Thursday, January 13, 2005

Tsunami Tales

This came over my e-mail transom today. It's definitely worth reading.

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Thought you'd all find this a bit interesting. I've visited this island several times and am still missing friends.


Sent: Wednesday, January 12, 2005 12:28 AM
Subject: Tsunami

I want to thank everyone for all the tremendous well wishes and thoughtfulness over the past few days. As many of you knew, I took my sabbatical over the Holiday break. It consisted of a three (3) week trip to Southeast Asia with my wife and our sons. Our trip started in Singapore, then quickly moved on to Bali. We met a long-time Australian friend who stayed with us there and introduced us to several local friends he had acquired over the last 30 years - it was an unforgettable experience of both visual and cultural beauty. We then moved to Phuket in Thailand for two (2) days for the sole purpose of touring Phang Nga Bay. I have been to so many picturesque places in this world, but can think of no other that compare in beauty and magnitude to this vast "field" of green "rock islands". I have attached a picture of one of the more famous islands in Phang Nga National Park - just one of hundreds of pictures we took over the course of the entire trip. I recommend enlarging the view to 50%.

On Christmas Day, we headed out from Phuket to Phi Phi Don, the only inhabited island of a group of six (6), and approximately a one (1) hour boat ride of Phuket. The trip plan was to go to an extremely remote beautiful place for a week and completely relax, then return to Singapore to "re-acquaint" ourselves a few days with civilization and return home. The next morning, the tsunami hit. While Phuket Island was hit very hard, Khao Lak, the area located directly to the north on the mainland and Phi Don, located to the southeast, were decimated. Phi Phi Don is hourglass shaped with the majority of the resorts, town, shops, etc. residing on a small flat strip of land connecting the two mountainous lengths of the island (picture #2). Surprisingly, all parts of the island experienced a minimum of 3-5 meter waves. Unfortunately, one of the island's two large bays faced right into the large southeasterly directed waves - 10 meters in height. Some witnesses reported that the waves were intensified as a result of the narrowing of the bay combined with a wrapping effect as the wave ripped up and across cliff faces on the way into town. As some of the people saw the first wave heading in, they ran in the opposite direction only to be faced with another wave heading into town from the bay on the opposite side of the strip. This is an extremely remote island and accurate/consistent information has been very difficult to obtain. As best I can tell from the written accounts to date, this entire strip of land was covered in water up to the height of a two (2) story building. The latest account estimates the death toll at 2,500; it could take weeks more to recover the vast majority. The volume of material, debris and sand that was moved has resulted in some victims being buried deep in the sand.

We were unbelievably fortunate enough to be staying on 1 of 3 of approximately 70 or so resorts that weren't severely damaged or completely destroyed. Our hotel, The Phi Phi Island Village Resort, is one of less than a handful that are located on the North Eastwardly facing side of the island. Between that and the shallow sandy bay approximately 800 meters long x 100 meters inland that lies in front of the resort, there was very little damage. Looking at the destruction all around us, it is simply unbelievable and we are thankful and lucky beyond belief. At the time the tsunami hit, we were staying high on the hillside in one of the villas and could see it all for several kilometers out - wave after wave for hours upon hours. Water came into the resort approximately 200 meters with the first big wave, but because most of the resort is comprised of beach bungalows raised slightly more than one (1) meter off the ground, it was little affected. Just a few minute walk over a hill on the west side of our resort is the most popular snorkeling area, Lana Bay. One must walk over a bridge crossing a lagoon that borders our resort. This "finger" of the island is what took the direct hit from the ten (10) meter waves. An older Swiss couple from the resort was walking in this bay and was caught in the torrent of water that ultimately dragged them 400 meters inland crashing into the lagoon. The husband caught a branch and wedged his body in front of it. His wife could only grab a branch from a trailing position and lost her grip. When the first wave subsided, he could hear her scream for help. By the time the 2nd wave hit, it was too late. We found her body in the lagoon hillside buried in the mud and mangrove trees three (3) days later. Three (3) other locals were found the same time. Keep in mind that this was a person whose whereabouts were KNOWN and was in an area easily accessible by hundreds of people and it took this long to find her. As it turned out, the inconceivable strength of this line of mangroves and their ability to funnel the water/debris through and out the lagoon, probably saved our resort from significant damage. I can't begin to imagine how long it will take to find the others, at least what is left by now. The thoughts are so deeply saddening.

The scene the days following was surreal. There we were snorkeling in completely undamaged coral reefs with thousands of vibrant fish surrounding us, the likes of which we have very seldom seen except during deep scuba diving adventures, with helicopters flying overhead transporting dead bodies out from the other side of the island. While some of the reefs were damaged, overall, the ocean again proved its amazing resilience. They actually believe the fish population will boom with the sad loss of so many fishermen. The impact of this event to the food supply for these poor people is just now being contemplated. The island itself is the most beautiful inhabited one I have ever seen (even more than Kauai on the Hawaiian Islands) - almost as beautiful, noble and humble as the Thai people themselves. Life has so many uncertainties and this just serves as one huge reminder to appreciate every moment and all it has to offer. While the entire trip far exceeded our expectations, more importantly, it is one that has changed us forever. Our appreciation for life and the love we have for one another was deepened to a level beyond words. Between missing the hit to Phuket by one day (the beach at Nai Yang where we stayed was leveled - the resort was actually OK), not being caught out snorkeling off of Phi Phi (something which we had planned to do approximately 1 hour after the time the first wave hit) and just barely getting the reservation at this resort due to a cancellation from another guest (consequently not staying at our 2nd choice resort in downtown Phi Phi), it was simply not our time. I guess we are all in some sense of shock still to this day. I have read so many articles and the numbers and the accounts begin to almost blend as the magnitude of the event throughout that region is inconceivable. Of all the things I have read, however, I strongly encourage you to read the below - it tells the story like no other I have read. It brings to light the immense horror and helplessness the countless number of people throughout the Indian Ocean faced - the ones that were far less fortunate than me and my family - in this case thousands who were located 1-2 miles from where we were staying. Most importantly, and the reason I share it with you, is the way in which it provides a much better understanding, at least to me, of why so few survived. Thanks again for all the concern.


Surviving the tsunami


Luke Simmonds, Mediaedge:cia's director of trading for Europe, Middle East and Africa, experienced the horror of the tsunami while water skiing on holiday with friends in Thailand. Here is his full account of his escape from the tragedy, which claimed one of his closest friends.

"This whole experience has been shocking but if anything good has come out of it, is the knowledge that I have some of the best friends and colleagues anyone could have.

"I truly appreciate all of the calls and the messages - it does help.

"I am okay, my injuries are nothing, just some cuts and bruises.

Ironically, I received nearly all of these after the event, walking or rather stumbling around the island.

"Unfortunately, many people have not been so lucky. The pictures on TV give a clear picture of the death and destruction, but I haven't seen anything that comes close to depicting the horror of the injuries.

"A number of people have suggested that I write down my experience - I think this in part will help me, but also saves me repeating the story too many times.

"I do not feel uncomfortable with sharing this story, and in some respects I think it probably helps recounting what happened.

"Please do not feel awkward if you want to talk to me about this.

"Below, I will try to recount exactly what happened to me, before during and after. At times, it will be graphic so please be warned.

I arrived in Thailand on the 20th and spent three days in Phuket on Kata Beach with a Swedish girlfriend and her family.

"They had planned their trip for months. I decided very last minute to join them before going onto meet Danish friends in Koh Phi Phi, and finally onto Bangkok with friends from Hong Kong for New Year.

"I moved onto Phi Phi on the 24th and celebrated Christmas with three of my Danish friends - Lars and his girlfriend Rine, and Jesper.

"On the evening of the 25th, I was exhausted so didn't join them for dinner and went to bed at around 9pm.

"This is important as anyone who knows me, will know that I tend to sleep late! But given a long nights rest, I was up early and had breakfast with Lars & Rine.

"At about 10:30am we went to the beach. Lars and I planned to go sailing, but there was no wind so we opted for water skiing.

"We waited for the boat and noted the wind was picking up so we would sail afterwards. First Lars skied and then it was my turn.

"At the moment I got into the water the lagoon started to drain out - in particular on the far right hand side of the bay (as you look out to sea).

"Within seconds it was too shallow to ski, so I climbed back into the boat. Lars, I and the driver sat there just watching the water drain away without any comprehension of what was to happen next.

"At first we saw a couple on a Kayak struggling in the current - they were being sucked out to sea. But then almost immediately they were on the top of a small wave kayaking into the beach at some speed.

"We were excited by the sight and just imagined they were having some fun. Of course we could not know of the huge volume of water that was underneath them, that once it reached the shallow water would simply rise up into a huge wave. That is basically what happened next.

"We were in the ski boat facing towards the shore, when the water passing underneath us began to pull the boat around and towards the shore.

"Almost out of nowhere there was a huge wall of water, behind us at the beach. We were at the bottom of a ten-metre wave that stretched the entire length of the beach, maybe 1km.

"I said to Lars that we were in trouble - at this moment it didn't even dawn on me that the wave would pass through the island causing the destruction that it did.

"I screamed at the driver to get us out to sea, but even at full power, the boat just got sucked to the bottom of the wave.

"The wave collapsed on the top of the boat. I remember covering my head and rolling into a ball.

"Underwater I just kept on thinking "please don't get hit by something ". I came to the surface, breathed, and then was pulled under again.

"I like to think that all of the diving I have done helped me - I knew not to fight the current and to wait as long as I could before reacting.

"The truth is: I was just lucky. I came to the surface, grabbed some more air, and then saw a huge wave coming at me.

"I could see that it wasn't about to break where I was so I took a breath and dived through it, coming up the other side. I grabbed some wood to hang onto, but then saw a life jacket (presumably from our boat) floating ten meters away.

"I swam like crazy for it - in my head I knew it was the best thing to do. I got it on and instantly felt safe - I was afloat in the sea and things didn't look that bad for me.

"I knew I was safe from drowning I just had to wait for help. I looked for Lars, saw our driver first, and then Lars about 150 meters away, he looked unhurt, but even from that distance I could see his face had taken on a different aspect. I have thought about this since and have decided that it was survival.

"We were all then pushed inland, over what I now know was the Cabana Hotel pool where so many people had been when the wave struck.

"I saw the water flooding into open spaces and it was here that I got very frightened. Water was rushing into fill any empty voids and I could see that I was likely to go wherever the water went.

"I smashed into the first floor balcony of the hotel and was hanging on with my body being pulled under. It was too strong. I took a breath and then was pulled under the hotel through the ground floor pool side balconies.

"I am sure i survived due to the life jacket, as it was always trying to get me to the surface. I think I came up around the corner of the hotel and drifted a little way to the back of the Hotel before swimming to a tree and climbing up.

"About three or four minutes later the water subsided. I climbed down and almost immediately saw Lars and the driver, they were both fine. Then the screaming started.

"People started calling for their loved ones; at first a guy looking for his daughters - Fredericke and Isabella. I asked him where they had been (in the pool) and then I explained how far I had travelled and that we needed to spread out and walk away from the Hotel.

"Everywhere was devastation. The small wooden bungalows were ripped open. We called their names, we never found them. Then 2 French girls stuck up a tree asked me to help them down.

"I now know from Lars that he had a similar experience. Whilst looking for Fredericke and Isabella he found two Thai girls stuck in a basement room, filling up with water.

"On a lighter side, I understand one of the girls didn't want to come out as all of her clothes had been pulled from her body - Lars didn't give her a choice!

"At the Cabana Hotel we started to make a hospital area. Some people came on their own; others we heard screaming and we went to them.

"Another English guy, called CC was a psychiatrist, and so we kind of appointed him in charge. The first girl we collected from the rubble was an English girl called Sally.

"She was covered in the most severe cuts I have ever seen. Imagine those documentaries about liposuction, was like that.

"Gaping holes with grotesque cuts in the flesh, to the bone; she had at least seven lacerations over her legs and tummy. We saw wounds like this throughout the day caused by the debris in the water.

"The bungalows often had their roofs made of corrugated iron, which travelling through the water at 40kph clearly just tore through bodies.

"We kicked down a door to use as a stretcher and carried her to the first floor. She was the first, and then they just kept coming.

"A Japanese husband and wife - the wife had lost half of her throat. We simply held her neck together. A Swedish woman whose head was cleaved open - we tied her head together.

"A Japanese girl whose leg was so badly broken, we decided that we had to put it straight. I held her hand, and kissed her, whilst crying with her, as three guys pulled her leg straight.

"It took 3 or 4 minutes of the most unbelievable pain for this girl. She was amazing. I am still trying to find her. I know it was the stress of the situation but somehow there was a very special connection between us.

"Afterwards we all prayed for the rest of her group. She was missing 16 people! I have since contacted some Japanese newspapers as I feel that I will find it hard to put this behind me until I know what happened to her.

"I would get on a flight to Japan in an instant if I knew that I could see her again. Then there was an Israeli boy, travelling on his own, I think called Tommy. He had a major cut by his armpit and was petrified that he would lose his arm.

"I cleaned out his wound whilst trying to give reassurance. I'm pretty sure he would be okay as he was able to move everything - it just looked so horrible.

"Whilst we were helping someone, often you would hear: 'Doctor, please come and help my friend.' I didn't know whether to explain that I wasn't a doctor or not. Nine times out of ten, I said I wasn't, but still people were desperate for help.

"I think it was about 12:30pm now and around this time the first reports of more waves came. They never did, but the effect was to cause even more panic. Around this time I met another amazing person.

"Michelle walked over and asked if she could help. You need to understand we had very little. We were sending people off to the rooms (if they were prepared to leave the relative shelter of high ground) to get water from the mini bars, cleans sheets and the sewing kits (we thought we might have to sew up some of the wounds...fortunately we did not).

"I looked at Michelle and could tell she was holding back. I said we needed help, but how was she and who was she with? Her husband was missing, he'd been swimming. We cried, but then she just said, 'right, lets help these people'.... unbelievable!

"An hour later, her husband Marvin walked in, unhurt! I cannot describe to you that moment - it was pure joy.

"At around 2pm we heard that a boat was coming in. CC and I spoke and where concerned that people would panic and rush for the boat.

"He pointed out we would have to restrain people. I made an announcement about what was happening and said that only the most injured would be allowed to leave and that CC would decide who they were....I think we all knew who had to go.

"The boat came in and we carried about 20 people down to the boat on doors, deck chairs, etc. We took Sally, the 3 Japanese, a number of Swedish and Thai people.....I think it was about 20 people in total that went on that first boat.

"After that I tried to make it over to my hotel to find my friends. Lars and I had got separated and I hadn't seen him since the water first subsided.

"It was impossible to cross the island and it was in this journey that I started to see how bad the destruction was. In the 200 metres I travelled I saw at least 20 dead bodies.

"I gave up and went back to the Cabana Hotel. Time went by and as more warnings of waves came in, people left to go to higher ground...up the mountain.

"A number of people stayed and were debating the risks. To get to the mountain was probably 30 minutes across flat ground of total destruction. If a wave came and you were out there, you were dead - simple as that.

"At about 4pm a guy came in with a walkie-talkie and confirmed that another bigger wave was coming and that we were not high enough.

"This wave never came, but again the damage was done. Those that could walk left; I decided it was time I had to go too.

"As I was leaving a South African family - mother, grandmother, aunt and little girl - were making their way very slowly. They all had cuts to the legs.

"As I understand it, the little girl had drowned but they had given CPR and brought her back to life, but she was unresponsive. I said to the mother I would take her and go.

"I am not sure if she really understood. She passed me the little girl, and I went. I was very frightened. I did not look back. This has given me some nightmares.

"I got to the mountain and it was impossible to get up whilst holding a little unconscious six year old. An English guy helped me (his name may have been Adam and his girlfriend Emma), and we only got up about 15 metres.

"I sat there with her in my arms trying to feed her sugar water for about two hours. Eventually I decided she would not make it unless she got to a hospital.

"I climbed back down the mountain, which I could not have done without the help of an American guy called Larry and crossed the island (unbelievably scary, fear of another wave), got to the beach where there was a boat with about 100 people trying to board from one plank.

"The Thai's saw me with this little girl and just hoisted me aboard. Going out to sea was one of the most bizarre moments. The harbour was full of debris and dead bodies. Very silent. Everyone frightened of another wave.

"At sea, we boarded a bigger boat and waited for other boats to join us. I still held the little girl in my arms. Her name I thought was Shania (she had whispered it in a moment of consciousness), though I later found out it was Chane.

"We arrived at Phuket Town at approx 10.30pm and were the first into an ambulance, with two other English guys I met on the boat - Jimbo (21) and Mark (32).

"We went to the Mission Hospital and got the little girl into intensive care - I had not put her down for eight hours.

"I now have some understanding of what it must mean to be a parent and I look forward to that day for me.

"Later though, we had to move to the government hospital to get a brain scan. All okay, so back to Mission hospital. Throughout the night I tried to find relatives of the little girl.

"I called the South African embassy (shut), so left a message of who I was, where I was, and who I had. I spoke to British embassy and repeated the story.

"In intensive care there were two other Europeans - Angelika from Austria, and Antonio from Portugal.

"Antonio's girlfriend Anna was there, unhurt, so we talked a lot. She helped me. I felt very responsible for the little girl and was suffering some guilt at taking her from the Mother.

"I kept on thinking about how the amother must be feeling, not knowing where and how her little girl was.

"Later on I noticed the Austrian woman (who I would find out was called Angelika Thomes) looking in my direction. I went over to speak to her. 'How are you, are you ok?'.

"She just burst into tears - she had lost her husband and 15 year old son. I told her that I would go and phone the Austrian embassy and give them her details.

"However, the next day we heard that both her husband and son were alive and well! Such happiness.

"During the night I called Angelika's friend in Austria (Karin) and told her what was going on, who I was and where we were.

"An hour later a call was passed to me. 'Doctor Luke, this is Angelika's doctor in Austria'!

"This happened on a number of occasions, people mistaking me for a Doctor. I must say this was quite surreal. Especially as I was wearing a pair of ripped shorts from the day before.

"Her doctor [Angelika's] and I spoke and he was just happy to be able to talk to someone properly in English.

"I love the Thai people, they are simply one of the, if not THE, kindest races out there, but in our hospital language was a problem.

"In the intensive care unit not one of the nurses spoke English. Often I would go down to the administration department to talk to the staff there; they were excellent and were really trying to help, but it was chaos in the hospitals.

"Perhaps worse were the lists - names were spelt wrong, nationalities wrong, etc. All this made it more complicated to find people.

"I slept a few hours at the hospital and about 6am the little girl Chane opened her eyes. We played a game of trying to spell out her surname.

"I held up letters in front of her and she nodded or pointed at them. Her surname was PANAINO. I ran (hobbled) downstairs to phone the embassy.

"I kind of broke down at this point for a little while. I had been desperate to find her parents, but with no name,and with her not talking it seemed an impossible task.

"Now it seemed just a matter of time. At this point I still hadn't spoken to anyone from home or any of my friends. Losing your mobile phone cuts you off from the world. How many numbers do you know?

"I didn't know many and was too tired to concentrate. I was leaving messages at home, my brother's mobile, even tried the office. But I still hadn't spoken to anyone.

"I called my own mobile and heard messages of people calling in. Most importantly I heard that Anneli (my Swedish girlfriend) and her family were fine.

"However, the desperation in her voice was clear. She wanted me to call her but didn't leave her number! I tried to call her hotel but the lines were down, so no way to tell her I was ok.

"I then realised that if I could get my messages I could re-record my own message. So I called back and did this. Unfortunately it did not save the message, so it wasn't until I called back six hours later that I realised this. I recorded a new message which I think many of you heard.

"At about 9am I walked through the hospital reception and heard my name shouted. Corny i know, but of all the hospitals in all the towns, there was Lars and his girlfriend Rine!

"Both of them well, cuts & bruises. No sign of Jesper and today as I write this almost a week later we still have no news.

"I think we accept that he has gone, but just hope he did not suffer and that we can find his body. We left the hospital to go to the Pearl Hotel, where all the Scandinavians were being moved to.

"I stayed with them a little while but felt disconnected and isolated. I wanted to be around British people and I wanted to go back to the hospital to find out how Chane was - so I left.

"I have spoken to Lars about what happened to Jesper and this is all we know: Jesper was on the beach with Rine when they saw the wave coming.

"At first they gathered up some of our belongings and then started to run through the hotel bungalows that we had been staying at - Phi Phi Charlie. Running in flip flops is hard.

"Jesper fell over and Rine fell on top of him. They got up, left everything and carried on running. They were separated. Rine was trying to get up some stairs when the water came. She was hanging onto the top step, with water up to her neck, when two Thai guys pulled her up to safety. She did not see what happened to Jesper.

"Back at the hospital, at about 11am, a nurse came in holding a mobile phone which she shoved next to the ear of was Daddy!

"Chane could not talk, i took the phone. It was not her Dad, but her Uncle Anton. I told him who I was and where we were.

"He arrived 30 minutes later and collapsed into my arms. Actually I collapsed into his too. We just cried and hugged. He had spoken to the Auntie and knew who I was.

"The mother and grandmother were all fine just miles away. I explained the story and how guilty I felt for taking her. He was brilliant and just thanked me for saving her life and told me that the mother was so grateful.

"Since getting back to the UK, I have called the hospital , the mother was there, we spoke, it was great...nothing else to be said.

"I think around 2pm I had this sense that it was time for me to leave. There was no-one else left who I was connected with that hadn't met their family/friends, yet I was on my own and still hadn't spoken to anyone.

"I went to the City Hall to get papers but gave up after an hour when someone said, just get up to Bangkok and sort it out there - a Thai guy gave me the shoes he was wearing, a t-shirt from someone else.

"I went to Phuket airport and waited five hours before getting on free flight from Thai Airways.

"At the airport I met the two French girls I had got down from the tree 36 hours earlier! I became part of their extended family as they had been 'adopted' by a French guy, Bernard, and his wife and kids.

"At Bangkok, within 30 minutes I had a piece of paper to admit me to the UK, and within one hour I was on the BA flight that had come from Sydney, First Class.

"I lost the plot here. For about an hour I was in shock. I could not stop shaking and crying, I think the plane represented home. The staff were great and I really must contact BA to let them know that the crew on that flight helped me significantly.

"Home: my brother, the Press, guilt.

"I am safe, unhurt and I was out so quickly. Every day I think about what happened and whether I could have done more.

"I have a strong urge to go back, but think that first I will have to go to Denmark to be with my friends there to deal with the loss of Jesper. I sleep, but wake up very early.

"I am glued to the TV. I have contacted the press, as some of you will have seen. I want to know what happened to the people we helped.

"Last night Sally's Mum called. She is recovering in Bangkok hospital. Another amazing call from a mother who was frightened for her daughter. She knows the extent of Sally's injuries, but she is alive and will recover. I hope to go and see them in Jersey when they are ready.

"I am now just looking for the Japanese girl. I have sent an email to some of the papers out there and hope that someone will pick up on the story - I hope so.

"I lost everything out there. The only thing I came back with were the shorts I was wearing and lots of paper with names, telephone numbers, messages to give to family and friends.

"I know that I am very lucky to be alive. We must do everything we can to help those that have not been so lucky. I urge you to go and make a financial donation - if you have done it it again.

"I am trying to get a passport so I can go to Denmark, but it seems that it may take some days. I will come to the office and already I have read all of your mails.

"Please forgive me If I have not written back yet, I hope that this story will answer your questions. I cannot wait to see you all soon."

===== "The cure for everything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea." Isak Dinesen

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