Saturday, April 22

Tsunami Recovery in Thailand | Part 5: TWO TALES OF SURVIVAL

(Part 5 of a 12 part series)

Five weeks after the Tsunami hit, Sishir Chang went to Thailand to see how the people there were recovering and to see how those concerned could help. The following is the fifth installment of his experiences in the aftermath of one of the world'’s most devastating natural disasters. Originally published in the Southasian, the article is being republished here, with previously unpublished photographs, with the author's permission.


1. The Monk’s Tale


Abbot Poon Sawatt presides over Wat Kamala, the small Buddhist temple that serves the village of Kamala. On the morning of December 26th at 9:50AM he was on the second floor of the monks’ residence readying a talk he was going to give that morning. As he looked out over the bay he noticed the water was very dark and rushing onto land. Soon the temple and its grounds were under about a meter (3 feet) of water but in about 2 minutes the water subsided leaving many fish trapped on land. The locals began to collect the fish but as they did so the water came back this time higher and higher. Soon the pictures of the life of the Buddha that decorated the second story of the temple were no longer visible and boats were being dragged inland. The building the Abbot was in broke and he found himself suddenly being tumbled underwater.

As he tumbled he heard a roaring sound that filled his ears. Eventually he managed to grab onto a tree and pull himself up above the water. As he pulled himself up he had to fend off debris with his free hand and saw a bus being pushed by the water. He suddenly noticed a tin roof coming towards him and dove back under to avoid getting his head cut off by the roof. As he did so more water struck and pushed him inland further. After awhile the water du
mped him onto a pile of sand almost 700 meters (2,100 feet) away from the temple. He had survived but lost all of his clothes and grabbed a shirt to tie around him to go to the hospital. Even though he and another monk had lived three monks in the same building had died. 63 others, including 22 foreigners, had also lost their lives in Kamala. A school near the temple had been devastated but fortunately wasn’t in session at the time.

2. “Water Go Home!”


Peter and Gerti Trausdorf are Austrians in their 60’s who spend winters in Phuket. At around 10:00 AM on December 26th they had just gotten to the beach and Peter had just ordered his breakfast of Johk (Thai rice porridge) as he was settling down one of the cabana workers told him that the water had disappeared. He looked up and noticed that the water had gone out of Patong Bay about 600 meters (1,800 feet) or more. Several fish were stranded on the bottom of the suddenly dry bay. Peter thought no more of it as his food arrived. Just as he started to take his first bite Gerti started screaming “The water is coming back!” Peter looked up to see a wall of water rapidly approaching the beach. He jumped up onto a low sea wall and grabbed onto a railing as the water rose up to one and a half meters (5 feet) around him. As he clung on he realized that he couldn’t see his wife. Unknown to him Gerti was trapped on the beach underneath beach umbrellas that had been displaced by the wave. Just as suddenly the water receded and Gerti managed to get clear of the umbrellas.

Peter grabbed his wife and pulled her up just in time as the next wave hit. This one was much larger and as the water rose it lifted Peter and Gerti up above the level of the railing. As Peter was lifted up about a meter (3 feet) above the railing he hung on with one hand and with the other to his wife while around him beach umbrellas, motorbikes and even cars were being thrown about. Fortunately none of them hit them. As the wave lifted them higher and higher he started to shout, “Water go home!” As he shouted the water did start receding but as it did it brought debris out with it. Peter and Gerti found themselves having to fend off debris as it came hurtling at them. A tree struck Peter in the leg just below the knee and gashed him badly. As the water rushed past the tree broke and was swept out. Finally the water dropped back down to normal and Peter noticed his leg badly bleeding.

He and Gerti realized they needed to get to a hospital and started to make their way up the ruined streets. As they did Gerti fell into a sinkhole but managed to hang onto Peter who pulled her out. Stopping at a store Peter got some rice whiskey and washed out his wound. As they made their way down the main street of Patong, a block away and running parallel to the beach, the next wave hit. This one was even larger and Peter and Gerti rapidly scrambled up the steps of a bank to get away. Once the water receded again they ran into a police officer who seeing how badly Peter was bleeding commandeered a truck to take him through the flooded streets to the hospital in central Patong.

At the hospital wounded and dead were streaming in. A nurse stitched Peter up quickly while medical personal set up a triage system to deal with the most injured. As the staff dealt with those wounded more severally than Peter he got some dressings and disinfectant and bandaged up his wound. At that point he felt well enough to go back to his hotel and refused an offer to be flown to the international hospital in Phuket. Even though he felt well enough to go the hospital staff wouldn’t let him leave the hospital because for the next several hours rumors of another tsunami would come in each hour and the staff would frantically herd people up to the second floor of the hospital. By 5 PM it was obvious that another tsunami wasn’t going to hit and they left the hospital. In the water they had lost all of their keys, money and anything else they had on the beach. Peter was forced to break into his hotel room with a piece of metal debris.

Even though they endured the worst of the tsunami Peter and Gerti have decided to remain in Phuket and to come back next year. Their son has asked them to come back to Austria but they figure that the tsunami is a small price to pay to get away from the cold and the snow of Austrian winter. Anyway as Peter said with a smile, “Now I know when a tsunami is coming. When the water disappears I know to run. Sometimes when I’m sleeping on the beach I wake up to see if the water is still there. If it is I know everything is all right and go back to sleep.”

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