Hawaii woman heads to Sri Lanka to reunite with boy who survived 2004 tsunami

Woman returns to Sri Lanka in search of child she nursed back to health
Debi Austin
Debi Austin
"Baby 81"
"Baby 81"

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - It was eight years ago when a magnitude 9.2 earthquake in the Indian Ocean beneath off Sumatra triggered tsunami waves that killed more than 200,000 people in 14 countries.

Rescue and recovery crews spent days looking for survivors of the Dec. 26, 2004 tsunamis. But more often, they found the dead.

In eastern Sri Lanka, an interpreter named Sri made a discovery.

"He found this pile of rubbish," said Debi Austin, a retired military nurse and aid volunteer. "Well, he heard this squawking, and he thought, 'chicken!' He was so excited, thinking it was food because everyone is starving and Thursday and everything, and so he goes tearing into the rubbish, and there's this baby, covered in mud, on a tire."

The baby, who was about three months old at the time, became known as Baby 81. Austin, who now calls Waikiki home, remembers his story. She was in Australia when the earthquake and tsunami hit. She immediately volunteered to help, and ended up helping to take care of Baby 81.

Austin said even though the baby had survived the waves by floating in a tire, his continued survival wasn't assured -- until Sri the interpreter found him. "It would have died from the elements, or died from a ravaging dog, because we had a lot of dogs that were roaming the beaches," said Austin.

Nine families claimed the child. Finally, DNA tests determined his real parents, and the boy -- whose name is Abilas -- went home, but not before appearing on American television.

Austin has since retired, but is heading back to Sri Lanka next month to meet the boy, and the interpreter she says saved his life, for the first time since the tsunami.

"I'm gonna go find Sri, and I'm going to find -- well, he's now a young boy, he's like seven, eight years old -- because I don't know if they've ever met or if he even knows the story," said Austin.

What will she say to this boy when she sees him? "I'm just going to give him a big hug and just say, 'You know, I'm your auntie. I was there right when you came.' And just kinda be there."

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