A catastrophic tsunami crashed into parts of coastal Thailand the morning of December 26, 2004.
This post is the fourth in a series sharing my memories of this time. The blocked section below is from the end of part 3.
All photos were taken the afternoon of December 26, 2004 in Krabi Town.
Part 1 – Beijing and Phuket, December 2004
Part 2 – Phi Phi Don Island, December 25 and the morning of December 26, 2004
Part 3 – Phi Phi Don Island to Krabi, the morning of December 26, 2004
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After checking in and finding our rooms, I went back to the lobby to relax and wait for the others.
The TV was turned to the news. It didn’t matter that the announcer was speaking Thai. It was fun to observe her body language and wonder what she was talking about.
Some writing appeared in the bottom of the screen. The only recognizable characters were R8.5
Leaning closer and trying to make out what the announcer was saying didn’t confirm or deny my question.
Had there been an earthquake?
There had to have been an earthquake! What else would the “R” mean?
Another group member was now peering at the TV. She had been living in Bangkok and understood some Thai. Since the guesthouse did not get any English TV channels, we hurried out to find somewhere that did.
Coming up to a tiny bar on the left, the TV there only had information in Thai.
Pressing forward, another guesthouse was straight ahead. Turning inside, the big screen TV mounted on the wall was showing image after horrifying image of an unfathomable disaster.
Legs gone to jelly and tingling carried a body that had lost feeling. Chairs were pulled away from a table directly in front of the bar. Sitting in stunned silence, time stopped in a way that only shock can force.
We sat frozen for an hour, maybe two, watching. There wasn’t anything else to do. Processing every unbearable detail flashing in repeat on the TV screen wasn’t possible. It was too unbelievable.
Eventually, we couldn’t watch anymore. We had to leave, walk, move, do something.
Unknowns, questions and a guardian angel
The intense storm of panic and helplessness swirling around my family’s Christmas dinner table thousands of kilometres away in Canada was unknown then. A phone call from an acquaintance asking after us was the first alert for my family that a catastrophe had occurred.
Somewhere in this flurry, my family received the email I’d sent. After watching as much as we could take of the news, we knew we had to tell our relatives that we were alive. I figured phones would be jammed and couldn’t keep from crying if I heard the voices of my family.
The email was brief. There’d been an earthquake and tsunami but I was okay. Having no idea that they were also seeing the same traumatic content that I had, the email was not enough.
It wasn’t until the following days that we found out that people died in the very guest house we had left the morning of December 26. The incomprehensible destruction that engulfed Phi Phi Don Island in the hour and a half after the boat left was beyond imagination.
That our group missed the devastating and powerful waves twice in 90 minutes was inconceivable. We talked of how we had come close to changing our reservations and staying another day on the island that felt like paradise. Why did we stick with our original plan?
We never felt the earthquake that morning. How could we not have felt such a massive shake?
Questions helped to rationalize what we were living through but they were impossible to answer.
Some of our group simply and easily said it was God’s intervention. I decided a guardian angel was sitting on my shoulder. How else could I process the realization that I walked away while so many thousands didn’t? Women, men, children, babies, aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers – lives ended.
There were no congratulations for our decisions. The prominent feeling would later become overwhelming, sickening, grief-filled guilt; guilt for surviving and sorrow for the families of every person who didn’t.
Leaving the guesthouse, we followed the steep sidewalk away from the main town. A few beach goers passed in bathing suits and bandages. An older woman had a wrap of gauze on her head. Her eyes were wide open, staring forward but without connection with her surroundings.
Wandering in no particular direction, we ended up at the river. People gathered, pressed towards the edge of the brown water. Small motor boats sped in and out with rescued people on board while sirens wailed. A few huts floated down the middle of the river, perhaps displaced when water levels rose.
Clocks ticked away seconds and minutes, the sun baked my scalp, and we walked. While alive, I didn’t feel present.
We returned to the guesthouse down the road with the big screen TV for dinner. Staff at ours had left to check in with family and friends.
Collapsed in bed at 8pm, I was physically and mentally spent. My body floated back and forth around me, perhaps from the boat ride earlier in the day. Senses crystal clear and alert were held in a cool, hollowed shell of a body.
December 26, 2004 was finally over.
Part 5 will be posted next week.