The week following the tsunami in Phuket was a difficult one for me and I was still in a bit of a daze, trying to figure out what I had been through and how I had managed to survive. I felt a huge sense of having to help in some way but I couldn’t do anything financially. I wanted to perhaps help the clean-up or help with reconstruction but didn’t really know where to begin.
The news was filled with more and more depressing information about the full extent of the devastation. As we know now, it had travelled as far as Sri Lanka and was responsible for more than a quarter of a million deaths. The TV in Thailand naturally concentrated on the local damage and many stories emerged of all the foreign tourists who had lost their lives, as well as a nephew of the King of Thailand himself. It seems that everyone knew someone who was affected, especially in Phuket. One of my students at the time, who owned and operated her own chain of massage and beauty spas, told me she had lost an employee who was working in her spa in Khao Lak, a coastal town north of Phuket. My student told me that she had arranged for her employee’s family to provide hair samples in a bid to identify her, which I thought was a bit strange. There was nothing left of my student’s spa, it was completely demolished. She was thankful that she had two others to earn her living from.
The hospitals in Phuket had filled to overflowing with the dead and they posted pictures of them on the Internet to try to have them identified. Page after page of these pictures, many of them foreigners, were on display and it was hard to understand how some of them could not be missed by someone. Many had horrific facial injuries and were probably unrecognisable.
No one felt much like working or learning English during that week and I remember my boss telling me not to bother going to work and Thailand was in mourning anyway. The aftershock tsunamis never eventuated and I was able to borrow my friend’s pickup truck and take my motorcycle to the Honda service centre, who were offering to repair any tsunami-damaged motorcycle for free, which was extremely generous of them. They asked me no questions about my motorcycle, the damage was quite obvious.
I spent New Year’s Eve having dinner at the home of my friend, the manager of the hotel where I first went after the tsunami. We watched the latest news and in addition to the now all-too-familiar scenes of destruction and bodies was an interview with Thailand’s leading forensics expert, Porntip Rojanasunanthe, who headed a team organising how to handle the dead. I recognised her by her rock star hairstyle and I asked my friend what was being discussed. She told me that khun Porntip was appealing for volunteers to help her team identify the dead at a special centre set up at a Buddhist temple in the town of Takua Pa, also to the north of Phuket.
I was amazed that the head of the forensic team had to go on TV and appeal for help from a country of 65 million people but I learnt that Thai people don’t like being around strange, dead bodies very much and they have a huge belief in ghosts. Volunteers were asked to meet at the Phuket Town Hall the next day and I saw this as my opportunity to help out but didn’t know what I would be doing. I told my friend that I was going to the Town Hall in the morning and she said she would go with me.
The Town Hall complex in Phuket is quite a large one, with several buildings and lots of open space. When we arrived we saw a bus full of Korean search and rescue experts who had travelled to help gather the dead. There were several large notice boards set up, which were plastered with pictures of missing people, mainly foreigners. These had been placed by friends and loved ones and I knew that after a week it was highly unlikely that any of these people – singles, couples and families – would still be alive. It was extremely sad to think that an entire family of five, for example, could go to Thailand for a wonderful holiday and all die.
We registered as volunteers and were told to go into one of the buildings that had a conference room setup. There were about 40 of us, mostly foreigners but a few Thai people, and we were spoken to by an American man. He told us we would be travelling to Takua Pa to help identify the dead and that we should prepare ourselves because, as he said, it was a ‘pretty ghastly scene’.
Soon we were all on our way in a bus but we could not travel the direct route because the road had been washed away at Khao Lak. I had passed this town many times on my way to Myanmar for my visa renewals and knew the place well. Like Patong, the beach area of the town was totally flat and I later saw video footage of the tsunami as it approached. Unlike what happened at Nai Harn, the wave had broken a long way from the beach at Khao Lak due to the shallowness of the water, and a wall of whitewater just smashed through everything in its path. In the video there were people still strolling along the beach as the whitewater approached in the distance and I knew they all would have been killed. Khao Lak was a favourite destination for Swedish tourists and remains as the place where the most Swedish people have ever died in one place.
We eventually arrived at Takua Pa and entered the temple complex to be hit immediately by the smell, which we had been warned about. It’s a smell I’ll never forget – a mix of rotting human flesh and excrement. The complex was very well organised and we were given protective clothing, rubber gloves and boots and face masks to wear. Our job was simply to help move the dead bodies from one ‘station’ to another so that they could be identified. One station took body samples for DNA identification, another station was for visual inspections (scars, tattoos, etc), another was for full body x-rays (to check for old injuries like broken bones) and another smaller x-ray station for dental identification. In short, they were looking for anything at all that could be used to help find out the names of all the dead and the reason for this was apparent as I saw the state of the bodies for the first time.
I had assumed that the dead would be inside body bags, as I had seen on the news the previous week, but as I came to the area where we were to begin moving the bodies I was shocked to see that they were all laid out with their body bags open. This was the visual identification station and people in white coats with clipboards were inspecting them. The dead were all dressed as they had died and I saw why identification was so difficult. They must have been in the water for quite some time and their facial features were just unrecognisable. I don’t know exactly what happens to a waterlogged body, but the eyes of the dead were all open and bulging, as if they had swollen up. Also, all of their tongues were bloated and seemed to fill their mouths up and were all sticking out. There was also a whitish foam coming out of many of the dead’s nostrils. It was such a strange, shocking sight to see so many dead with all their eyes open, all looking remarkably similar. In this state it was easy to see why they could not be identified easily.
The dead were still arriving on the backs of trucks as we were working and there were several refrigerated freight containers that we were told were already full, all having been inspected and processed, awaiting identification. A Thai man and woman arrived while we were there and were able to confirm the identity of a man from his tattoos and were given permission to take him away. They had his coffin ready on the back of a pickup truck.
The dead were all laid outside in neat rows and I would guess there must have been about two or three hundred. We worked with the Thai victims only and there was an area set aside for the foreign victims, of which there were about fifty who were yet to be processed. It was heartbreaking to see so many half-filled body bags amongst them, obviously children.
We moved the dead by loading them in their body bags onto stretchers and then carrying them over to the next station. Army cadets would then load them onto the x-ray tables. We’d then load the already x-rayed bodies onto our empty stretcher and move it to the next station. We just did this over and over again for the time we were there. One of the bodies we had to move was huge and we needed four people to lift the body bag onto the stretcher. As we were doing so, the side of the body bag split and the gentleman’s leg fell out. The two Thai cadets thought this was hilarious and we all ended up laughing as we tried to stuff the leg back inside. It actually felt good to be able to find something to laugh about and I think we all felt relieved by it.
We were given plenty of food and drink and we were constantly reminded to take breaks and not to try to do too much, due to the heat and humidity. Every time we had a break we had to completely change our protective gear and thoroughly wash ourselves. During the breaks I had a good look around the complex and found there was a very well-organised computer centre where all the information about each victim was entered. On one trip to the toilet I managed to pass khun Porntip herself and it was nice to be able to say hello to her.
In an effort to keep the bodies cool, blocks of dry ice were placed amongst the bodies, giving off the familiar white vapour that clings to the ground. We worked until it was dark and the sight of the bodies in the fading light surrounded by the white mist is one I will never forget.
By the time darkness set in my friend and I were completely knackered and we were told that the bus would not be returning to Phuket for another couple of hours. Luckily, we met a group of Thai university students who had driven up for the day and offered to take us back. The next day I went to the Town Hall to help again but I was told that volunteers were no longer needed.
I was very grateful for the opportunity to be able to help in some small way after what Thailand had been through and it was again pure luck that I had been watching TV at the time of khun Porntip’s appeal. I wish I could have done a lot more but Phuket was quickly returning to normal and my services were once again needed at the language school.
Part 3: How the tsunami changed my life