Friday, December 26, 2014

10 yr. Anniversary of the Southeast Asia Tsunami: My Thoughts on That Day and the Days Afterward

Let me begin by saying, this post is going to be long! December 26, 2014 is the 10 year anniversary of the tsunami that rocked Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka, the Nicobar and Andaman Islands, India, and parts of East Africa. My family and I were living in Thailand at the time the tsunami occurred and we were on a beach that got hit by the tsunami. These are my thoughts and recollections ten years later regarding that day and the days afterward.

December 26, Boxing Day
It was a beautiful December morning. It was cool, the sun was out, so I slipped out of the bungalow where we were staying and went for a run on the beach. Railay Beach is one of the most gorgeous beaches I have ever seen and it is one of my favorite places in Thailand.

Railay Beach, Thailand
My family (Which at the time consisted of me, Eleanor, Miles who was 10 months old, and our babysitter Phinyapha) were on vacation on beautiful spit of land called Railay Beach along with Eleanor's brother (Russell) and his family and his wife's parents. There were 11 of us on holiday and we were having a great time. We were scheduled to return to Bangkok the following day and we were enjoying our last day on Railay. Railay is a peninsula between the city of Krabi and Ao Nang in Thailand. It is accessible only by boat due to high limestone cliffs cutting off mainland access. Railay has a chill vibe and it is inhabited by beach goers and rock climbers. The sunsets on Railay are fantastic! And, since Railay is only accessible by boat, there are no motorized vehicles on the peninsula, making it a safe place to walk. The place here we were staying was directly on the water.

After returning from my run and getting breakfast with the families, Eleanor and her sister-in-law, Tara went to the beach on the other side of the island from where we were staying, a short walk. I stayed back with Miles as it was approaching his nap time. Our bungalow was situated close to a walkway that not many people used to get from one side of the peninsula to the other. So, as Miles napped, I read, and it was a relaxing way to the begin the day. As I was reading, I noticed more people walking on the walkway than usual. Then, I noticed people walking at a hurried pace, which struck me as odd, because not many things take place at a hurried pace on Railay Beach. Then, I heard and saw people running and screaming. As I got up to take a look at what was going on, our babysitter who had been hanging out with friends came running, went into the bungalow, picked up Miles who was sleeping and began to take off running. I immediately stopped her, and asked excitedly, "What is going on and where are you going?!" She looked at me and said, "We have to get to higher ground!" Then, shortly thereafter, Eleanor came running frantically and said, "We have to get out of here! There was a big wave, a tsunami, I saw it, we have to get to higher ground. Where's Miles?" I said, "Miles is napping." Phinyapha held Miles outside of the bungalow as Eleanor and I secured our belongings in the bungalow. As we were securing items, Eleanor described the scene on the beach where she and Tara were. Eleanor said, "We were in the water, then the water began to recede, which was weird, then we looked out in the water and saw these unusually big waves heading for a boat that had a man on it and the boat began bobbing all over the place. It did not look good and as the waves were approaching, Tara and I ran out of the water."
The tsunami approaching Railay Beach. Photo courtesy of
As Eleanor and I were securing items, I had this great sense of uncertainty. I still had no sense of truly what had happened, although it sounded dangerous, and I had no idea where we were going, and what we were about to do? After we got what we thought we needed and secured the rest, El, Miles, Phinyapha, and I met up with the rest of the family and followed the throngs of people who were trying to find where higher ground was?

People running out of the water. Photo courtesy of
We hurriedly walked with people from both sides of the peninsula, we were directed to a hill that offered a great view of the side of the peninsula, and we were told to sit, this was around 11:30 am, an hour after the initial waves hit Thailand. As the 11 of us in our group was sitting with the throng of others, I began to get a sense of the destruction that took place. People were scared, people were battered, bloodied. I will never forget seeing this tall European man making his way toward us who was practically naked. He was extremely dazed, bloodied, and his bathing suit was hanging off of him in tatters due to the force of the waves. People were helping him walk as people were tying to find him medical assistance. Then, wave after wave of people came. The hill became crowded quickly and no one truly had a sense of what was going on? This was 2004, before smartphones, before Facebook. Information was not as readily available as it is today. Plus, considering where we were, smartphones may not have been of use because many people had difficulty that day getting coverage on their cellphones. But, I do remember my insurance agent somehow getting through and calling me to see if the my family and I were alright because he knew we were on Railay for the holidays.

It's interesting how sometimes it takes calamities/disasters to see the best/true humanity in others and that is what we witnessed on that hill.  On that hill, we witnessed people offering others sitting next to them all that they had be it, food, drink, diapers, mothers offering to nurse babies for others. It was really something to witness.

As the day grew longer and the uncertainty increased, people began to fill in the void of information with their own predictions and news.There was a guy named Rob sitting next to us who was on holiday from Nepal with his family. As we first arrived on the hill, he was friendly and down to earth. But, the longer we stayed on the hill not knowing what was going on and/or how long we would be there, Rob began talking and becoming more animated about the dangers of aftershocks and how another tsunami must be on its way and how it will be bigger than the initial tsunami wave that people estimated at 10 meters. He kept saying, "The next wave is going to be at least 30 meters, we need to get to even higher ground!" There was no higher ground, we were on the highest point on the island. People began to ignore Rob and began referring to him as, "30 meter Rob." Rob turned out to be a source of humor in a rather stressful day.

Around 5pm, from our vantage point on the hill, we could see military helicopters hovering over the water. We all knew something serious had gone down, especially with the military presence, but no one knew exactly what. At this time, it was getting darker and the sun was going to be setting soon. People began returning to their accommodations. No one was saying that we had to stay on the hill, but people were strongly encouraging it. I know I didn't want to sleep on the hill although many people were deciding to do so for fear of aftershocks and another rogue wave taking place at night. So, Eleanor and I decided to head back to our bungalow with Miles, while Russell and his family, and Phinyapha decided to spend the night on the hill. As we descended down the hill and back to our bungalow, I was really curious to see how much damage our side of the island had sustained? As we approached the property where we were staying, we could see that the water in the ocean had risen, but that was it for our side. People were calmly playing chess in the property restaurant, others were having a leisurely dinner. Honestly, the scene before me struck me as surreal after what I had just witnessed all day on the hill and from hearing reports that on the other side of the island had long tail boats resting in resort swimming pools, hotels sustaining much damage, and people had perished and/ or had people critically injured.

Even when we approached the property the owner urged us to go back up the hill, but we wanted to get back to our room. We were scheduled to leave in the morning, but with the chaos and destruction that was on the island, I had resigned myself to the fact that there was no way we would be departing tomorrow and I was hoping that we would leave the day after tomorrow at best.

We got back to the room and we got settled. It felt great to be back in a cool air-conditioned room, and to get Miles back in his crib. We were not relaxed, but grateful to be back in the room. We quickly turned on the tv to CNN and learned that a tsunami had taken place and reporters were saying that 10,000 people had been killed as a result. We went to bed with the tv on and I truly slept with one eye open that evening. I don't remember sleeping much or at all. I was ready to jump out of bed on a moment's notice to get to higher ground again, if need be!

December 27
Woke-up, never really went to sleep, turned on CNN and the death toll of the tsunami was now at 100,000! And, the news report went into detail regarding the countries affected and what actually happened. Eleanor and I were stunned. Shortly thereafter, we met up with our family who had spent the night on the hill and they were fine. My nephew Owen was covered in mosquito bites, but other than that, everyone was fine and ready to go and see if we could get back to the airport as was our original plan.

The owner of the property said that he was still planning to get up back to the airport today and we were happy to hear this. Before departing there were two things I had to do:

1. Walk to the other side of the island to see how it looked.

2. Check my e-mail and let people know that we were ok.

I ventured to the other side of the island and it was such a contrast to where we were staying. Many of the hotel properties sustained major damage. There were boats in hotel pools and strewn everywhere along the beach. People were trying to frantically to get off the island and there were long queues for boats back to Krabi. This side of the island had a more chaotic, frantic, desperate feel to it.

I checked my e-mail in the lounge of where we were staying and I vividly remember an e-mail from my dad. My dad was the only family member I remember telling where we where. Which is so unlike me because I typically share this info with both my parent's and usually my sisters when I or the family travel, but for whatever reason, I forgot and my Pops was the only one who knew. My dad's e-mail had a desperate tone, "Ryan, if you receive this, please let me know that you are ok." -Dad  I e-mailed my dad immediately to let him know that we were alive, we were safe, and we were scheduled to get off the island and back to Bangkok today. I kept the e-mail brief because there were other patrons who wanted to do the same. The more I thought about my dad's e-mail the more it choked me up. You have a child and his family on the other side of the world that are potentially involved in a horrific natural disaster with a tremendous loss of life, you are wondering if they are still alive, and you are hoping that he replies to an e-mail? I began thinking of Miles if he were in this situation years from now and how would I handle it?

Shortly thereafter, the owner and his assistants said it was time to go. I couldn't believe it, we were actually getting off the island! The scene on the beach was calm and much less frenetic than on the other side of the island. The owner thanked us for staying and if I remember correctly apologized to us for what had happened, he was very sad.

Thankfully, the boat ride was uneventful. We made it to the pier at Krabi and a van took us to the airport. The scene at the airport was something that I will never forget. News and camera crews interviewing people, people desperately trying to get off of Krabi, queues everywhere, and the look on many of the people, dazed, shellshocked. I remember hearing a woman next to us say all she had left with her was what she was wearing. I remember a man saying who had stayed on smaller more remote island that the only people who were alive where he was staying was he and the owner of the hotel. He said he was staying in a place that probably accommodated 30-50 people and that everyone else had been killed. He and the owner stayed up all night moving dead bodies and debris. The stories were awful, heart wrenching.

We returned to Bangkok, Don Muang International Airport and it was an unbelievable site. News crews from all over the world were there filing stories and interviewing people getting, getting people's reactions to the tsunami, wanting to hear their stories. People getting on planes to help with the relief effort, people desperate inquiring, hoping to see loved ones involved in the tsunami.

We took a taxi back to our apartment and we were so grateful, thankful to be back home. We immediately turned on the tv and it seemed like it just stayed on for days continuously. Then we began calling family and e-mailing people to let them know that we were safe and back in Bangkok. Eleanor and I remember receiving e-mail from people that we hadn't heard from in years inquiring about us. I remember receiving e-mail from former colleagues at Manchester High School in Richmond and from Herndon High School in Northern Virginia and we were very touched by this! I remember composing a long e-mail detailing where we were and what we had experienced and a former colleague at Herndon, Doug Graney e-mailed it to the entire faculty informing that we were ok. Then, something unusual happened, our phone just started ringing off the hook. Back then, the only people that would call us on our landline was family and we would e-mail more than call because it was cheaper. But, for the next few days, we had family and friends calling us nonstop. It seemed the minute we would hang up, another call would come through.

As we were watching the news Bangkok hospital officials were asking for donations of clothes. Christmas time in Thailand is the height of the tourist season with many Europeans coming to Thailand on holiday. And, many of these Europeans were now in the hospital with nothing, only what they were wearing. To give you an example of how many Europeans come to Thailand, The BBC reported that over 3,000 Swedes lost their lives in tsunami in Thailand and that it was Sweden's and Thailand's worst natural disaster. Once we heard the request for clothes, Eleanor and I quickly filled two big plastic grocery bags of clothes, got in taxi and went to Samithveij Hospital, the hospital closes to us. The hospital and the hospital officials seemed overwhelmed, but very thankful for the donation of clothes. In addition to donating clothes, I wanted to do more. Many of my friends, especially guys I played hockey with hopped on planes to Southern Thailand the minute they heard the news to assist with the relief efforts. For example, one of my Thai hockey playing buddies, a guy nicknamed Top, carried bodies and helped interpret for Australian identification experts for more than a week. But, I knew I needed to stay at home and look after my family. Miles was 10 months old and Eleanor was very upset about what we had just experienced.

I did have an opportunity to assist further by playing in a charity hockey event organized by the Flying Farangs (Farang means foreigner in Thai) Hockey Club that I was and am still a part of. It was a Tsunami Relief game to benefit the Thai Red Cross and the format was Canada vs. The World. To this day, the benefit game remains the best sporting event I have ever been a part of as a participant or as a spectator. I remember being in the locker room getting dressed and hearing the buzz of the crowd from inside the locker room and then upon exiting the locker room, seeing the rink at capacity with people trying to find seats and spectators standing everywhere, it was something I had never experienced before as an athlete. People from the NHL (The National Hockey League), reporters from CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company) and many other news organizations were in attendance. The game itself was fun, entertaining, and competitive. The World team ended up winning 7-6, but more importantly, $10,000 USD was raised at the game and the NHL pledged $2,600 per goal for a total of $32,500 USD. Eleanor and Miles were in attendance wearing their Flying Farang jerseys and we all ended up getting interviewed by a reporter from CBC.

For months after the tsunami, Eleanor wondered a lot and I to a certain degree why our side of Railay was spared and did not sustain more damage? I found the answer late one evening in March 2005 reading Outside magazine at our kitchen table when I had come home from playing hockey and couldn't get to sleep. In detail and with diagrams, the article described how on our side of the island, unbeknownst to us, there was a reef and this reef helped to dispel the energy of the tsunami. This is why the waters on our side of Railay rose, but no further damage took place.

The Outside Magazine issue that I read.
Then, after reading the Outside magazine article, I remember reading a Time magazine article about the women of Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Banda Aceh was close to the epicenter of the tsunami and was devastated by it. 160,000 lost their lives on December 26 due to the tsunami. The women featured in the article featured described how they lost all their loved ones and I will never forget the account of one of the women. A tiny woman who said that she remembered looking up and seeing a wave that blocked out the sun. All she saw was a wall of water and the wave that she saw was estimated to be 23 meters high (75 feet). She said that she held onto a palm tree with all her might and she remembered being ripped away from the tree and thrashed in the water, but she survived. And when the ordeal was over and she looked around what used to be Banda Aceh was no longer there, everything was gone. As I read this, I lost it! Tears just began streaming from my eyes and I just let them flow.  I guess I had a lot of emotion still pent up inside of me in relation to the tsunami and it all came out that evening. I needed to cry, I needed to finally mourn. Eleanor heard me, I went to her, and we hugged.

Women of Banda Aceh

Final Thoughts
*-On December 26, 2004  a 9.1 magnitude underwater earthquake was recorded in the Indian Ocean, one of the strongest in recorded history. The tsunami hit the shores of Thailand between 10 and 10:30. Almost two hours after it initially struck.

*-20-30 meter waves (65-98 feet) were recorded on Banda Aceh, Indonesia, killing 160,000 people. The first inland site where the tsunami struck. The tsunami was also strong enough to resolve the separatist conflict that had plagued Banda Aceh prior to the tsunami.

Banda Aceh devastated after the tsunami.
*-228,000 people were killed in the tsunami across 14 countries.

*-In regards to the relief effort, 99 countries donated to the tsunami relief effort. 13 countries donated that had never donated to a prior relief effort. The tsunami caused $10 billion USD worth of damage.

*Information obtained from the BBC

Lastly, for whatever reason, God spared our lives December 26, 2004 and this fact is not lost on me. As a result, ever since that day,  I try get the most out of every day as I can. I truly try to live life to its fullest. And I also try as my friend Chris likes to say, "Live your dreams."


Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing, what a horrible experience. We stayed in Ao Nang last year and visited Railay a few times and loved it. But the tsunami came to our minds several times and we talked about how terrible it must have been on that boxing day 2004 - without knowing that you were there!
We wish you all a merry Christmas and a blessed new year.

Dick said...

Your recounting of the Southeast Asia Tsunami brings back a flood of memories for Judith and me. We heard the news of the Tsunami on the evening of December 26th and quickly became aware of the devastating event that was unfolding. We knew that all of you were vacationing somewhere on the west coast of Thailand, but we didn’t know just where. We had no idea whether you were safe. We called Nell, but she had no news either. We spent a long sleepless night hoping and praying that you all were safe. In the morning Nell called us. She had heard about your email to your father. She let us know that you all were safe. Thank goodness for modern communications.