American diver underwater during catastrophe
(CNN) -- An American woman who was scuba diving with her husband in Thailand as one of Sunday's tsunamis roared overhead said she was oblivious to the disaster until after they surfaced, her mother told CNN on Tuesday.
Faye Wachs, 34, was diving with her husband, Eugene Kim, Sunday morning off Ko Phi Phi Island in Thailand when they noticed the water visibility worsened and felt as though they were being sucked downward, Helen Wachs said.
Their dive master signaled to them to surface, "but we still didn't know what happened," Faye wrote in an e-mail to her mother Tuesday.
The enormity of what was happening while they were scuba diving was not immediately apparent after they surfaced, Helen Wachs said her daughter told her.
"She said she saw a lot of trash in the water. The dive master said it was really rude for people to throw trash. Then they saw large bits of debris and thought there might have been a boat crash," Helen Wachs said.
She said her daughter didn't know what had happened until the dive master got a text message from his wife telling him about the catastrophe.
Soon they saw bodies floating past them, Wachs' mother said in an interview from Oakland, California, where she lives.
Once they returned to shore, the couple did what they could to help, Helen Wachs said.
"I can't describe carrying a moaning person who just saw his girlfriend killed down a hill in the middle of the night," the e-mail said. "I saw more bodies than I care to report. The hotel where we were staying is mostly gone. We lost everything, but our lives."
Faye Wachs said she was impressed by the efforts of the Thai government and the International Committee for the Red Cross, but "she was appalled at the treatment they got" from the U.S. government, her mother said.
At the airport in Bangkok, other governments had set up booths to greet nationals who had been affected and to help repatriate them, she said.
That was not the case with the U.S. government, Wachs told her mother. It took the couple three hours, she said, to find the officials from the American consulate, who were in the VIP lounge.
Because they had lost all their possessions, including their documentation, they had to have new passports issued.
But the U.S. officials demanded payment to take the passport pictures, Helen Wachs said.
The couple had managed to hold on to their ATM card, so they paid for the photos and helped other Americans who did not have any money get their pictures taken and buy food, Helen Wachs said.
"She was really very surprised" that the government did so little to ease their ordeal, she said.
In an e-mailed response from the State Department, the chief of American Citizen Services said the embassy usually meets and greets every flight personally, but acknowledged there had been confusion the first night in setting up the operation.
Still, "anyone needing assistance is guided to our office in the VIP hall, which is the space allocated to us by the airport authority," the e-mail said.
Typically, anyone needing a passport is directed to go to the embassy, it added.
"If people have no funds to get to the embassy, they are offered a $100 emergency loan on the spot," the e-mail said.
Because of the emergency, the embassy has been issuing no-fee emergency passports since the tsunami hit, it said.
But the photo printer was working only sporadically on the day in question, so its use was reserved for those truly in need; others were asked to walk a building away to get their pictures taken, it said.
"Basically, if you had a decent supply of cash, you were asked to go get photos made so we could try to save the camera for desperate cases."
Helen Wachs said her daughter told her they would need "some serious counseling" upon their return to Los Angeles.
Once aboard the plane, Wachs told her mother, the biggest thing they noticed was the absence of the stench of raw sewage that had permeated the air.
"She said the clean smell was amazing."
Wachs, who described herself as "shell-shocked but happy to be coming home," is scheduled to arrive Wednesday morning in Los Angeles, her mother said.
She returns acutely aware that many thousands of others don't have that option.
"The tourists are able to get out, but those there are left with utter destruction," Helen Wachs said.
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