14 January 2005
when audrey asked me to write up a personal account of our experience in Khao Lak, i thought it would be relatively short and easy. i was planning to write up something anyway, for all my family and friends who had called, sent email, and others who didn't even know we were out here. At first the calls were a relief -- family and friends who had worried and were reassured. Then the calls became more burdensome -- as tired as we were, we still had to field so many calls, and sound positive, and be happy on the phone. And for each person that had sent us email, i wanted to give a good explanation, in addition to thanks for thinking of us. But all that took time, and though you'd think that we had all the time in the world at the hospital, the truth was that our days were full of procedures, tests, waiting, and the fatigue from physical and mental wounds and medication.
the miracle was that we survived because of a sequence of lucky, Providential, perhaps even fated events. Any one of which could have ended our lives, or made survival that much more difficult. The area where we had been had the highest percentage of deaths in Thailand, because of the more exclusive, secluded, on the beach, low styled bungalows that were characteristic of the new area.
we had just arrived the afternoon before, flying into Phuket and driving an hour or so north to Khao Lak. the place was beautiful, small quiet bungalows under the trees just next to a sweeping private and secluded beach. the air was fresh from the clean ocean air, and scented with tropical flowers. we had just woken up from a restful sleep, finished a delicious buffet brunch, and the sky was blue with hardly a cloud in the sky. the waters were peaceful. and we had just called our parents to say merry christmas. a few people were walking and playing along the beach.
as we walked back to the bungalow, we passed a series of wooden beach chairs that sat in the shade of the trees, and we were talking about how it would be a great place to read a book and relax. but my girlfriend was tired, and we ended up going back to the bungalow to take a nap. we had hardly gotten back. we brushed our teeth, my girlfriend took a shower, and then climbed into bed, as i took a quick shower and put on a pair of blue boxers. i walked over to the windows that looked out over a lagoon and a few other bungalows, when i saw a boy running as fast as he could across my field of vison, and then closely behind him a huge mass of mud brown water hurtling forward with a loud crashing sound. i felt i could scarcely hear in that thunder, feeling a strange void of sound, no screams, no cries of help, just the thundering sound of trees snapping, and the surging waters.
i hardly had time to think. i could barely believe what was happening. it was so incredible. like out of a movie, or a dream. i quickly called to my girlfriend, and she jumped out of bed to stand beside me. then we were just holding each other there in a small panic. hoping the hurtling waters would not rise any farther. i thought oh my God, oh my God, unable to think any other prayer. but the waters were already several meters high, and surging higher. the waters came up to the edge of our terrace, and then climbed up the glass doors. my girlfriend and i backed up, jumped up onto the bed, and then there was a loud crash as the waters burst through the glass doors as if they were made of rice paper, and surged into the room, throwing everything about. we could hardly stay up on the bed, as it too was thrown back and up into the room, and then the waters were swirling about, the bed into the corner, and us on it, and then over the bed, and up to our knees, and so higher and faster. and i kept thinking oh my God, my God, my God... and we held each other so tightly there. we were both in a sort of shock, it was hard to think to do anything. not that we could, except just hold tight and try to stay upright and not get sucked into the muck. and the waters were rising faster, we floating in it until our heads hit the ceiling, and we had 8 inches of air to breathe like the movies. it was getting darker, and i then started telling my girlfriend and myself, we're going to die here, we're going to die here. as if preparing ourselves for the inevitable as the waters were inching higher. i was trying to remember the orientation of where the glass doors had been so we could dive under the waters and try to get out. and then we were still there at 8 inches to the ceiling for what seemed a small eternity.
in that moment when the waves first hit, and the water was rushing in, i felt pure raw fear. but it was less a fear for myself than a fear that there was nothing i could do to protect my girlfriend. later, i saw several interviews with parents who had lost children express similar sentiments. many had lost hold of their children as the waves took them, seeing the looks of terror on their little faces as they dissappeared under the waters. and i knew some of that utterly helpless and fearful feeling.
my girlfriend thinks it was 5 to 10 minutes or so that we floated up there waiting for death. but finally the waters started to inch down. as the waters inched below the terrace door frames, i was thinking we had to get out of here, or we would drown if another wave came. as the water receded, it started to suck everything out of the room, like the air out of an airplane if a window were to get shot out. we let ourselves drift toward the doors, thinking we might be able to get out and swim. but we held ourselves back, as the rush of the waters rushed through the open space that had been glass terrace doors. i floated out there a few seconds trying to get a better look and assessment of what was going on, when we both realized there was no way we could swim the 100 meters or so to the hills just beyond, with the current of the water rushing around our bungalow and back out to sea. my girlfriend pulled me back and i held onto her as hard as i could to get back inside the relative safety of our concrete bungalow. and we were hanging onto the roof, the edge of the door frame, anything to keep from getting sucked out into the rushing current.
and then the waters were halfway down the walls, and i helped my girlfriend back onto the bed, and we both realized at once that my left thigh had been cut open, seemingly to the bone, with all the meat and muscle hanging out like at a butcher shop. i felt it wasn't my leg i was looking at, i didn't even feel it. i was probably already in shock from losing blood. and my girlfriend started looking around for scraps of cloth, t-shirts, brown from the muck, to tie around my leg as a tourniquet. my girlfriend, more calm than i, suggested we look for large pieces of wood that we could cling to in order to float. but the bed was now between the doors and the rest of the room, and all the larger pieces of wooden furniture were much too heavy to be able to lift over the bed, especially with my leg as it was. then the waters were at the floor, and then below the terrace now, and several inches of sand covered the bungalow floor, probably protecting us from smaller glass pieces and shards, and broken pieces of wood were sticking up from the floor. i knew i had to step carefully, as i inched around the room, looking for anything we could salvage. i started to look for my laptop that had just been on the bed before the waters came, and simultaneously realized even if i could find it, the hard drive would probably be unsalvageable. there seemed to be nothing left in the room except the bed and several pieces of the larger furniture that couldn't get past the bed out of the room.
i found the safe, but it was heavy and full of water, and i turned it over to let the water out. miraculously i found the key in my pair of shorts that lay on the floor of sand, but the key wouldn't turn when i put it in the lock. i had just closed it a moment ago it seemed, and all our passports, phones, Ipods, DVR, etc. were in there. not that any of them would work now. my girlfriend found her purse, with a few things that weren't valuable enough to take the time to place in the safe, like her drivers license, an ID or two, and some foreign currency, albeit non-Thai. my girlfriend's other bag had been swept into the bathroom, we could see it through the crack, but the room was full of water, and there was no way we could budge the door. i found mine in a corner ripped open and full of brown muck, but our return tickets were still in an inner pocket. seconds ticked by, and we knew we had to get out of there before another wave took us. we ran to where the entrance door had been to see that the wooden stairs down had also been ripped off the bungalow, and the ground covered with debris and glass and wooden shards was more than two storeys down.
my girlfriend started to yell for help, as i tried to pull down some of the drapes to use as ropes. i remember telling her, there couldn't be anyone around to help us, as we heard nothing but an eerie silence, and i imagined that we were the lucky ones. who else would have been able to make it in the rest of the 32 bungalow rooms at our hotel. we were in the last row, on the second floor of the few cheaper two storey bungalows, and faced perpendicular to the water. the rest were in between us and the beach, and faced the water, and i couldn't imagine those people even had a chance. when we came back to the room earlier, we had seen a women with her two boys playing in front of the first storey bungalow. we didn't hear a sound from below. but a woman in a larger house just south of us and up the hill started wailing, trying to get out. i was so glad my girlfriend kept yelling, as two young boys ran down the hill with a security officer, and i lowered her to them, her bruised arms could barely support her. i tied one of the drapes i had taken down to a wooden post, and climbed down next to their arms. then we limped up the hill as quickly as we could. i didn't look back, but my girlfriend could see the next wave coming. as we limped up the hill, i was lucky to only pass one dead body. my girlfriend had seen several bodies clinging in the current, and washed back out to sea.
we limped up to the road, and then we could hear the screaming and wailing of people that had just made it, had just lost loved ones, were just starting to realize what had happened, and now were watching as other waves were approaching. small clumps of people by the road now started to panic and run up into the hills. we followed, barefoot, in our underwear, feeling like aboriginal natives running into the jungle. i could hardly put weight on my leg, and the blood was coming down in small spurts as my flesh split from my tourniquets with the movement.
after being up in the hills for 45 minutes or so, not knowing what was going on below us, my girlfriend was getting afraid that i was going to lose too much blood. and we needed to get to a hospital. i was feeling really lightheaded and dizzy. a few people started heading down the hill, and we followed. a young well built Korean traveller helped me onto his back, and we started down the hill. when we got close to the road, we saw that the road where we had climbed up to hugging small cliffs to the beach had not been submerged. but the road was cut off to the north of us, and we heard that the south was blocked as well. there were a number of motorbikes about, but my girlfriend could not find anyone heading to a hospital. the very few cars passing were looking for their own people (their parents, children, families, and friends). the father of one of the hotel staff lay dead in the back of their van, while the daughter was beside herself (as we all were), and convinced he had just been knocked out.
finally my girlfriend was able to stop three young fishermen in a small pickup. she almost knelt down to beg them, she was so desperate, and they helped us up into the back deck of their truck, along with a shellshocked 7yr old German boy named Lars, without parents, whose head was gashed and bleeding, and who did not speak a word, and an older Swiss woman who feared the worst for her husband with whom she had just been walking along the beach. we ended driving an hour and twenty minutes or so south and east to Kapong. My girlfriend had internal injuries, and not only was it difficult for her to breathe, but she was vomiting and nauseous the whole way there. Arriving at the small country hospital, we felt safer, especially as we were the first victims to have arrived, and they triaged us immediately, and pulled us into the small emergency room. they gave me several site injections for the pain, and started first on my wounds, opening, cutting, cleaning, and then stitching them up. then they proceded to my girlfriend, and then to the speechless little German boy.
as they were finishing with us, the next waves of people started to arrive. and i began to feel that we needed to get out of there as soon as possible and head back to Bangkok if possible. I was imagining the thousands of people that would start flooding the hospitals soon, and feared i would soon no longer be able to use my leg, and we would be stuck there among thousands.
i tried to talk to the few people at the hospital that spoke english that we wanted to try and get to a bus station as soon as possible. the doctor that treated me spoke some english. but the only two people that had cars were the doctors, who of course had to stay. i was thinking we could just wait by the side of the road and try to hitchhike from the few passing cars, when a local area official arrived at the hospital speaking better english. by then there were several other westerners who had arrived looking for family members and loved ones, and he suggested that we send everyone that wanted to go to the provincial police station to register their names. he also told us, in response to my repeated inquiry, that there was a small bus station there as well that might have buses to bangkok. so we all loaded up into another small pickup, and headed off to the PhangNga provincial center.
having no idea when a bus would leave, i kept pressing to try and get to the bus station as soon as we could. we waited at the police station for 15 minutes or so, and i pressed the driver to take us to the bus station, while they were waiting for everyone to register. we first tried to find some money. But my girlfriend's credit card ATM cards would not work, and after trying 4 ATMs, we gave up, and realized we just needed to get to the bus station. we got there 15 minutes before the bus to Bangkok was to leave. the ticket officers were not going to accept our foreign cash, but eventually we offered all the cash we had (which was not much), and they wrote out two tickets for us.
The ride was long, my leg was in pain, and my girlfriend was still sick and vomiting. but we knew this was our only choice. the driver well aware of the danger, sped through low lying coastal areas at such speed, i started becoming more afraid he'd have an accident, than get hit by another wave. but 11 hours later, we were in Bangkok. other passengers on the bus kindly offered us a few thai bills. and with that, we caught a taxi and arrived 30 minutes later at the emergency room at Bumrungrad, arguably the best hospital in all of South East Asia. we ended up being the first arrivals for a while. Two days later, more patients started to arrive as airlifts brought the injured up from the south. we started to realize how so very lucky we were not only to escape, but to come to Bangkok as soon as we did.
after three weeks and three surgeries, tendons to my left foot have been reattached, and my body has fought off several strains of bacteria. my girlfriend is able to breathe again without pain, her stitches are out, and with physical therapy has regained much of her strength. in the news, and from hospital staff, i heard of horror stories of people who had relatively minor wounds, but because of neglected or complicated infections, had had to amputate limbs. even almost three weeks after the accident, my relatively small wounds are still seeping with fluid discharge, but the swelling has gone down, and we hope the infections are under control.
we still can hardly believe how lucky we were. especially being in one of several resorts on the Khao Lak beach where most of the 6000 or so deaths in Thailand were centered. if we had been in any less sturdy of a bungalow, we could easily have been crushed, as we saw many other concrete structures crushed. if we had spent a few more minutes at brunch, or woke up a little later, we could have been on the beach when the waters came, and have been crushed again and separated by miles when the waters picked up everything in their path. if the waters had come up 8 inches higher, we would have drowned in our bungalows. if my thigh wound had been another inch or two over, my artery would have been cut, or if we couldn't get to the first hospital, i could have easily bled to death. and if we didn't get to bangkok as quickly as we did, my wounds could have become infected leading to amputation or worse. but all that didn't happen to us. we were spared in the first wave. our bungalow protected us from the force of the wave, and kept us together. we were able to make it to a hospital relatively quickly, and we were at the best hospital in southeast asia within 17 hours from the first wave.
now still in the hospital, we are so thankful that God spared us that day. our families and friends still cannot believe we were among the few of the lucky. and neither can we. in the local papers, we see the pictures of bodies along the beach where we were, hundreds and hundreds more in dry ice, the faces of the missing children, and we wonder about that 7yr old German boy, and whether he will have to grow up without his parents.
A U L
P H O T O G R A P H Y
all images © 1995-2005 Paul W.H. Kan
Hong Kong, SAR
People's Republic of China