The quake that erupted on the floor of the Indian Ocean on Dec. 26—so immense that it altered the Earth's rotation—spawned tsunamis that sliced through the coastlines of 12 countries, killing at least 55,000 and possibly thousands more. Experts fear that triple as many could die from epidemics brought on by decaying corpses and putrid water. The waves were nature at its most brutally egalitarian, striking everyone from the poorest villagers to wealthy holidaymakers like Czech supermodel Petra Nemcova, who survived by clinging to a tree for eight hours while her boyfriend, photographer Simon Attles, was swept out to sea. Amid the grief were more than a few miracles, such as the 20-day-old Malaysian infant rescued while floating on a mattress. Below, in their own words, are tales of some who lived—and some who lost.

STEVE MOCKUS, 34, a San Francisco book editor, and JODY HUMES, a 31-year-old high school English teacher from San Jose, were reading on the beach at Phi Phi Island, Thailand.

HUMES: The crabs were being weird, running around.

MOCKUS: Maybe they do that every day, but it was new to us. Then I saw Thai people beating like hell back to shore. I saw a low wave come in. Then another came in and knocked us over.

HUMES: I saw a house float away.

MOCKUS: We got blasted from one side of the island to the other. We were in a channel. I was under water standing up. But Jody and I were separated. I found a plastic kayak and grabbed it. A young Thai girl climbed in. She had what looked like a roofing nail sticking into her neck. She seemed to be doing well for someone with a nail in her neck. I yelled for help and saw a tour boat. We managed to get into it.

HUMES: I think I was hit with an air conditioner. I was coughing gasoline and my bikini came completely off. I was underwater clawing debris. Finally, I found a roof to hold onto, but it disintegrated and I was holding onto a piece of wood. I found a French woman in the water and we saw another boat. We reached it and a naked Thai man held out his hand. The naked man found a T-shirt and tore it in two to share with me. There was a little French boy screaming for his mother. And an Asian woman who had nearly lost her arm and people were trying to hold it onto her. We moved onto a ferry boat, then a larger tour boat. A man gave me a Coke, and I vomited dirt, gasoline and little bits of nature. Then, sometime around 4 or 5 p.m., I looked out and saw Steve on the deck of another boat. When I got to Phuket, I saw the Asian woman covered up. She didn't make it.

Humes and Mockus, suffering cuts and bruises, eventually found one another at a government building.

SELVI, 50, a fisherman's wife and mother of four (who goes by just one name), was gutting fish on the beach near her small village near Chennai, India.

During school holidays, my youngest son, Jothi, who's 9, comes to the beach with me. He is very special. I had him late in life, and he's very loving. By about 9 a.m. on Sunday morning we got ready to leave. Suddenly a huge wave smashed into our backs. It was like a slap from a giant. I was holding Jothi's hand tightly, but the impact tore us apart and we were lifted into the air. I rolled over and over inside the wave. There were broken bottles, bits of trees—all sorts of debris rolling with me. The next thing I knew I was lying on the beach, aching, scratched all over. I was looking for my son, crying and staggering. Finally I found his body close to the water's edge. His head was buried in the sand. I knew it was him because of his striped blue and white T-shirt and his gray trousers. I crouched by his side and wept. Finally some people came and carried his body away.

DWAYNE MEADOWS, 38, a Honolulu marine biologist, was on vacation in Khao Lak, Thailand. He was in his bungalow when the wave hit.

I heard the classic train-rumbling noise. Then I saw the wave. It wasn't large, but I knew what it was. It came in about 30 feet high and went over the bungalow. The walls started collapsing. I snuck out the side, but was submerged and churning. I can hold my breath two or three minutes, but I was panicking. After a minute or so, I really thought it was the end. I was spinning, being smashed into things. At the end of my capacity, I suddenly came up for air. When the lower half of a mannequin swam by, I held on to it. Two women, a Thai and a German, were trapped in a mass of floating debris. I was hyperventilating and tired, but I got to the Thai woman, who kept saying she couldn't swim. I gave her the mannequin and said I'd help her to the shore. But she freaked out and held on to a piece of roof she'd been clinging to. I had to leave her; she wouldn't let go. The German woman floated off. I started swimming to shore and reached the beach.

MANIMARAN, 35, a father of two and fisherman in Chennai, India.

It sounds hard to believe, but I was out to sea in my catamaran and had no idea of the disaster. Only when I got back and saw the devastation, did I find out. The beach was packed with people running, screaming. I became frightened for my wife [Aral, 27]. Then someone told me she'd been down at the beach buying fish and was dragged off by the wave. I searched the beach for hours, my eyes streaming with tears. Finally, someone said I should go to the hospital, and it was there I found her body. I put my hand out to touch her face, and then I broke down.

SALLY NELSON, 59, a San Diego psychologist, was on a diving trip off Thailand's Khao Lak Emerald Beach Resort & Spa with her partner STU BREISCH, 55, a Salt Lake City ER physician, and his daughter Shonti, 18. They returned to the resort to search for his other two children who had stayed behind.

SALLY: Nearly all the buildings were collapsed. Not one live being except a dog. Eerie silence. The rest of the day we spent going to temples where the dead were. At first I stood outside with my shirt over my face because of the stench. So much death, crying and loss. Bodies on the side of the road. Bodies in town. Among the corpses, we recognized the hotel restaurant manager. And we spoke to one of the maids. She said in broken English, "I'm sorry, [Jai, 16, and Kali, 15] were sleeping when the wave came."

"Did anyone get out?" I asked her. "No." While looking for the kids in the rubble of their bungalow, we saw Kali's bathing suit top under a concrete block. We gave up around midnight. We went to a nature resort, where the owner had invited people to sleep in the lobby. I held Stu as he cried that night.

By the third day, they heard Jai was in a Bangkok hospital—but no word of Kali.

STU: Shonti and I have been going through temples and hospitals looking for Kali. What we've seen is unspeakable. I've never seen anything like it- thousands of bloated bodies rotting away. The stench is awful. But local people are very generous to us, giving us rides. And I spoke to Jai, he told me he and Kali were inside the bungalow standing next to the window, when he looked through the blinds and saw the water coming. In the next instant the glass and walls blew apart and they were swept away. Kali never saw his sister and said he had to go where the water took him.

My only hope for Kali is that she's unconscious somewhere with a head wound. I still hope she's alive. I've got to find my daughter. I don't know what to do. When do you give up?

Reported by Karen Emmons in Phuket and Jean Macfarlane in Chennai