7 Days and 11 packs of smokes later:
My personal account of the tsunami
4th January 2005: Well, I thought about writing out my story from start to finish but I don't know if I really want to do that so soon since the last 7 days of my life have been pretty fucking hectic, horrifying and tragic. Trying to portray what really went on and the gravity of it all isn't really possible unless you were there. Most people I've tried to talk to really just don't get it at all. I've had people laughing at what I've told them, asking if the wave was really cool or their eyes glazing over in amazement. So I spare a lot of details. It's kind of difficult describing them. It's not really just remembering, it's almost like having to relive it all over again. So even this is an extremely abridged version of my account with the tsunami and it's aftermath.
This is my first time scuba diving and I'm pretty excited about the whole thing. We gear up, check everything and jump in with Alison, my divemaster. There were about 18 people on the dive boat - one divemaster per group of four. For me it was just Alison and another guy from Sweden. We were swimming around the reefs for about 7-8 minutes or so. It's your typical dive of looking at the fish and huge coral formations. I kept thinking in the back of my head how cliché it would be if something really bad went wrong while on my first dive. So I see some cool things, I'm looking at the coral and all its different kinds - from brain coral to shelf coral. The other groups of divers are around me. The group of divers below me belonged to a Swedish divemaster named Frasse, a guy I became close friends with in the following few days. They were floating around two meters below us, we were currently around 10 meters deep.
I remember looking down at Frasse's group and then out away from the shelf around us into the deep water. Then this current grabbed me and I almost hit the vertical reef wall that was beside me. Again I look out into the deep water then I look for my dive master. I remember looking away for a moment while this current was grabbing me and then turning back. Frasse was no longer below me and the reef wasn't there. The power of the current was amazingly strong and I remember feeling the sensation of how fast I was moving. I was kind of confused because I wasn't entirely aware of what was going on but I knew that something wasn't right. I could see it in my divemaster's eyes when she was looking at me.
As I started to focus around me I saw that the water visibility had dropped drastically. The water was full of sand and large chunks of coral the size of garbage cans were breaking off the reef and whipping by. When I looked up you could no longer see the surface. It had gotten really dark and my eardrums really hurt. My dive master signaled for us to go up so we inflated our buoyancy compensators (BCDs) with air and began to swim up. The pain in my ears began to increase. It became an almost excruciating pain. Even now as I type this, my ears are still popping. After inflating our BCDs and swimming up and trying to get the water that was pouring into my mask out, I noticed it wasn't getting any brighter up at the surface. I later found out what was happening. We started at 10 meters and began to ascend going 9 meters...8 meters...7 meters...then 9 meters...12 meters...15 meters....20 meters...22 meters...we were being sucked downward despite our efforts to swim up. When this current passed we rocketed up to the surface. At the time it was a pretty terrifying experience. I could feel the depth changes by the pain in my ears but I thought I was swimming up to the surface yet the surface was getting darker. It was hard to control my thoughts.
When we surfaced we looked around and we saw the dive boat about 100-120 meters away. This current had launched us incredibly far. Bear in mind it threw us this distance in a matter of a few seconds. I don't know anything about water resistance or drag caused by objects in water but covering that distance in that amount of time - you have to be moving pretty fast. We signaled the dive boat and they came around to grab us. One of the crew looking after people getting back on the boat threw us a line to pull ourselves closer. When I saw his face I could see something had happened. When we gathered everyone up I went to the top deck of this two-story dive boat and looked around at the surrounding water. I could see these huge bright green upwelling currents about 5-8 meters in diameter all over the place. It was sand being welled from the sea floor. I couldn't figure out what the hell would cause that. It was beyond me, I've never seen anything like it.
I lay down on one of the benches to try and relieve this pain in my eardrums from the accelerated depth changes I just had and wait for lunch. We have lunch on the boat and the divemasters tell us we aren't going to do a second dive because they don't know what the hell that was and it could be dangerous. So they decide it may be best to go back to Phi Phi.
On our way back this guy in a long tail boat starts circling our dive boat saying there is a hundred people dead on Phi Phi from a big wave. Our captain started laughing and told us the guy is just messing with us. From living a few years in Victoria, British Columbia I'm pretty used to the crazies so I just rubbed it off and thought, "whatever, crazy."
I noticed that some of this shit we were looking at in the water was actually dead bodies, some bent in ways they really shouldn't be. There was this one dive boat that was in the bay that was towing a dead body. They had it with them for a little bit but the shore was too damaged to dock. I could see from one side of the island across it to the ocean on the other side of it. A good 80% or more of the village was wiped clear off the island, concrete foundations and everything. It really started to sink in with all of us what had happened. When you see something like this it is just so unreal it takes time to process what exactly you're looking at. So this boat that was towing the body cut it loose. They didn't know what to do with it.
This is where I am leaving out some details because I don't care to have to explain some of the specifics of the things that followed. I was standing on the stern of the boat watching this all happen when this Israeli named Josee grabbed an opened hulled kayak floating by our dive boat and asked me if I was coming. I said "yes" and out we paddled. We pulled this body out of the water onto this other anchored motorboat with a rope we found in the water. This was one of the most horrific and traumatizing things I've done and hopefully will ever do. What angered me the most was that nobody would help us. I must have called for help to four or five other boats nearby and all they did was just watch us. Later, in Bangkok, I met one of the guys who said he wouldn't help us. By that time I was so devoid of emotion I just shook his hand and told him I was glad he was alive and unhurt. He told me he wouldn't help us because there was a lady on the boat whose mother was on the island and was now probably dead and he didn't want to upset her with this dead body. Understandable, but the situation at hand was a little more serious than upsetting some lady. I was filled with disbelief. I didn't know what to say. My whole family was on that island - the island was gone and I'm thinking my whole family is now gone.
In what was left of the village there were people running around with knives and harpoons from the dive shops or whatever kind of weapon they could find. A lot of people had lost it. Everyone was going crazy, people looting anything they could get their hands on. This included climbing over corpses to get at things. People whose minds had just shattered and their lives had been laid to waste in less than five minutes walked around looking at the ground mumbling aloud, bumping into people and not even noticing. People who had internal bleeding were throwing up. People who had been helped by the very small percentage of people trying to help at that time, were lying in a clearing made by the wave. Helicopters were now landing to take out the most hurt and assess the damage. Some of these people were maimed and impaled with fatal wounds and were dying right there on the ground. Death was everywhere. The village - or what was left - had largely turned into a highly volatile situation with chaos teetering on a knife's edge. Media helicopters were flying around and the odd media boat would come into the bay then leave. One of the first helicopters to land on the island was some news station helicopter. They landed, took some photos and footage with their cameras, then left. They didn't take anybody with them. Right there they could have saved two or three lives or maybe even 7-10 lives - I don't really know. It's just the fact they didn't even help when there were people right there dying.
I spent the rest of the evening on our dive boat sitting on the hull thinking about the afternoon that had transpired. I was watching the water by the light of the full moon. I spent most of the time watching the waves and the current trying to see if the bay was emptying out again because of another tsunami. This was giving me anxiety attacks every 30 seconds. Our boat was tied to another boat and if another wave came we wouldn't be able to untie and get out in time, so we were dead too. This thought was also extremely unsettling. I kept thinking of my family, wondering if they were alive or dead. Most of all I kept thinking, "What the fuck just happened today?" It was all just too unreal. "Did I pull that dead body out of the water? Did I really see all of that today?" My first time scuba diving was that morning and that felt like eons ago.
In the early AM hours the boat's captain got back from the island and we all took a vote to move somewhere safer. We left around 2 am for a place called Long Island. Long Island is a long narrow island along the western south coast of Thailand between Krabi and Phuket. We were leaving Phi Phi and I wasn't going to die but I was going into the open ocean again. One problem seemed to subside as another one just as difficult came up. I hadn't allowed myself to break down into tears yet. I was in too much disbelief, as were the 25 or so other people now on the boat. I also knew that no matter whether my family was alive or dead, there was nothing in my power I could really do.
That trip to Long Island was spent in dead silence - nobody spoke. Nearing 4 am we arrived at this small fishing village of about 20-30 people. They welcomed us into their homes. They said to take their houses and they will sleep in their friends' places. The generosity of the Thai people throughout that day and the following days really became heartfelt and pretty amazing. We were all very thankful. Most of us had lost everything. All I had was my flip-flops, board shorts, and my hat. We spent the night on wooden floors and woke up at dawn. They had one TV with the news on it. It was in Thai but we all gathered around to see aerial shots of Phuket, Krabi, Khao Lak and Phi Phi. It was like a punch in the face, being able to see these places - or what was left - in one shot. After we gathered our thoughts and figured out what our next move was we left and got back on the dive boat to keep moving.
The normal lines were down but some people had cell phones and were able to text message. We found out there was a main crisis center set up in Phuket so decided to go there. Phuket was fucked. The bay was filled with boats all trying to dock - on what I'm not entirely sure. So we headed to this small town outside of Phuket. From this town we hitched rides into Phuket to the crisis center where all the embassies were apparently set up to help their citizens with food, water and clothing.
The crisis center was being run by university volunteers. It was pretty much a big tent city with people on speaker-phones yelling things in numerous languages. The 8 hours spent here were pretty frustrating and bleak. The Canadian embassy wasn't much help. The only thing they did for me was give me a temporary ID that allowed me out of the country. I asked how am I supposed to get home. They told me phone home and get somebody to wire me money via Western Union. I was astounded the Canadian government - a country known for having a high standard of living, a country known for looking after its citizens - was leaving me in the hands of some privately owned company to get me money? Other countries were housing their citizens in their embassies - not Canada. I left my name with the embassy to tell anyone inquiring about me that I'm fine and alive and my family is missing. Later to find out I'm still listed as missing when I call the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on January 1st. Apparently, I had been put back on the list because some friends from back home in British Columbia had called me in as missing. This is all a whole other story I'm not going to get into right now - it just makes me too angry at how fucking useless my country was for me and really makes me lose faith in it.
A few hours into the afternoon I heard that lists were being compiled in the police station of the deceased, the survivors from various places, and people hospitalized as well. Some of us who had gone through everything together were still sticking together, so my fellow survivors went to the police station with me and waited while I looked for some sign of my family. I was given stacks of paper and list upon list of names. I had to scan through thousands of names looking for my family - to no avail. They had big boards setup with mugshots of unidentified dead bodies. Emotionally, it was an extremely difficult thing to do - to look through board upon board of dead bodies, trying to see if that was your sister or brother disfigured by something, not sure because you can't make out the face because of the bloated skin and the foam coming out of the nose and mouth.
In the camp I found some free phones they had set up for people. I managed to call home to my aunt and when she said "hello" in a frantic tone over the phone I just broke down right there with hundreds of people around me. I just couldn't hold myself together anymore. I had gone a day and a half hoping my family had called home and was still alive but thinking in all likelihood, they weren't. I could hardly talk and I asked my aunt if anybody else had called home yet or checked in and she said, "No, you are the first." When she said that I was overwhelmed with a torrent of despair. I had delayed trying to contact home for as long as I could because that was what I didn't want to hear. The last day and a half things had only gotten worse and worse and worse.
I'm jumping ahead to leaving the crisis center: They had rides set up to take people to the Phuket airport. They were mostly just volunteers with pick up trucks and you sat in the back. We had made our way one small step closer to some sort of stability so now to figure out what the hell we were going to do. My dive master, Alison, was Canadian as well and we were both kinda in the dark about how to get home. We pull into the Phuket airport and we all climb out and my brother in-law, Caleb, walks up to the people I was with showing them a picture of me and asking where we came from and if they had seen me. When I saw him, there was this immeasurable weight taken off my shoulders. To see that at least one of them was alive was such a huge relief. He told me everyone was alive and gave me my passport. Everyone was back in Krabi in a hotel they found. I said I was going to Bangkok. I didn't want to be in the south anymore. I had been through quite a mind fuck for a while and needed to separate from what was going on around me.
They had free flights leaving every hour taking people up to Bangkok. Most people were loaded onto military cargo planes. I chanced out and got on a commercial passenger plane. I spent most of the flight sleeping, the rest of the time I was thinking about how useless my country was for me when I was in a time of need - not knowing that they were going to piss me off at least one more time before I got home. We get off the plane and enter the terminal to face a big crowd of delegates from the various embassies around the world. There was one particular country missing - the country responsible for the UN Peacekeepers, the one that runs the worlds most elite disaster response team, the one known for sending planes to areas of imminent danger for its citizens and flying them straight back to their country. Yeah, Canada didn't even have a fucking delegate there. I couldn't have been any more ashamed of my country than at that moment. I had to go the Italian embassy and tell them, "I don't know what I'm doing, my country isn't helping me, I don't know what to do, please help me." I was with Caterina, an Italian divemaster. She was one of the survivors I had spent the previous two days with. The Italian delegate just said to put both of our names on the voucher form and she'd find me a place to stay. They put us on a bus and got us to a hotel. We were given our own beds, air conditioning, and shower. It was great.
The following days were spent on Khao Sahn Road. It's a major tourist hub for most any tourist who is traveling Thailand or staying in Bangkok for any length of time. Over those few days we had kept seeing more of the people we survived with. Our group started to get back to what it was before we got separated at the crisis center/refugee camp. I also started to see people I had met before everything had happened. It was a fantastic feeling to know they were alive. It was a great time in a dark few days. I helped as many people as I could. You could see people walking down this Khao Sahn Road with crutches or bandages or cuts and scrapes. Often, they needed help of some kind. My brother Rob had come up to Bangkok to join me so did what we could - got them to phones, helped them with money or food, shared our stories and consoled in our experiences. It wasn't until then did I realize what exactly happens in those Legions that the old war vets go to. I never really understood it all that much. Not until all of that shit had gone down did I really realize the camaraderie people have with each other when going through things like that together. And to think for me it was only two days. In many cases veterans went through months to years of this.
Over these few days, one by one, our flights were leaving to take us home to wherever home was for us. I still remember the look we all seemed to have in our eyes. We had a look of emptiness, that we now had to go face reality back home and we really didn't want to go, despite the need to see our respective families.
Just like everybody else, I've suffered losses in my family and various other things. I don't want to detract from others' hardships. Some of the things that happen in life are tragic and sad. But what happened on December 26th was horrifying in the most extreme sense of the word, and it has changed me for good. This was a horrible catastrophe and, yeah, a lot of terrible stuff happened. Along with my entire family, I was part of a small percentage of people who made it through all of this unscathed. Mine is a story with a happy ending. Thousands of people were killed by the tsunami. From what I know, there were some hundred other divers who died in an area nearby where I was diving. By all accounts I really shouldn't have lived while swimming underwater through a tsunami. But I did. I don't know why, but I did.