About 7:30am on Monday, William Baul had finished his breakfast and was strolling down the main street of Kukundu in the Solomon Islands to meet some friends when he felt the earth pitch and tremble under his feet. The 18-year-old student saw the stilts under a nearby house collapse, and then the small kitchens attached to two others fell into a heap.
Ignoring the rocking ground, he ran to meet his friends who were clustered near the beach, anxiously staring out to sea. A few minutes later they saw a terrifying wall of water race up the main boat passage into the town. "We thought there was going to be death," says Baul. "It came about the speed of a man walking then it got faster and faster."
The group waited until the six-foot-high wave was about 60 feet away, then fled for the hills. "The people were screaming and starting to run upwards to the mountain behind the town," he says. "There was an old lady that couldn't run; some people ran to find her but she had already gone." Baul says the wave surged nearly 100 feet into the streets of the town, then receded. The residents all sat on the hill watching and waiting, too frightened to go back down. "Fortunately nobody was down near the ocean swimming," says Baul. "Everybody was up going about their business. Nobody got swept out from where we were."
After the water had retreated, Baul and his friends ventured toward the boat passage to be greeted by a strange sight. A large hole had appeared in the middle of the sporting fields of the Kukundu Adventist College, and seawater was bubbling out, leaving fish flapping on the sand. "We took them and we are cooking them now," says Baul over the phone. "It was the blessing from the tidal wave."
Speaking to TIME on Tuesday morning, Baul says most of Kukundu's and nearby Gizo's 7,000 people are still up in the hills, although a small group of youths had remained at the college as lookouts, with instructions to ring the college bell if another wave was sighted. Late on Monday night, he says, one of the youths rang the bell for fun. There was panic on the hillside, followed by relief and rage when locals realized the young people had been joking. "They were looking for the boys to punch them," says Baul. But false alarm or not, no one in Kukundu is in a hurry to return to town.