Lanka. They’d chosen Sri Lanka very carefully as an ideal place to live, somewhere safe and friendly but still very different to Britain.
Little did they know the beach paradise they’d found was about to turn into hell.
It was 7.30am on Christmas morning when the Ridgley family finally reached their new home at Arugam Bay, on Sri Lanka’s east coast. That evening they had a celebratory candlelit Christmas dinner by the sea and their three children – Angus (7-years-old) Claudia (8-years-old) and Sasha (12-years-old) opened their stocking presents.
Dad, Duncan Ridgley, woke on Boxing Day ready to enjoy his first day in paradise and went down to the beach with son, Angus. It was still early – his back was to the sea, but as he chatted to the manager of the local hotel, her face suddenly froze. Looking around Duncan saw “a 10 foot wall of water” moving towards him. Duncan yelled to his son and as they ran away from the sea, he screamed to everyone to run for their lives.
Penny scrambled frantically from their beach hut with daughters Claudia and Sasha. Together, still dressed only in swimming costumes, they sprinted down the road away from the sea. As the giant wave began demolishing their new home, the family spotted an army truck and piled in. But soon after they clambered in, the tsunami wave hit. The truck was flipped over and everyone on board, including the Ridgley family, ended up in the water.
Seeing Angus floating past, Duncan grabbed his hand and refused to let go as they were swept along, bashing into vehicles, fridges, bits of wood; and clinging on to anything that was floating. With no idea where they were going and with no time to look around or yell for the other 3 family members, they were dragged under by the current, and Duncan pushed Angus up so he could still breath. As the wave finally started to lose its power they slammed into a palm tree and Duncan put Angus on top of the junk that had built up around it and hung on. Looking back he saw Penny was with Claudia, hanging on to another palm tree, but there was no sign of Sasha.
The sludge was now down to 5-feet deep and the Ridgley’s began frantically looking for Sasha. Suddenly she returned her dad’s shouts. She had fallen into the water alone but managed to grab hold of the back of a fridge to keep her afloat. The fridge had become wedged between two trees and had stopped Sasha’s ride about a hundred feet or so before the rest of the family.
A plank of wood had slammed into her and the 12-year-old had been forced to pull a nail out of her foot whilst the water tried to drag her back into the torrent. Another survivor helped Sasha reunite with her family and as the water appeared to be residing, they briefly considered returning to the beach – until Duncan explained he thought this may be a tsunami and there may be other waves.
Duncan insisted they all climb onto the roof of the only building they could find to protect them from further waves. Angus was first to climb up, helping remove roof tiles to make way for everyone else. Penny then pulled up the two girls. But as Duncan was about to scramble onto the roof a badly injured woman cried out for help. Another wave was coming, and Duncan faced a moral dilemma, should he delay his own survival and help or just leap on to the roof? Despite the imminent danger, he knew he had to help and pushed the injured lady up on to the roof but as he was still climbing up himself, the second wave struck.
Duncan survived – and began taking tiles off the roof to make sure everyone had a firm footing on one of the exposed outer walls in case subsequent waves made the roof collapse.
As other waves continued to hit the house over the next hour, the family faced an impossible dilemma – to stay or move. The final wave was huge and Penny movingly describes on film how, on seeing it approach, she was sure she and her family were about to die. Her only consolation was that at least they would all die together. The massive wave hit – and the family didn’t die – but the other half of the house collapsed. Duncan realised they had to climb down and make a run for it.
Duncan saw some higher ground 200 metres away and guided his family towards it through the knee-deep water filled with rubble, past numerous dead bodies and through a crocodile infested river.
Eventually the family made it to dry land and the realisation that they had survived a disaster so many had not.
They returned to Britain for a short break to see their extended family, but Duncan and Penny were determined not to let this terrible tragedy put their children off travelling forever. “We’d just been in the wrong place at the wrong time.” This inspiring family are now back on the road – determined to continue their journey – but now sticking to dry countries like Egypt!
Notes to Editors
The Survivors in this film are played by the following actors:
Duncan Ridgely : Mike Goodenough
Penny Ridgely : Elizabeth Downes
Sasha Ridgely : Jessica Dunn
Claudia Ridgely : Megan De Wolf
Angus Ridgely : Matthew Broadbent