Rob Swapp, Photo courtesy of U.S. Forest Service
LORDSBURG -- The day after Christmas, 25-year-old Robert Swapp of Virden, N.M., left his vacation bungalow in Phuket, a resort town in Thailand, to get breakfast and check on his bike.
It was then a tsunami blamed for more than 150,000 deaths in southeast Asia and Africa crashed over the beach and changed his world forever.
Swapp didn't know the devastating tsunami was caused by an earthquake on the western coast of the island of Sumatra, 300 miles from the Thai coast. Registering 9.0 on the Richter scale, the quake would wreak havoc in countries bordering the Indian Ocean. Thirty-six Americans are among the presumed dead. About 3,500 Americans still have not been located.
A graduate of Duncan High School in Arizona, Swapp believes he is alive because he left the bungalow when he did. He tried to help someone near him after the wave crashed in, but he was forced to seek higher ground.
Swapp is a firefighter with the Gila Hotshots based at the Reserve Ranger District. He has fought fires in many states, including recent catastrophic blazes such as the Bullock fire on Mount Lemmon and the Rodeo-Chediski Fire in Arizona.
Swapp works six months of the year as a firefighter and travels the world the rest of the time. Swapp?s parents, Jon and Bethleen Jones Swapp, also of Virden, were terrified their son had been killed when they heard the news of the tsunami. When he called two days after the tsunami hit, his family was overjoyed to learn he was alive.
"He was on a borrowed cell phone and it was breaking up and he could talk only 60 seconds," his mother said.
Swapp's father was shocked by the devastating news.
"We found out about the tsunami when we went to church in Duncan on Sunday," he said. "Milton Jensen, a ham operator from Virden, told us about the quake at church. We came home and called some of Rob's friends. There was no news on TV until that night, when word started trickling out. Then we finally realized how bad it was."
Rob and some other Gila Hotshots had been surfing and scuba diving in Thailand when the tsunami occurred.
Swapp was able to call his parents with more details later again that same day.
"It was the dangdest thing I've ever seen," Swapp told his father. "Dad, I don't know why I'm alive. I've been in forest fires with fire coming up all around me, but I haven't seen anything like this."
A one-room medical triage facility was set up in the area, but there was no anesthetic available, so medical staff treated Swapp by pouring alcohol on his cuts and bruises.
"He was pretty beaten up by being slammed against the walls and rocks," Jon Swapp said.
The Swapps have not heard again from their son, but they are not worried now that they know he survived the wave.
"He's a real different sort of kid," said his father. "He is a cold-steel rawhide type, tougher than a fifty-cent steak."
Swapp played football and was an outstanding wrestler at Duncan High for three years, where he racked up an impressive 151-20 record. He is the No. 4 all-time-winning Arizona high school wrestler and an Eagle Scout. He wrestled one year at Northwest Community College in Powell, Wyo., and then transferred to Eastern Arizona College in Thatcher.
But before finishing college, Swapp decided to become a firefighter, a profession he loves. He is due to return to work in April with the Gila Hotshots, a 20-person wildland firefighting crew. Until then, he plans to stay in Thailand to help with the reconstruction efforts.
"He can't leave those people," Jon Swapp said. "He's a tough cookie, but he has a heart as big as Dallas."
"He's the kind of guy they need over there," said Rob Swapp's aunt, Melody Jones Richins. "As a Hotshot, he's used to living on nothing. He's tough and he's a wonderful kid. We feel that our prayers were answered when we found out he was alive. He'll be a great blessing to the survivors over there in the coming weeks."
While Rob Swapp stays busy doing what he does best, helping in emergency situations, his mother will continue to teach home economics and life skills at Clifton High School in Arizona. Jon Swapp will keep things going on the farm in Virden and the family's ranch in Arizona.
But more than family and friends await Swapp at home in Virden when he finishes his vacation turned mission of mercy. Presents from his parents and grandparents remain under the Christmas tree along with a special box.
"Each Christmas we gather or make humanitarian items for the less fortunate," said his mother. This year, the box contains baby sheets and receiving blankets, soft toys, puppets, and homemade quilts. In years past, the family has sent the items to their church, but this year they have something else in mind."
"I believe I know where this box will be going," Swapp's mother said.
Teya Vitu of the Tucson Citizen, a Gannett paper, contributed to this story.
Jeanne La Marca writes for the Lordsburg Liberal, a member of the Texas-New Mexico Newspapers Partnership.