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'I wanted to die too': Sole survivor of Seventeen band carries scars of deadly Indonesia tsunami

'I wanted to die too': Sole survivor of Seventeen band carries scars of deadly Indonesia tsunami

Riefian Fajarsyah, who is also known as Ifan, was the frontman of Indonesian pop rock band Seventeen. (Photo: Kiki Siregar)

JAKARTA: It had been raining heavily for hours on Tuesday (Dec 17) in the Indonesian capital city, resulting in minor floods.

“Please accept my apologies for the delay. Ifan is on his way but his car was stuck in the floods so he had to make a U-turn,” the head of the artiste management firm overseeing the singer's schedule said to CNA. 

“Ifan had to make a U-turn because he is afraid of the water,” a staff member of the firm said with a laugh.

What may seem like light-hearted banter could actually be real fear for Ifan, 36, who survived a tsunami that killed more than 400 people.

In fact, he is the sole survivor of Indonesian pop rock band Seventeen which was hit by a tsunami when they were performing in Tanjung Lesung, Banten province on Dec 22 last year.

“I still haven’t swum or been near a beach since the tragedy,” Ifan told CNA in an exclusive interview.

Dressed in black, Ifan lit a cigarette before he opened up about his traumatic experience and how he is on the road to recovery.

READ: Indonesia tsunami: Wave crashes into local pop band Seventeen's performance

It was a Saturday night on Dec 22 last year and frontman Ifan and his band members – Bani, Andi and Herman – were performing in Tanjung Lesung Beach Resort for a company’s year-end gathering.

Ifan decided to bring his wife actress Dylan Sahara along.

Tanjung Lesung was a favourite tourist destination, especially for Jakartans, being near to the beach and the enigmatic Anak Krakatau volcano.

It was around 9pm when the band was performing with its back to the sea.

Ifan remembered singing and jumping when a deluge hit the stage. Everything around him collapsed.

“I first thought the event organiser built a lousy stage. I thought ‘somebody will be responsible for building this hideous stage’ but soon I found myself drowning in water,” Ifan, whose real name is Riefian Fajarsyah, recounted.

“'This must be either a dream or doomsday,’ I then thought.”


He saw how everything was submerged in water - men, women, children and all kinds of items such as chairs, tables and shoes.

That was when he realised that he was out at sea.

“I tried to swim to the surface, but it wasn’t easy. I got hit by waves several times. I saw how people were trying to hold on to others who still had the energy to swim. I had people trying to grab me, my feet, my hand,” he recounted.

Several members of the band Seventeen and more than 100 others were killed by the tsunami at the Tanjung Lesung Beach Hotel. (Photo: AFP/Adek Berry)

“Someone scratched my face while trying to hold on to me. I even saw how people died. Some drowned, some just slowly became stiff.”

While fighting to breathe, Ifan came across a black box, which he later found out was part of the band's lighting equipment.

He finally had something he could hold on to.

But he wasn’t alone, there were three other people holding on to it so they had to share the box.

“It was a scary situation and I honestly thought I wouldn’t make it. But I knew I had to remain calm and keep the spirit of all of us alive,” Ifan said.

They kept themselves calm by reciting Islamic supplications and Ifan also tried to motivate them by yelling words of optimism.

READ: Want an unusual Indonesian experience? Take a hike up Anak Krakatau 

“I told them: ‘The shore is still far. We may need a couple of hours but even if we have to do this till tomorrow morning, we will survive. We can do this. Okay?' And they said yes,” Ifan remembered.

He didn’t want to tell the others that the shore was near because he didn’t want to give them false hope.

READ: Indonesia hunts for survivors as volcano tsunami toll nears 400

After roughly two hours, they saw some light from the shore. “It was a flashlight from the shore. We were so happy. We knew it was still far but it motivated us to hold on,” he said.

They finally reached land and were immediately helped by security guards who were standing in the darkness with their flashlights.

Ifan had many questions, but the most crucial one was: Where was his wife?


The following morning, Indonesia woke up to the news of the devastating tsunami.

It was caused by the eruption and partial collapse of the Anak Krakatau volcano which had been active for the past few months.

Close-up map showing the tsunami-affected areas around Sunda Strait, populated areas, and height of tidal waves monitored on Dec 22-23. (Graphic: AFP/Gal Roma, Laurence Chu)

A video of the band performing when the tsunami suddenly hit them went viral.

Another video of Ifan in tears while announcing the death of his bassist Bani and road manager Oki Wijaya also garnered a lot of attention.

“Do I have regrets? At first yes. I regretted having asked Dylan to accompany me to Tanjung Lesung, I regretted having ignored the guys’ concerns,” Ifan told CNA.

Debris is seen along a beach after a tsunami, near Sumur, Banten province, Indonesia on Dec 26, 2018. (Photo: Reuters/Jorge Silva)

He said his fellow band members noticed how the volcano was sparkling before their performance.

“But I ignored it. I said to them, we are here to work, we’re not going to die.”

The body of guitarist Herman and crew member Uje were found on Dec 23, 2018, while Andi’s the following day.

Also on Dec 24, a day after what was supposed to be her birthday, authorities found Sahara.

Rescue workers carry a body bag containing remains of a victim of a tsunami at the beach front hotel in Pandeglang, Banten province, Indonesia on Dec 24, 2018. (Photo: Reuters/Jorge Silva)

The couple were married for two years.

“The first few months were the hardest. I first tried to deal with the fact that Dylan was gone. Once I came to accept that, then I started to deal with the fact that my band members also died,” he revealed.


In the first few weeks, Ifan could not bear the thought of being home alone.

“I would often go out in the middle of the night, and then drive around my house numerous times until I became very tired, usually at around 2am.

Then I would finally park my car in front of my house and just sleep in the car. I couldn’t sleep at home,” Ifan said.

He added: "I wanted to die too.”

A December 2018 killer tsunami has dealt a serious blow to plans to pump billions of dollars into Tanjung Lesung. (Photo: AFP/Adek Berry) Last month's killer tsunami has dealt a serious blow to plans to pump billions of dollars into Tanjung Lesung AFP/Adek BERRY

He also didn’t want to meet anyone, not even close friends. “Because every time I meet someone, they will bring up the tsunami. And then I have to tell the story. It was so painful, so I decided it’s best just not to meet anyone.”

He had problems singing again but refused to seek professional help. 

Before the disaster, Ifan had been registered as a parliament candidate for the April election.

“In February, I understood that it was my obligation to campaign and meet people. So I had to have a daily routine again,” he said.

He was running in the Indonesian province of West Kalimantan. There are many rivers and boats are a common form of transportation.

“At first, I was very afraid. I didn’t want to be near the water. But I told myself, if this what it takes to be a parliament member, then so be it.

"So I forced myself to get onto the boat but it turned out okay. The campaigning was needed to heal my wounds,” he said.

Ifan wants to continue singing in 2020. (Photo: Kiki Siregar)

He also mentioned how he encountered many Islamic clerics during the campaigning and that they gave him soothing advice.

The election results announced in May showed that Ifan did not win but he accepted it.


In June, Ifan started to have the courage to go on stage again.

He told his manager that he only wanted to perform on a small stage first in front of a small crowd. He would only sing one Seventeen song. As time went on, he played on bigger stages and was able to sing more songs.

He is now performing regularly as a solo singer singing some of Seventeen’s songs and also other artistes' pieces.

“It took me a while, but I finally felt alive again,” he said.

When asked what his plans are, especially for 2020, Ifan replied: “I used to be a planner. I used to have plans but now I just want to take things step by step."

"This year, 2019, I feel there are only four months. September, October, November and December. Between January and August, I felt numb. It was my recovery process”.

But he is sure that he will stay in the music industry and continue singing.

He also wants to go back to Tanjung Lesung Beach Resort to get proper closure.

The resort’s CEO Poernomo Siswoprasetijo told CNA that the property began receiving guests about a month after the tsunami, starting with researchers.

Tanjung Lesung also obtained a new tsunami Warning Receiver System in September and is now ready to host a New Year’s party. 

Before the tsunami last year, it was not widely known that volcanic eruptions can cause tsunamis.

READ: Indonesia tsunami: Jokowi orders national agency to buy early warning systems 

To Ifan, the disaster gave him an important message.

“We sometimes don’t realise how pleasant it is to be surrounded by loved ones. Whether surrounded by friends, a nice boss, a nice subordinate, a sister, a brother, a family, parents, a husband, a wife or a partner.

"It is a blessing from Allah, God, but we just don’t realise it. If we realise it, we will definitely behave better.

"We also don’t realise the blessing of life. Life is so precious,” he said.

Source: CNA/ks(aw)


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