It's only after 6 years that I'm able to deal with the pain of the injury sustained during the Indian Ocean Tsunami of December 26th, 2004. It only surfaces during Christmas time in the form of a swell on my throat, a runny nose, and watery eyes, as it is doing this moment.
The rattling on the door of our apartment woke me up. I looked at the clock and it was just a few minutes before 8 that Sunday morning. It was too early, I thought. My wife's schoolmate, Nut, didn't normally come to pick her up but until almost 9. They both used to attend the weekend adult school that the provincial government of the island of Phuket offers to Thais who want to continue their education. But the noise stopped, so I tried to go back to sleep. As I was dozing off, the bed began to shake mildly. This was very unusual since our bed was an unmovable, tiled block structure solidly attached to the cement floor. With my eyes still closed, I began to refuse the possibility that this could be an earthquake, and being originally from California myself, had also developed a casual wait and see attitude about what was a common occurrence there. The shaking only lasted a few short moments and I was thankful I could go back to sleep. The bed moved again a few seconds later and this time my wife, Kob, woke up asking what was happening. I had no choice but to roll out of bed, saying, "Oh, it's an earthquake".
I opened the door, stepped outside, and looked out from the third floor hallway overlooking the apartment parking lot. There was no one on the street, no noise, no cars, and no commotion. We went back to sleep. I vaguely recall her getting up shortly thereafter, getting ready to go to school, and leaving the apartment. It was shortly after, as later news reports indicated, that the first tsunami waves, caused by a very large 9.2 magnitude earthquake off the Indonesian island of Sumatra, arrived at the Phuket island beaches of Patong, Kata, Karon, Kamala, and Rawaii, continuing on to the rest of the inner bay and islands of the adjacent provinces of Krabi and Phang Nga and causing untold destruction in Khaw Lak beach on the coast up North and on the Phi Phi islands in the South.
My stepdaughter, Beam, then 4 years old, woke up at about 10 that morning. I gave her breakfast and turned the TV on, looking for the usual Sunday morning children's cartoons. At the time, we only had local cable TV, which did not include programs in English, so when I came across a news channel showing water crossing over a road, I did not understand and actually thought they were reporting rain flooding, which is common in Thailand during the rainy season. Beam and I had little to do until noon when my wife finished her classes.
Sometimes I would take her to a park so she could run and have fun in the children's playground. Other times I would let her ride her small bicycle with training wheels around the block while I walked behind her. I had thought on other occasions that I could take her to the beach on my motorcycle and I wanted to do it that day. The thought of taking my stepdaughter to the beach without her mother's express consent kept me from doing it. It was the wisest decision, for at those precise moments, a tragedy of biblical proportions was unfolding less than 20 kilometers away, precisely where I had wanted to take her. I switched TV channels for Beam and I nearly fell asleep again, practically sleeping through the one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history taking place nearby.
Kob came home early at about 10:30. She said that classes had been cancelled because the electric power had gone out. On weekends we often went for lunch at Rawaii beach where there were small seaside restaurants overlooking the emerald green waters of the bay, but that day, as if by a continuing play of destiny, we chose to have lunch in the town, possibly at one of the restaurants that offered a combination of Thai and Western food.
We had just ordered lunch when we noticed a few foreign tourists staring at the TV in the restaurant. It was a CNN news report and this is how I learned of the tsunami event. My mobile telephone rang. It was one of the English teachers who worked for me at the private vocational college in Phuket where I was the English Program manager. She and her husband owned a sailboat and had spent Christmas anchored off Patong beach and had alerted me that there had been a series of waves causing their boat to rock and turn wildly while some of their friends at the docking marina were less fortunate and their boats had suffered damage. I began to call other teachers but their phones rang with no one answering. I didn't know what to do next as the impact of the news had not yet taken place. We lived and worked in Phuket Town, on the eastern side of the island, and this was the least affected side as it faced away from the open ocean. There was nothing unusual happening downtown. There were no sirens, no alarms, and no public announcements. People were going about their everyday chores. Everything seemed normal. We finished our lunch and decided to continue on with our Sunday afternoon with a motorcycle ride around the town.
Then we saw people gathering on the edges of one of the major water canals that cut across Phuket Town. Some people were walking away with fish hanging on fishing lines and in small nets. Fish out of the water canal? That was out of place. There is no fish in the water canal because the water is not clean and free flowing. While the canal does collect runoff water from rain and streams from nearby hills, there is no visible current and the volume of water is usually very low. As a matter of fact, the water is mostly still, black, muddy and very dirty from all sources of pollution, discards and sewage that fall into it from practically every street drain. We parked our motorcycle and approached the canal to see what was going on.
There was more water in the canal than usual and it was flowing. It was moving out to the ocean and occasionally one could see fish coming up to the surface out of the muddy black clouds in it. The water was also moving trash and debris that had settled upstream: pieces of wood and furniture, Styrofoam, plastic bags and bottles, discarded vegetables, and even oil slicks. I still could not understand what was happening other than what I was seeing was not normal. The loud blaring sound of a police vehicle air horn made me turn my head and look. A small wave was traveling upstream, as if coming from the sea, against the outgoing current. The sea had pushed water and fish up the canal and then it drained carrying the fish back out now mixed with the trash and debris that had accumulated for years. But water canals do not have traveling waves. This was not a danger but was the ominous sign that something had gone wrong. I began to get an uneasy feeling of uncertainty, of not knowing. We walked away from the edge of the canal and toward our motorcycle. A few people had also left on motorcycle and headed towards the hills. We decided to follow.
There are several hills surrounding Makham Bay, next to Phuket Town, which does not have a deep-water bay. We went up one hill to a scenic viewpoint overlooking the bay and parked. There were already several Thais looking down at the water and conversing lively. In spite of the good weather and lack of strong winds, the waters were rough and moving wildly as if stirred at random by some gigantic force. Disjointed waters moving chaotically in all directions and large whirlpools circling around imaginary drains had replaced the usual surface pattern of ripples. I signaled my wife to look at the place where the sky met the sea. The horizon had turned into a long wide white band, covering the entire side-to-side distance. It was the crest of a tsunami wave. We were not afraid. We didn't know what to do. There was no sense of urgency or need for action. Instead, we were confused. Local Thais were standing around, looking at the water, as if lost. We were all lost. It was 1 in the afternoon and subsequent news accounts indicated that by now it was all over.
Upon our return we saw that the streets of Phuket Town were now silent and deserted. There were no cars or people. Thepkasatri Road, the main traffic artery leading into and out of the city, was empty. The silence and emptiness of this tourist resort island on this day after Christmas was overwhelming. We went back to our nearby apartment where we watched news reports on TV. Without English channels, it was difficult to understand and connect the events to the earthquake, the magnitude of the catastrophe or what to do next.
On Monday morning I went to work as usual. A few students came to the school but they were dismissed early. The English teachers and most of the Thai teachers did not come either. There were only a few of us at the administration building. The school principal, whose office was next to mine, was quiet and didn't speak much either. By mid-morning there was no one left at the school. I went home too.
On Tuesday morning most of the teachers reported for work and there were more students. I then learned of the ferocity of the events and the scale of the destruction. One of the English teachers had brought photographs from Patong and Kamala beach showing the aftermath. Tales of losses and survival began to surface. We had lost several high school and college students to the raging waters. We could only assume that many others lost relatives too.
One of the English teachers who lived in Rawaii and not far from the beach actually slept through the whole tragedy as her house was on the other side of a hill. The killing tsunami, in the most treacherous way, had come silently, without warning. The sea had retreated from the beaches exposing large areas of wet sand. Children and others walked to the open area to collect seashells. Then the first wave, at least a ten-foot wall of water, rolled in washing away and carrying everything that was on the beach, crossing over the road and slamming hotels, shops and restaurants. Hotels and structures on the beach got a direct hit. Those who worked in the basements of shopping mall or hotels drowned immediately with no hope of escape. Cars parked on the beach road got lifted and carried as battering rams against the buildings facing the sea. In Patong Beach, one nightclub had two pickup trucks and one automobile piled up on top of the other jamming the front entrance.
In Khaw Lak, a tourist resort about an hour drive up the coastline, the waves reached a height of thirty feet. There, a car got lodged on the roof of a two-story building. Most injuries and deaths occurred as a result of both drowning and being hit by floating objects: refrigerators, boats, cars, furniture, and pieces of buildings. Heavy objects that did not float, such as concrete blocks, were pushed around as if they were children's playing marbles. As the wave retreated, it carried all the objects it brought along picking up even more on the way out. About twenty minutes later a second wave, even larger then the first one, struck. This time it came armed with all the objects the first one had picked up, catching by surprise those who had started to help the injured.
This cycle went on for several more times about every twenty to thirty minutes until the waves became smaller and less powerful. People were running for higher ground trying to save themselves. Some in the islands headed for the hilly jungle where they were met by poisonous snakes. With no medical attention available, those who got bitten perished too. Another English teacher who lived in Panwa Cape watched how his long tail boat was trashed about and stripped off its four-cylinder diesel engine by the force of the waves. Years later, scientists estimated that the combined force of the earthquake and tsunami was fifteen hundred times greater than that of the atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima, Japan, during the Second World War.
The school principal alerted me that the Thai teachers and students were going to the Phuket Provincial Hall to assist the tsunami victims and that English speakers would be of use. In turn I asked the English teachers to come and help and all agreed. We left the school grounds and proceeded to the Provincial Hall not far away.
The Phuket Provincial Hall was an older style building with white verandas and wood trim resembling a colonial mansion from the Sino-Portuguese trading days the island of Phuket was once famous for. It had large gardens and old trees surrounded the two-story white structure. That day there was so much traffic in this quiet neighborhood that even parking my motorcycle on a side street was difficult. There were many people, tables, booths and stalls in the garden and the whole scene was so chaotic that it could have been mistaken for a large picnic or celebration of sorts but then I saw foreign tourists, some with bandages on their arms, large scratches, and long cuts on their legs. Thai volunteers staffed the tables and offered assistance with lodging, local transportation, and directions to other emergency and government facilities. Some airlines had set up tents to attend those wanting to be evacuated and return home. Various consulates had also set up facilities to assist those who had lost their passports and belongings. Most of those seeking help were stranded and injured tourists. Groups of people gathered looking at a large posting board with lists of injured at various hospitals. There were messages of people looking for lost ones. There were photographs of deceased who needed to be identified.
By now I had lost everyone in the chaos and was alone. I ran into a group of volunteer female students from my school who were passing out bottles of water. They recognized me, gave me the classical Thai smile and offered me water. I stood with them not knowing how to help. A few moments later a Thai teacher, who was also our school's public relations officer, saw me and asked me if I could make announcements in English over the loudspeakers. I gladly accepted since as a former amateur radio operator I was very familiar handling and speaking with a microphone. She took me to the steps of the main entrance. There a microphone was handed to me from a person who was originally speaking in Thai to the crowd. My instructions were to announce the various evacuation flights from Quantas Airlines to Australia, Thai Air to Bangkok and Hong Kong, the location of the various consulates in the building, the availability of medical emergency services, the location of survivors lists, the need for volunteer experienced divers and navigators, volunteers capable of traveling and staying in damaged zones, and other necessary information as needed.
I took over the microphone with the passion of one who has found a calling in life and immediately began to speak with the power of a public announcer, clearly and with authority, slowly at times but stressing the urgency, with cadence and character, with the best I had learned from many years of operating as an amateur radio operator and on-the-air net controller. I didn't let go of the microphone for hours on end. Occasionally someone would want to make an announcement in Thai but the microphone was always returned to me. I continued until nightfall when the crowd subsided.
I returned the next day and assumed my task again. Some air flights had been changed, some medical facilities had been moved, but there were more lists of injured. My wife came and videotaped what was taking place at the Phuket Provincial Hall, including me, for I had become part of it. At one point my cell phone rang: it was my mother calling from California. The international news had covered the tsunami to the extent that the whole world knew more about it better than those who were in the middle of it. I told her that my family and I were fine, not to worry, "Sorry, Mom, can't talk much right now. I'm helping with the rescue effort". Yes, I was finally doing something. My two cents. All I could do. It was now Wednesday and the crowd was thinning out. Most of the surviving tourists had gone home, the injured had been treated and the lost ones had been found.
Late in the afternoon I put down the microphone, bade farewell to the few remaining Thai staff and went down the steps of the entrance. I felt a light tug on my sleeve. It was one of the Quantas attendants from the nearby airline tent. With a smile, he handed me a soft object wrapped in a clear plastic bag. I opened it. It was a black polo shirt with the airline logo on it. It was a present for my efforts. I thanked him and walked towards the exit passing the large posting board. I looked for the last time at the lists of names of injured from various hospitals and emergency centers. There were still many notes of surviving people looking for lost ones. Parents had left pictures of lost children. They looked young, small and with smiles so full of life that even the darkest hour could be illuminated.
During wars, we mostly lose men. In natural disasters like this one, nearly one third of the fatalities are children. There were too many. I looked at the pictures of the deceased. They were color computer printouts from digital cameras. The pictures were not good. Many were unrecognizable, with unnatural facial expressions, grotesque, bloated due to decomposition in the hot tropical weather. There were just too many. I clutched my Quantas polo shirt. An intense pain rose in my chest, from an injury I hadn't felt. Walking slowly through the now darkened and trash littered gardens of the stately Phuket Provincial Hall, I finally made it to my motorcycle and started the engine. I was going home to my wife and child. I was one of the lucky ones walking away from a scene of death and destruction of unimaginable scale.
The following week, teachers and students were back at the school. More than one hundred students had lost relatives. Seven had lost their parents. Some would never come to class again. E-mails from friends began to arrive, "Please tell us that you are well". A few had made collections while others offered relief assistance. There was an outpour of international help. A few asked me, "What do you need?" I could hardly answer. Was it possible to tell good meaning people that it was too late, that it was all over? What do we need? ...body bags, refrigeration units, cadaver sniffing dogs, incinerators, coffins, hearses the size of eighteen wheel trucks, ferryboats, burial grounds? In Phuket, Krabi and Phang Nga, the hardest hit provinces of Thailand, there were over five thousand fatalities.
Radiating from the epicenter of the Sumatran earthquake, passing through twelve countries including the ones with the most human losses, Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, all the way to the Eastern coast of Africa, the total count approached two hundred and fifty thousand. All gone in two to three hours. What do we need? I wanted to shut down and forget. How can you tell people who want to help that it was too late, that we had lost two hundred and fifty thousand? If we needed anything, it was beyond what I could describe. In the most cynical way I replied, "Send beer". I was spiraling down in the worst manner and I wanted to put my memory to rest. What do we need? I needed to get rid of what I had seen. My injury was deeper than I could imagine.
Two months later a university from New Zealand, in a noble gesture, offered a scholarship to take students who could train for several weeks and gain skills in an area where they could in turn later help in the task of rebuilding in the aftermath of the tsunami. The students would be given room and board at private family homes, and their round trip airfare and incidental expenses would be paid for. We could only send two students, and since they had to be potential English speakers who were not minors, I was asked to make the choice. I got from the school the list of those who suffered the most: the orphans. Among those, I began to pore over school records and found two who had been through the Tourism and Hotel English program under my direction. They were both "A" students. Contacting them was not difficult and after completing the necessary documents and visa applications, they were ready to go. There was even a press conference before their departure.
Their leaving also coincided with the beginning of the summer vacation so I was in Bangkok at the time and I saw them off at the airport. A group photograph taken during the press conference appeared in the April 23-29, 2005 issue of The Phuket Gazette, a regional newspaper; there I appear with other school officials and the two students who received the scholarship. While walking through a shopping mall in Bangkok with some friends, I approached a newsstand, pulled out the issue of the Phuket Gazette and showed it to them. They were surprised to see me in the papers but also were very proud of my efforts. One of them later contacted me and asked me to distribute cash donations that his American friends had sent for the tsunami victims. I slowly gave the funds to the orphans over the course of several months.
In the years that have passed, Kob and I moved to an apartment where the door doesn't rattle, she earned her general education certificate, and we had our second child. I traveled to California to visit my aging mother, learned to speak Thai, thus can watch TV and understand, and changed to a better paying job, still teaching English. Next month Beam will be ten years old and will be finishing the fourth grade soon. She has learned to swim and now rides a twenty-one inch bicycle.
The spirit of Christmas past came to visit a few days ago. It came to open and an old injury, as it has done ever since the tsunami, but this time I held it open until a tide of festering memories burst and flowed back into the ocean.