The Truth About Jet Li's Near-Death Experience

For most people, a tsunami isn't a near-death experience — it's an uncheatable death. Tsunami researcher and forecaster Vasily Titov called it the reverse of an earthquake in terms of casualties, telling History, "In earthquakes, a certain number of people die but many more are injured" whereas in tsunamis, there are "almost no injuries, because it's such a difficult disaster to survive." 

The Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 illustrated that fact in the grimmest fashion imaginable. It started with one of the most intense ten-minute stretches in recorded history. On the day after Christmas, a 9.1-magnitude earthquake generated the energy of several thousand atomic bombs, causing a ferocious explosion of ocean waves. A 100-foot wave of the coast of Sumatra killed 100,000 people. Thailand was ravaged by waves racing at 500 miles per hour. Entire towns were erased in the blink of an eye. Within hours, 230,000 people were gone. The havoc traveled as far as South Africa, 5,000 miles away. And waves laid waste to the Maldives, where Jet Li was staying at a Four Seasons hotel with his family.

Jet Li made a narrow escape

In a 2008 piece for Newsweek, Jet Li recounted his harrowing brush with mortality. On the morning of the tsunami, he "felt the earth move." Accustomed to quakes from his time in San Francisco, he didn't think much of it. His daughters, aged 4 and 1, were raring to head out to the beach, so decided to bring them bright and early. But outside the hotel, he saw a colossal, all-swallowing wave. His children, too young to comprehend the immense danger, were laughing without a care in the world.

Jet Li carried his four-year-old while his nanny ran with the other daughter, but the tsunami was two steps ahead. "I took two steps and the water was at my hips," he recalls. "Two more, and it was at my chest. Then, it was just under my nose." His nanny's head was already under water and being forced farther and farther away with his one-year-old daughter. "Luckily, I'm famous and people knew I was there," Li writes. They had been searching for him specifically to get him out of harm's way. Li shouted for help, and four men swam to the nanny and his daughter, saving their lives. Li's head was just high enough above water for him to manage.