New York Times Magazine. Lives.

The Last Wave

November 10, 2002


There's a core group of us from Newport and Huntington Beach in California who are friends from way back. The first day in Bali we surfed at Uluwatu. I thought I was in surfing shape, but I hadn't surfed those kinds of waves in a year. Webby, that's what we called Steven Webster, was a great surfer. He wasn't as good as he thought he was, but still. After lunch, the surf was double overhead. The swell was building. As I paddled out, my arms cramped up. I could barely move and I thought, God, don't let there be a big set. One came but it swung away from me. I skirted getting injured that day or something worse.

I'm 41 and have never been married. I've traveled a lot with Webby to surf: Fiji, Costa Rica, Mexico. All he could talk about this time was Bali. We had two hotel rooms. I was on a street called Poppies Lane 1, and Webby and Steve Cabler, another friend from home, were nearby on Poppies Lane 2. On the day of the explosion, I surfed Balangan Bay with Bob, this guy I'd met. After, Bob and I went by Webby and Cabler's hotel and said, ''We'll see you guys at the Sari Club,'' and then later we went to this Mexican place called TJ's. About 10, we walked toward Legian, the main road where the bars are. There were waves of people. It was like Seashore Drive in Newport Beach on the Fourth of July. So we just said, ''Let's go back to the hotel.''

Lying by the pool, drinking beers, Bob and I heard this enormous blast and a succession of windows shattering down the street. We saw an orange glow and then later, flames 400 feet in the air. I knew it was over near the Sari Club. Soon, droves of people, bloody, maimed and burned, walked down the street. I headed to the main road and was thrown into the middle of a war. There were bodies on top of bodies on top of bodies. People still alive, burning. People still alive who were torn in half. Moaning, groaning. I took some guy's pulse, and he was cold as a fish. I know CPR, but there was nothing I could do.

I went back to Cabler and Webby's hotel and banged on the door. Every hour, I ran back and forth between our hotels. At 10 in the morning, I got a call from Mona, Webster's wife. ''Where is he?''

''I don't know.''

''How come you're not with him? How come?''

''Mona, honey, I'll find him.''

At my hotel, I got a message that said, ''Steve's O.K.'' Which Steve? I ran back to their room. I'll never forget that feeling. I've known Cabler a long time, but Webby is one of my very best friends. I remember seeing Cabler on one bed; he was just a mess talking to Mona on the phone. On the other bed, there wasn't Webby. He was gone. At noon, I got Cabler to a clinic; they had to cut away his dead skin. He had broken his shoulder and was deaf in one ear. Cabler had had to break through a wall to get out of the club. By some miracle, he did it.

Then we went to seven hospitals to look for Webby. I knew the watch he was wearing; I knew his physique: his chin, the width of his shoulders and his bowlegs. The main hospital had a tarp up; behind it were 40 to 50 burned bodies, charred to the bone. They looked like charcoal; I looked at every one just to make sure. But you couldn't see, you couldn't recognize anyone; it was horrifying.

Cabler spent that night huddled with me. We barely slept. The next morning, he went to the airport. If Cabler wasn't injured, we would have stayed arm and arm to get Webby out of there. But he was shaken up.

I went back to the main hospital, Sanglah General. On a wall, there was Steve's name toward the bottom and next to it, the words ''passed away.'' They identified him from the passport photo I gave them the day before and put him in a body bag, No. 105. I saw No. 106, No. 103, and I just started opening them all up. I remember throwing up. I probably threw up three times. After eight hours, what put it all in perspective was a woman who came up and said: ''We've got a dozen or so decapitations. Do you want to look at those?'' Finally I said, ''I can't.''

There was this gentleman, Frank, who was running the whole volunteer setup at the hospital. He was so sweet. I told him, ''My friend's name said 'passed away,' but no one can find him.'' He said, ''I'll work through the night to solve your problem.'' The next morning, Frank told me that they had found the doctor who had identified him. ''We're 95 percent sure it's Steve.'' I really wanted to see him -- to see what he had gone through -- but Frank said: ''The government has closed it off to everybody but forensics. A) you can't get in, and B) you don't want to.'' In the end, I was glad I hadn't seen his body.

Before we left for Bali, Webby and I agreed: ''If we're having a good time, let's just keep going.'' I felt cheated, cheated that I had lost a best friend, that his family has been cheated. It was dumb luck that I didn't go to the Sari Club that night. When I got home from Bali, I called Webby's cellphone to hear his voice. I left him a message: ''Whoever gets this . . . I don't know who will. . . . Tell him I love him.''