Ten years ago Impact's Hannah Irwin experienced the Indian Ocean Tsunami first hand. This is her story.
The Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004 was the most devastating natural disaster in modern times, killing more than 250,000 people across 14 countries in just a few hours.
I was there. I wasn’t just there, I was right in the middle of it. I was on Koh Phi Phi, an island in the Krabi province, an island where after the tsunami hit, about 70% of the buildings were destroyed and 850 bodies were recovered with a further 1200 still missing.
I was on my honeymoon, and having spent time in Bangkok and Phuket we were loving the tranquil paradise of Phi Phi, staying in a fabulous beach bungalow. We woke up on Boxing Day to a glorious sunny, calm day. We were going out for a day of snorkelling, and after collecting our equipment we headed across the island to a small bay called Lana Bay. This is where the boatmen waited with their long tail boats for their daily fares, taking people round to Ton Sai (the main town on the island) as well as other local islands. We were using the long tail boat to reach the edge of the bay and board a larger boat that would take us to the smaller island of Phi Phi Ley. When we reached Lana Bay we noticed that the tide had already gone out. This was unusual for the time of day - I commented on it because it would mean the boatmen wouldn’t make any money that day due to all their boats being grounded.
As we stood waiting for our guides to work out how to get us to the boat, the tide slowly came back in. We clambered onto our long tail boat, by now having met all the other people on the trip - a German couple, a Spanish couple, a Swiss couple and an Australian couple who were also on their honeymoon. As soon as we were on the boat, the tide went out again, but much quicker this time, leaving the boat at a very awkward angle. This was very bizarre, we could see the fish flapping about on the sand. The Australian guy suggested we jump off, as the boat clearly wasn’t going anywhere. This made sense, so armed with my snorkelling gear and rucksack we climbed off the boat.
The group once again stood on the beach looking out to the sea wondering what on earth was going on. One of the Thai boatmen said “earthquake” – only then did I realise that what I had felt earlier in the morning while still in bed, assuming it was workmen underneath our bungalow, was actually an earthquake! Little did we know that they were tremors from a 9.2 magnitude earthquake - the fourth largest in recent times - off the western coast of Northern Sumatra, Indonesia.
What happened next was unbelievable. Our group, along with the few others on the beach, stood and watched as what looked like a large wave appeared around the edge of the bay. It was white and incredibly loud. We were laughing at the sight of this huge wave, watching it as it came towards us. I began to think that when this wave breaks we are going to get pretty wet, so I started walking slowly backwards up the beach, fascinated by what we were looking at. As it crashed on the rocks at the edge of Lana Bay it was pretty clear that this was an enormous wave and one of the Thai boatmen indicated that we move back quicker. It was at this point that I knew something serious was happening. I began to run up the track that led from the beach back towards our holiday complex. I wasn’t with my husband Steve at this point, but looked back to see him running towards me shouting ‘run, run to the view point’. As I glanced at him I saw the water coming and I saw the size of the wave as it smashed two longboats together. The boatmen had stood holding onto the ropes to try and save their boats, their livelihood. I didn’t see them again.
After that I just ran, I don’t know if I was on my own or with others from our group. I ran up into the trees that led to a viewpoint we had luckily discovered on Christmas day. I was terrified. I could hear the thundering noise of the water. Steve had caught me up by now and we paused for a while with a few others including the boatman who told us to run and by doing that, probably saved our lives. It was at this point Steve said that he had considered standing behind a building at the edge of the beach to take some photos but as the water got nearer he realised it wasn’t going to stop. He thinks there were others who didn’t run and didn’t make it.
It was at this point that we realised people from our party were missing and so a group of men, Steve included, headed back down towards the beach to try to find them. It wasn’t long before they rushed back saying another wave was coming and we decided to go as high as we could. We were clambering over branches, being bitten by huge ants trying to get to the highest point. We stayed at the top of this hill for a few hours, during this time more people joined us - a number of Thais, as well as tourists like us. A great deal of people were arriving in different states of undress, many bare foot and injured. We helped where we could and comforted those who had become separated from their friends and loved ones. We could see the brown ocean swirling around full of bits of building, fridges, trees and boats. We didn’t dare go back down.
We didn’t really know what had happened and probably worse still we were worried about what might happen next - whether we would be safe however high we climbed. We began talking with the Thais who said there had been an earthquake in Ton Sai and this is what had happened as a result. They were particularly worried as a lot had families living there. Luckily Steve had his mobile phone and he shared it around. The service was very intermittent and then stopped working altogether.
After a number of hours spent up the hill, a group of us decided we had better head back to the holiday complex to see if anyone knew what we needed to do next. We were concerned that our bungalow may no longer be standing and that our possessions would be lost. As we left the cover of the trees and came down the hill we could see the devastation, the boat we were planning to take that had been at the edge of Lana Bay was now wedged between some trees a good distance in land. Vehicles were upturned, buildings had disappeared and trees had been ripped out of the ground.
We had to cross a damaged bridge to reach our holiday complex but were relieved to find that the buildings were all still standing. The wave on this side of the island had not come in with the same force as it had where we had been so the damage was down to the whole area being flooded rather than destroyed.
We gathered up our passports and some water and along with the other survivors headed up another hill. Our mobile signal came back on briefly and we saw that we had a number of missed calls from my parents. I thought this was odd as I had only spoken to them the day before to wish them Merry Christmas. At this point we thought what had happened was local to Thailand and more specifically Phi Phi. This was now probably around 4 or 5 hours since the tsunami hit. We managed to get through to my mum, who was hysterical. They told me the huge extent of what had happened, having been woken by the news early on Boxing Day, and said that I should get off Phi Phi as soon as I could. It may sound odd but this is when I became really scared. Up until this point we were in survival mode, but now, as we all sat quietly in a kind of zombie-like state we had time to think and reflect on what had happened. We began to hear helicopters arriving to take the most severely injured people off the island. We stayed up the hill all night. The hotel staff provided us with water and rice to eat. We were all afraid that more waves would come.
The next few days were a blur, they were spent helping people search for the missing, clearing debris and only drinking what we really needed of the rationed water. The staff accommodation of our dream holiday village became a mortuary and helicopters were landing on the beach almost constantly. People were very anxious to leave the island as quickly as possible and were fighting for places on the boats that were ferrying survivors to Phuket. As we were not injured and didn’t have children we waited for a couple of days before leaving Phi Phi. When we left the island the Swiss lady from our trip was still missing. Her body was not discovered for some time. Steve thinks she was standing with him by the building and she did not run when he did.
Once we arrived in Phuket it was like nothing you could imagine. There were coffins lining the side of the road, the airport was chaotic with information boards for missing people, water and food being distributed and people struggling to get on flights – so many people trying to get back home. Bangkok was the same and the number of people travelling without passports made the delays longer.
Arriving home to our very relieved families was fantastic but only then did the survivor’s guilt really hit us. It took until the spring for the nightmares to stop and still to this day I can be taken back in an instant.
In the wake of the disaster we were very involved in fund raising for tsunami relief and Impact Thailand provided counselling and translation support for tourists on Phuket. In February a multi-national Impact team helped with the re-building effort. The project involved helping the Thai Royal Navy to rebuild houses for a community of ‘sea gypsies’ who saw their homes and livelihoods devastated. We also donated hundreds of toys to the community’s children.
We have kept in touch with Phi Phi resort over the years and hope to return one day. Since the Boxing Day tsunami the bridge connecting our resort and Lana Bay has been rebuilt and an early warning system installed. Tourists returned to Phi Phi fairly quickly, partly attributed to the ‘legacy market’ which mostly comprised of tourists from Scandinavia, Germany and other parts of Europe who wanted to support the recovery by making return visits as soon as possible.
Being caught up in a disaster like the Boxing Day Tsunami makes you think about life differently. You don’t worry about money, the little things, you concentrate on the big things. Everything that’s important to you is a million times more important to you. I think more about family and friends now and feel how fragile life is.