As we approach the third anniversary of the staggering tsunami tragedy that struck this region on Dec 26th 2004, it seems like a good time to look back and recount just a few personal experiences from that disaster. These are not big stories in the overall scale of that event, they are just a few individual accounts from people who were there when the waves struck.
Mark, Bar Owner
Mark ran a bar in one of the sois just off Bangla Road, Patong. On the morning the tsunami struck, he had just opened his shutters. He had one waitress in and they were starting to get ready for business when he heard a strange roaring noise. A few seconds later, there were shouts and screams.
Mildly curious, but not too concerned, Mark looked down the soi and saw people running up Bangla Road. Then he was amazed to see water come around the corner. Even then, he was not too concerned. It was just a slow steady flow. He told his waitress to stay inside the bar and they watched the water flow passed. Incredibly, the steady flow kept coming and quickly became a torrent of debris-strewn water that was swirling into the bar. Mark and his waitress suddenly realised they were in trouble and had to jump up onto the bar.
The building was quickly filling up with a swirling deluge of water and debris. For the first time, Mark realised their lives were in danger. The water level was coming up fast and trying to swim through that water full of chairs, tables and all kind of other hard objects would be virtual suicide. You have to see the power with which this water was slamming objects into the wall to realise how hopeless this situation was.
Then, like a scene from some inconceivable action movie, a jet-ski floated into the bar with the keys in the ignition. Obviously picked up from the beach, the wave swept it up Soi Bangla and into Mark's bar like a lifeline. Mark jumped on the jet-ski and started the engine. His waitress jumped on the back and they revved out of the bar and down the soi, crunching through all kind of floating debris as they went. They turned up Bangla Road and rode the now easing torrent James Bond like to Rat-U-Thit where the waters had reached.
As soon as Mark jumped off the jet-ski there was a man begging to take it. He had lost a friend at the beach and was desperate to get down there to find him. Mark gave him the jet-ski. Of course, nobody knew there was still a second and third wave to come. Mark does not know if the man found his friend or made it back.
Mike is a Canadian who stays in Phuket 6-months a year. He was one of the few people in Phuket who actually noticed the earthquake. He was having a coffee on his balcony when he noticed the plant pot next to him vibrating. He had experienced mild tremors before in the United States and was convinced what he had noticed was a minor earthquake. He soon forgot about it. He was meeting friends for breakfast in Rawai.
They met at their usual restaurant across the road from Rawai Beach. Everything was normal until one of his friends pointed out how far the sea had receded. Rawai is a shallow bay and it is common to see the rocky seabed when the tide is out but this morning it was almost as if the water had vanished. The friends curiously discussed this strange phenomenon and pointed it out to the restaurant owner. He was concerned, something seemed wrong. That was when Mike remembered the earthquake tremor he had felt earlier that morning.
Without really knowing exactly why he was so concerned, the restaurant owner decided to lead his guests out the back of the restaurant to the fields behind. Five minutes later as they calmly walked up a gentle hill, they heard the wave strike the beach.
The islands off Rawai Beach took a lot of the power out of the tsunami and the waves only made it a hundred meters or so inland. Still they claimed victims in Rawai.
Nick, Phi Phi
Nick and his friend were staying on the Phi Phi Islands. They had found a room above a grocery shop in Ton Sai Bay. On Boxing Day morning, they were woken up by a loud roaring noise and then the sound of objects battering into the side of the building. They looked out across their balcony and saw the amazing sight of a flood of water rolling right across the sandy isthmus, right underneath them and out across the other side of the bay. Amongst the floodwaters, they could see people being swept away.
When the waters finally passed by, they made their way downstairs. The shop had survived the hit reasonably well and the shop owner was still inside surveying the damage. Nick and his friend were a little dazed by what had just happened and offered to help the shop owner clear the mess. It seemed like the decent thing to do. Somehow, the shop owner knew the danger was not over. He said they should make their way down the beach and up the hill to higher ground.
As they walked along the beach, they were joined by many other people who had the same idea. There were also many others not heading for higher ground. Nick and his friend did not see the second wave hit. They had been making their way up the hill for maybe fifteen minutes when they heard the roar of the wave striking. They had already found a spot to settle down with many other survivors when they heard the roar of the third wave. They settled down with all the other confused and stunned survivors for a long stay.
There was one guy there, a Scotsman, who seemed to have a firmer grip on the situation than most others. He spoke with Nick and his friend. He reasoned that if these waves had struck Phi Phi then they had probably struck everywhere else in the region too. It might be days before help arrived. He said they needed to go back down the hill to get water, food, medicine and insect repellent.
The Scotsman led a group of five, including Nick and his friend, back down the hill. They met a nightmare scene of destruction. The island was devastated and littered with corpses. They found a shop that although smashed, was still standing. They rummaged around the piles of stock inside until they found all the essentials they could carry. They took them back up the hill and distributed them among the survivors. They realised it was not enough so they made a second trip down the hill. By the time that round trip was completed, it was late afternoon but they had enough essentials for everyone. They made a third trip but this time all they got was beer. This they did not distribute among the other survivors. This was for themselves.
They all spent the night on the hill before people started making their way down in the morning. The relief ferries arrived mid morning.
Paul was still a little dazed from his Christmas Day celebrations in the bars of Patong the day before. He was heading down to the beach for a morning walk to shake off his hangover. He was only a hundred meters from the beach when he heard that strange roaring sound so many people remember. Still it was a few more seconds before he saw the water running up the road towards him. Confused by this strange sight, he wasted a few precious seconds taking in the scene. Then he realised the water was going to keep coming. He turned and ran.
The water was already around his ankles. He ran as fast as he could but the water was going faster. It was quickly around his knees and then it took him off his feet. The swell was sweeping him along and he could not believe the force. Ahead was a brick wall and the wave was going to smash him straight into it. Paul thought he was a gonna but as the leading edge of the wave hit the wall, the force knocked the wall down the Paul was swept through the gap. He found himself in a cemetery hanging on to a headstone with water and debris swirling around him.
He clung on for dear life. When the waters started to recede, he could feel the suction pulling him back towards the sea. When the waters were finally gone Paul picked himself up, bruised and battered, he walked back to his apartment. His hangover was gone.
We will never know the exact death toll from the Boxing Day tsunami. Somewhere around a quarter of a million people lost their lives. It is one of the biggest natural disasters in recorded history.
The stories above cannot begin to capture the full scale of the disaster. They are just a few personal accounts that hopefully give some insight into the experiences of people caught up in that life-changing day.