PHUKET: It’s already been a decade, but for the many impacted by the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, it still seems like only yesterday. For them, all the colours, smells, sights and sounds continue to remain vivid in mind. The force was enough to crumble concrete structures like cookies in milk, but the memories that came with the waves were imprinted eternally into the hearts of witnesses and survivors alike. To help readers better visualize and understand what happened, The Phuket News has assembled first-hand accounts in Thailand, from a few survivors as well as a volunteer who assisted with corpse identification in the aftermath. But first, here’s some info on the geographical physics.
At 7:59 am on December 26, 2004, off the coast of the Indonesian province of Aceh, the Earth heaved in the largest earthquake recorded since the invention of the seismograph – a massive 9.1 on the Richter scale.
The quake made the entire Earth quiver. In Oklahoma in the US, three-centimetre up-and-down movements of the Earth were recorded, and the shock waves triggering other quakes as far away as Alaska.
Phuket moved 25 centimetres to the north on the day of the quake, and another 25cm in the following month – half a metre in total.
The quake was devastating to Aceh, but more terrifying and deadly, and much more widespread, were the tsunami waves unleashed by the spasm in the Earth’s crust.
Sweeping across the Indian ocean the waves killed an estimated 168,000 people in Indonesia, 35,000 in Sri Lanka, 18,000 in India and 8,000 in Thailand.
The waves reached out as far as the coast of Africa, where they smashed villages and killed hundreds.
The exact death toll will never be known – many victims were washed out to sea, never to be seen again – but it is estimated to be close to a quarter of a million people.
In Phuket some people felt the quake at the time as a mild shaking, and no one had any idea what was to come.
The quake was caused by the movement of tectonic plates – the Indian plate and the Burma plate, under which it slides, or subducts. Hold your hands fingertip-to-fingertip and then move them towards one another, with one hand sliding under the other. That’s subduction.
Friction between the plates means that a huge amount of energy gradually builds up, like a massive spring.
On December 26, 2004, that energy was released in just 10 minutes. According to an estimate by the US Geological Survey, the explosion of energy at the Earth’s surface was equivalent to 26 million tons of TNT – 1,500 times the power of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.
Not all earthquakes, even big ones, cause tsunamis. But the Aceh quake, because of the subduction, resulted in a large area of the seabed suddenly heaving upwards by several metres.
The waves spawned by this travelled across the water, moving with astonishing speed – up to 1,000 kmh, almost twice as fast as a Boeing 747.
In the deep ocean the waves were almost unnoticeable, less than a metre high. But as they approached shorelines where the water grew shallower, the waves slowed and climbed and climbed in height.
These were not beautifully curving surfer-type rollers but great humpbacked swells.
In some parts of the shores of Aceh they climbed to about 30 metres, the height of a 10-storey building.
Aceh was hit by the waves within minutes of the quake but elsewhere it took longer. Thailand was not hit until some two hours later, causing the greatest damage in Khao Lak and towns just to the north such as Baan Nam Khem.
Confirmed deaths in Phuket were 259, but another 700 disappeared. In Phang Nga 4,163 people were confirmed dead, with another 2,113 recorded as missing.
At Bang Nieng Beach, Khao Lak, which is backed by flat land, bodies were found as much as 2 kilometres inland.
The waves also lifted and carried the 24.6-metre Marine Police patrol boat 813, the Buretpadungkit, 800 metres inland.
The patrol boat is still there, and will be the focus for the Tsunami Remembrance ceremony led today (December 26) by Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-Ocha.
The Tree of Life
Damian Barrett, boss of Electrical Marine Co, was waiting for a ride out to a boat he was due to do some work on when the water in Patong Bay started to recede.
As he watched, the water went out further and further, leaving boats stranded on the sand. Then the sea came back, lifting a huge boat called Asian Lady straight up on top if it.
“I started to run but the surge bowled me over. “The wave carried me over the esplanade wall, through a cluster of rental bikes and across the road.
“I slammed into the metal railing of a jewellery shop on the beach road, ending up inside the shop.
“I scrambled to my feet. The water was filling the shop and I knew I had to get back outside or I would drown.”
But the surge was too strong.
“I became aware of a shooting pain in my right shoulder. It had been dislocated, the ball joint jutting forward and my arm hung useless as the water rose.
“I though, ‘It’ll stop soon,’ but it just kept on filling up till my feet came off the floor. I started to tread water to keep my head above the filthy, swirling water.
“Looking up at the approaching ceiling lights, I smiled and thought, ‘How bloody ironic. I’m a marine electrician and I’m going to be electrocuted and drowned.
The water completely filled the shop.
“I prayed I wouldn’t suffer too much and that my kids would be all right.
“The prayer must have worked because I felt the water come off my forehead. I tilted my head back and took a huge breath.”
Now the water sucked him back out of the shop.
“I was propelled back onto the street and into a swirling washing machine of salty foam filled with motorbikes, cars, cement walls, sheets of tin roofing and screaming people.
“The wave was retreating towards the sea. I didn’t like my chances, scrambling in the death soup. I hit a tree on the esplanade that local Buddhists had tied coloured ribbon around. I managed to secure my good arm inside the ribbons, locked my legs to the tree and just hung on.
“The debris slammed into the tree around waist height. I thought, ‘Bugger this. I didn’t survive drowning just to get cut in half by a rolling tuk-tuk."
But nothing major hit Damian and when the water dropped to about six inches, a Thai man, who had been watching from a nearby roof, raced down and helped him to safety. They watched as two more massive waves rolled in and out again.
Damian was taken to hospital to have his shoulder fixed, after which he walked out of the hospital and got a lift home to where his wife and children were waiting.
“I cried and cuddled them all night."
“I’ll continue to visit my multi-colour-ribbon tree. That grand old tree reflects the strength and spirituality of this Kingdom. I feel very special that it also helped to save my life.”
Abridged with permission from Tsunami Stories Thailand, collected by Bill O’Leary and edited by Grenville Fordham for charity. The book can be bought from Amazon.com
The graveyard shift
Damrong, 50, and Nicha Messiyahrak, 53, survived the waves in the area of Bangneng Beach in Phang Nga. Nicha was a nurse at Takuapa Hospital, her husband a chef at a hotel in Khao Lak. They had been living in a house only 500 meters behind La Flora Hotel near Bangnieng Beach, when the waves came.
The day before the tsunami, Nicha was on night duty at Takuapa Hospital. She started work on December 25 at 11 pm and would finish her shift at 8 am of December 26.
“At night, everything was normal, until the morning of December 26. At around 7 am I walked with a doctor to check on patients as usual. One patient asked, ‘Did you feel shaking? My bed was shaking.’ I didn’t think much of it and others assumed nothing had happened. I kept on working. I was so tired because I had just worked all night. Then, I noticed the water in the drinking water tank vibrating and water starting to slop out. I didn’t think much of it, and drove back home.”
Everyone was just starting to work but Nicha was going home to sleep. There were lots of Burmese workers and foreign tourists walking on the road. Just another day, it seemed.
“I arrived at my home about 9am, I took a bath and then went to bed. Then, I heard loud screaming in Burmese. I initially thought people were fighting but it was too loud and I finally had to wake up to see what was going on.”
She looked outside from the window at the back of her house and caught her first glimpse of one of the waves.
“The colour was brown, similar to Thai milk tea. It was higher than the wall.
“I saw a Myanmar man climbing up the wall but he was swooped up by the wave.”
The water came into her house, and continued to rise. Everything moved like a whirlpool. She could not escape to a door or window. Water was everywhere. Everything was in darkness.
“I tried to swim and breath. It was so hard to keep my head above water. There was a car in the house and moving around next to me. Then, the bed washed from out of the bedroom, and the water was up to the ceiling. I thought I was going to die there. But a piece of celing broke, allowing me room to move a bit to catch a breath until the water started to recede a little.”
The water level dropped slowly, but Nicha had no idea at all what to do, stuck on the top of the bathroom wall with no clothes, just her underwear. There was a bit of light in the house.
“Everything was brown, covered in mud and I saw my ankle was bleeding. I could not feel or move it. I wanted to call for help but there were no voices near me. Everything was silent.”
Then a Burmese man found her and spoke to her. He saw her nakedness and threw a shirt to her.
“He said he would find someone to help me. But he never came back. Two Burmese women saw me. I think they were trying to find relatives or friends. They wanted to help me. Then they saw how much blood I was losing. That frightened them and they went away. They never came back. I could not jump down because it was so high. I just prayed.”
Running low on strength, Nicha spotted a section on the broken wall next to her that she could climb down onto. On the ground, unable to walk or stand, she mustered up what little strength she had and crawled outside where there was … nothing.
“All the buildings were gone. I hadn’t stopped bleeding. I found a stick and some string to try and make a splint for my leg. Then, two marine police found me.”
Soon after, her husband Narong arrived too. He and the marine policemen poked sticks through a life vest to make a stretcher to carry Nicha to the main road. She was weak, having lost much blood, but now she had help.
Narong picks up the story. “While carrying my wife, we walked past many people. But I could not help them; they were not alive. A truck drove past us. It didn’t stop. Finally, the marine policemen stopped another truck for us. We just wanted to get to hospital.”
At the entrance of hospital there were lots of people, crying and shouting out loud in many languages, looking for their loved ones.
Nicha recalls, “It was a long wait to see a doctor. Luckily my colleague remembered me. She helped me and gave me and my husband medicine.
“One lady came up to me and was so happy. She said, ‘I’ve found you, my sister!"
“But when she realised I was not her sister, she cried hysterically and went away. It was so sad. But I was lucky.”
The corpses were calling
Steven Layne Managing Editor at The Phuket News recalls his experience in the Tsunami aftermath.
I can remember everything as if it were only 10 minutes ago. Leading up to the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, I had been living in Thailand for about four years, but had never even considered coming to Phuket, which at the time seemed like a huge tourist trap that I wanted nothing to do with.
It was the aftermath of the tsunami that ultimately drew me down here, following a call from Thai forensics expert, Dr Pornthip Rojanasunand, seeking volunteers to help out with corpse identification in Phang Nga.
In those vivid days leading up to the 2005 New Year, I was in Bangkok, alongside thousands of other volunteers who had been helping to load donated supplies from around the world onto military cargo planes at Don Muang air force base.
While climbing through mountains of used clothes, much of them useless yet destined for Phang Nga via Phuket, I felt a calling in my gut to head south, to lend a hand where it was really needed.
And so I didn’t hesitate to join a group of Thammasat University student volunteers on a flight that landed at Phuket airport on New Year’s Eve. It was late and there wasn’t a van going to Phang Nga until the morning, so we were shuttled to Patong hospital for the night.
That is where I got my first exposure to rotting human flesh, and distraught tourists who’d come in throughout the restless night, browsing the morgue photo database, desperately seeking lost loved ones.
On New Year’s Day, we head to Wat Yan Yao Temple – just north of Khao Lak – one of two sites where corpses were piled en masse (the other was Wat Baan Muang). It’s one thing looking at a photo or taking a peak under the sheet of a chemically preserved corpse, but nothing could prepare me for the scene, sights and smells at Yan Yao, where thousands of corpses were piled side by side.
The overpowering stench of mass death hits you like a freight train. Dry ice was piled on the body sheets to slow down the decay process as we diligently worked to collect DNA samples from various body parts, corpse by corpse.
Ironically, in the midst of death, it was there at the temple, in a full body white sanitation suit that I began to truly understand the value and meaning of life. It is sad what happened, but I am thankful for the opportunities and new life and light that the tsunami and its aftermath provided for me in the end. Phuket is my home today, and there are few places I’d rather be now.