The sun had set 12 minutes earlier, and twilight was waning on the northern coast of Papua New Guinea. It was July 17, 1998, and another tranquil Friday evening was drawing to a close for the men, women and children of Sissano, Arop, Warapu and other small villages on the peaceful sand spit between Sissano Lagoon and the Bismarck Sea. But deep in the earth, far beneath the wooden huts of the unsuspecting villagers, tremendous forces had strained the underlying rock for years. Now, in the space of minutes, this pent-up energy violently released as a magnitude 7.1 earthquake. At 6:49 p.m., the main shock rocked 30 kilometers (nearly 19 miles) of coastline centered on the lagoon and suddenly deformed the offshore ocean bottom. The normally flat sea surface lurched upward in response, giving birth to a fearsome tsunami.
Retired Colonel John Sanawe, who lived near the southeast end of the sandbar at Arop, survived the tsunami and later told his story to Hugh Davies of the University of Papua New Guinea. Just after the main shock struck only 20 kilometers offshore, Sanawe saw the sea rise above the horizon and then spray vertically perhaps 30 meters. Unexpected sounds--first like distant thunder, then like a nearby helicopter--gradually faded as he watched the sea slowly recede below the normal low-water mark. After four or five minutes of silence, he heard a rumble like that of a low-flying jet plane. Sanawe spotted the first tsunami wave, perhaps three or four meters high. He tried to run home, but the wave overtook him. A second, larger wave flattened the village and swept him a kilometer into a mangrove forest on the inland shore of the lagoon.