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Witnesses to the tragedy

Showbiz survivors recount encounters with tsunami

Most people in the U.S. have viewed the Dec. 26 tsunami in Southeast Asia via TV. While the horror has been heartwrenching, a few showbiz vets can say, first hand, that it was far worse than it looks.

“I’m not really sure, even now, that it’s fully sunk in what we witnessed and what we avoided,” says Mosaic Media Group prexy Allen Shapiro. Now back in L.A., Shapiro and his wife were in Phuket, Thailand.

On the morning of Dec. 26, he was in the swimming pool of a hillside villa. “Suddenly everything went quiet. I got up out of the pool — we had a view of the entire coast — and it looked like the apocalypse.”

Shapiro was spared by his elevation. When he went down to the town six hours later, he says, “Every place we hung out — the place we’d had dinner the night before — was just destroyed.”

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Bodies had washed up in pools of water. Cars were deposited in second-story balconies.

Shapiro emailed his friend Peter Guber, chairman of Mandalay Entertainment, who was in northern Thailand riding elephants with his family, and told him to leave the country. Shapiro and Guber had come to the country together, but because Guber couldn’t get out of his hotel reservations, he couldn’t join Shapiro in Phuket that day.

“Just by an odd oddity, instead of being in Chiang Mai, I would have been sitting on that beach in Phuket at 10 in the morning,” Guber says.

Not everyone escaped. Film financier Jorge Gallegos, his wife Lorna Gallegos and sons Christian, 23, and James, 21, were in Khao Lak, Thailand, visiting friends.

While driving, Jorge, Lorna and a friend saw people running from the beach; they jumped out of the car and ran toward a concrete building with a fire escape.

“It was about 30 feet high and we had about 60 seconds to get to the top of the steps,” Lorna says.

As the wave approached, Jorge put out his arms. Lorna grabbed one, the friend grabbed the other. But Jorge died of a heart attack.

As Lorna held her husband, “I just saw all these heads being swept passed me,” she recalls. It took three days for her to be re-connected, via a series of text messages, with her sons.

Gordon Steel of the international consultancy Steel Co. arrived in Phuket at 8 a.m. on Dec. 26.

He was in the Hilton hotel at the fateful hour and was unharmed. But his friend, Russel Rottenburg, chairman of South African entertainment company Ster-Kenekor, was in the elevator of the Meridien Hotel when the power went out. Water began rushing in and he began making desperate calls on his mobile phone. Eventually someone in the hotel came and opened the doors. “All I can say is, thank God we survived,” Steel says.