How CFO Sean Capazorio survives tsunamis, at work and on his honeymoon

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Aspen CFO Sean Capazorio unpacks how the tragedy changed his views on life and leadership.

The 2004 tsunami in Thailand is one of those events that most people remember seeing on TV, and being horrified at the sheer scale of the disaster. Unlike most people, Aspen Pharmacare CFO Sean Capazorio didn’t see the calamity from a TV screen: he lived it.

In December 2004, Sean and his wife were newlyweds, on honeymoon in Thailand. His wife was three months pregnant and he recalls that they were staying on the gorgeous island of Phi Phi , only accessible by ferry.

The morning of Boxing Day – when they were leaving the island – started as an ordinary day. After breakfast, they packed and put all their luggage in the reception area, as they had arranged to meet some friends from the UK.

“We were in a shop buying some last-minute mementos, when we heard people screaming and saw them running in all directions. The shop owner pushed us out of his shop, and we started running too. We still didn’t know what was going on, and then we heard a huge, explosive noise – like in those Indiana Jones movies where you just know that something is coming,” he says.

He noticed a strange little trickle of water under their feet, and rapidly, the trickle became a massive flood. He and his wife grabbed onto each other and were washed into one of the tiny little wooden shops nearby.

“It was dark, and we were being tossed around by the massive waves: it was like being in a tumble dryer. I had one of those ‘life flashing in front of your eyes’ moments,” he recalls.

Suddenly, the torrent picked up and they were sucked out of the shop and they hurtled along a raging river. He grabbed onto a coconut tree and clung onto it, but his wife was washed away from him. “At that stage I thought I’d lost my wife and my unborn child. So that was quite traumatic,” he said. “As soon as I got down from the tree, I started looking for her, and literally within five minutes, we spotted each other.”

They went up to the roof of their hotel and found many others who had gone there to find refuge from the swirling water below. They stayed there for the next 24 hours. Once people had gathered a little courage, some of them went downstairs and managed to find water. Someone else found some flip-flops in the shop, and gave them to people who had lost their shoes.

“People were sharing whatever they had, from drinking water to bits of clothing. It was good to see strangers of different nationalities stick together and help each other out,” he says.

As the water subsided, people started calling out for their loved ones, but heard nothing back. "It was heart-wrenching," Sean says. Eventually the army came around to rescue them, and they could see the degree of carnage.

The army arranged for ferries to pick up all the survivors on the island the next day, but waiting to get off the island was angst-inducing. “You’re standing on the pier, waiting for the ferry and wondering what you’d do if another wave came. You’ve got no protection.”

Aspen CFO Sean Capazorio


Hit by the magnitude of tragedy

Eleven of the 15 South Africans who died in the tsunami passed away in Phi Phi, but Sean and his wife were two of the lucky ones who managed to get on the ferry and make their way back to South Africa safely.

It took them two days to get home, and upon landing, they headed straight to the hospital, where they spent a few days. His wife needed care to recover from several injuries and with the pregnancy, there was extra concern about her health.

She had to have an operation to fix her finger, which had been injured while she was swimming through the debris of the tsunami. And while Sean’s injuries seemed minor at first, after a few days it was clear something else was wrong. He was progressively getting sicker. “I couldn’t walk, was very nauseous, had a fever, was achy all over and despite the doctors trying to treat me, I wasn’t getting better.”

Luckily, there was a specialist physician who had practised in India who recognised the symptoms as a disease called Leptospirosis. Sean had contracted the bacteria from swallowing contaminated water in the tsunami.

He reflects that the danger of the tsunami didn’t go away after they had escaped the water: “The thing that killed a lot of people was the debris in the water, not drowning.”

Fortunately, his wife made a full recovery and six months later they welcomed their first son, who was born healthy and perfect.


A different way to handle pressure

Sean admits that he doesn’t talk about the experience much. “It was traumatic, but in hindsight we saw it in a positive light, because we survived. Coming out alive made us realise that life is unpredictable: the crisis you face could be getting caught underwater in a wave or trapped in something like the war in Ukraine.” He says with these types of experiences, you come to realise that you’ve got to count your blessings, and it changes your outlook on life.

“As the saying goes, ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’,” he says. “It influences the way you manage life’s pressures and manage your expectations of others. You respect the fact that life could be a lot worse and that gives you the calmness and ability to step back and look at it from another angle, and pragmatically ask, ‘What could be the worst thing that might happen?’”

He says, having made it out alive: “That’s when you realise that there’s definitely a higher power, whatever your religion is. We are all going to die, but for some miraculous reason, for us it wasn’t that day, and only that power knows why.”

 

Seeing priorities differently

When it comes to work, the experience made him realise the value of family, he says: “I make sure that I have a proper work-home balance. An experience like this makes you appreciate that life is very short and anything can happen to you at any time. So you’ve got to live each day to its fullest and not keep worrying about tomorrow.”

Now, almost 20 years and two children later, he reflects on the tragedy and says, “I agree with the idea that wealth is not in money, that it’s in friends and family. I am most grateful for my family, that I had the opportunity to raise kids that have made me proud, to be healthy, and to have been lucky in my career.”

He says an experience like a natural disaster sharpens your sense of what is important: “Whenever you’re having a tough time, in those moments you can look back and remember what you survived and see that you’re really lucky to have what you have.”

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