This is an amazing first-hand account of experiencing the tsunami in Phuket, Thailand. Patrick Green, a teacher living in Singapore, spent his first Christmas break in Asia in Phuket. Below is his account of what happened, and you can see photos on his website linked at the end:
It was the last day of our Christmas trip to Phuket, Thailand. We woke up at 8:00 to small vibrations that we shrugged off as “a little earthquake” (in actuality it was the world’s fourth largest on record).
We walked down the beach to Starbucks, had breakfast, went back to the hotel, and packed our bags. At 10:00, with our bags packed, we figured we could get one more hour of sun before we needed to get a taxi to the airport, so we headed off to the beach. B in her bikini, and me in my shorts and shirt, entered the elevator on the third floor and headed down…but then the elevator stopped. In the time it took for me to hit a couple buttons, the lights went off, then came back on. As I held back Becky with my left arm (for fear that she would break her fingers with the force at which she was jamming them into the buttons) I tried to push the call button. Two seconds later, the lights came back on, which was a relief to the two other elevator passengers until I pointed out the water that was seeping in through the bottom of the elevator.
Their shouts and curses were only silenced by the inhuman, indescribable shrieks and screams that penetrated the elevator from outside. A million explanations ran simultaneously through my confused brain when suddenly the elevator thrust downward and the doors burst open—more confusion.
Becky stood, arms outstretch in the doorway, holding us all back from what seemed like a raging river running right through the middle of our hotel. I honestly can’t remember if we chose to jump out into the nearly waist high water, or were pushed out by the people behind us, but nothing that happened afterwards was nearly as scary as the 10 seconds in the elevator hearing the screams and seeing water slowly fill in the bottom. We were immediately moving swiftly inland. With a quick look around we saw people, chairs, tables, cars, trees, and all sorts of debris crashing and thrashing through the steady stream. I saw a jungle-gym in the children’s area and hollered to Becky to swim in that direction. Unbelievably, we were able to swim perpendicular to the current and climb up the structure. As we gathered our wits, the
current slowed. We were able to pull two or three other people aboard.
In the next ten minutes, as the water began to recede, the men we helped began fishing money, fake Lois Vuitton bags and t-shirts from the water. We paced our platform, sat and rested, paced some more, the entire time praying. We pulled a Thai man wearing a motorcycle helmet onto the platform. Becky asked him “what is going on?” He searched his limited vocabulary for the right words….”Big wave!” he said, before he swam off again. A day later we would joke that he was more informative than the Thai government proved to be.
The destruction was unbelievable, but worse were the continued cries from the naked mother clutching her baby, as she waded through the debris looking for her missing 5 year-old. We continued to pray. Then Becky noticed another wave coming.
I convinced the woman to climb up the jungle-gym as Becky struggled to pull-up a crazed Thai woman who seemed more intent on pulling Becky down than getting herself up. In the end, with the woman’s fingernails firmly entrenched in Becky’s biceps, B was infused with supernatural strength and reached down and grabbed the clawing lady by her belt buckle, yanking her up and in. Then we braced for the wave.
Our platform was about 6 feet in the air, the water level was at about five feet…. the oncoming wave was at least another five feet above the current water level. It hit us hard, but we held on, as it was not over our heads. The woman with child pleaded for our help, explaining that she lost her 5 year old. With her consent, I prayed for her and her son. There were people looking out their hotel windows; they told us to swim for the stairs at the front of the hotel—We didn’t.
Becky spotted another wave, and it was the biggest one yet. It was going to be WAY over our heads. We all grabbed on tight and leaned in, bracing for the wave. Becky was shouting prayers, pleading to God, demanding protection. The wave came so fast. I remember seeing it way out there, and it seems that simultaneously it hit us. At the exact moment that it struck, a palm leaf roof from a tiki-hut bar, which had been caught against the jungle gym, snapped upright and deflected the wave from hitting any of us. The wave rushed by on both sides, and over our heads by at least 6 feet. I guess there are two ways you can look at it. You can believe, I suppose, that palm leaves woven together that normally can’t hold back rain water can, in fact, hold back an (at least) 18 foot wave. Or, like me, you can believe in God, and that for some reason, even though it was undeserved at least on my part, he miraculously spared our lives.
At this point we all realized that there had to be safer places than that jungle gym, so we planned to swim 150 yards for the hotel entrance. I thought I would have to pry the (1 and a half yr old) baby from the mother, but as I moved towards her, she gladly surrendered him. We grabbed nearby floating lawn-chair mattresses and with Becky leading the way, started swimming for the main lobby. It was not too difficult at first, as the current was still moving inland. But then the water shifted and began moving back towards the ocean. I ditched the mattress as it was now working against me. The debris was thick, and I had to stop a number of times to remove the planks of wood and other garbage that collected in front of my body. At first I had the boy in my right arm, but soon the debris was coming faster and to protect the baby I had to move him to my back. I carried him like a sack of laundry, and at one point was sure that I broke his arm over my shoulder (he never cried, and in the end turned out to be just fine. Also five hours later the five year old was reunited with his mother).
Becky led us to the lobby, which was piled high with everything from furniture to motorcycles. She found the stairs, and we delivered the boy into the waiting arms of his father (the mother was not far behind). We then marched to our 3rd floor room and began packing a “survival” bag. Well, Becky did anyway; while on the jungle-gym, she had enough wits about her to come up with a list of things we would need like passports, sugar packets, water etc.. I just stared out the window at the destruction.
The next 6 hours or so were spent on the 100 degree roof after we were told another wave was on its way. No more waves came, but when people start to panic it is hard to stop. We attempted to go back to our room a number of times, but halfway down the stairs some one would get freaked out and start screaming and then everyone would run back up. Finally, at about 8 o'clock in the evening we went back to our rooms and made some phone calls. Becky wanted to get out of the hotel even though the government was suggesting we stay. She finally convinced me when I realized that I was never going to be able to sleep anyway with a view that looked out over the menacing ocean.
We headed to the street to flag down a taxi. A tuk-tuk stopped and asked where we wanted to go. I said “airport.” The driver laughed and started to drive away. Becky grabbed the door and said, “Name your price.” He deliberated and then gave us a number (2,000 Baht) that was probably half his yearly salary. I said, “No, 2,500, and you come up to our room and help carry our bags down.” He doubted our sincerity at first, but his faith grew as Becky pulled him out of the tuk-tuk. We tried to make small talk on the way to the room, but he was a bit distracted by the fact that in about an hour he was going to be able to retire and buy himself a whole fleet of tuk-tuks.
After carrying, then loading our bags into the vehicle, the driver sped towards the airport. Becky’s smile had never been so big, but my grimace matched it in size. You would understand why if you knew what a tuk-tuk looked like. The best way to describe it is that it is like a Volkswagen rabbit without the nose, and with a flat bed instead of a back seat. The flatbed is a lot like a ferris wheel cage, minus the safety bar, and on three sides minus the cage. Speeding along at 50 miles an hour in a tuk-tuk that has fewer safety features than a tin can on horrible roads that were recently made worse by a Tsunami is a bit dangerous and certainly not something I would normally undertake, but under the circumstances seemed advisable.
After spitting the mud and rocks from my mouth, we paid the driver and thanked him for the safe trip. Becky was able to switch our tickets to the earliest flight in the morning, so now we just had to figure out how to spend the next nine hours. Becky watched CNN while I attempted to sleep. In the end hers was the wiser decision as I startled awake every 10 minutes to “ANOTHER WAVE!” which usually turned out to be someone pushing their luggage down the hallway.
We boarded plane in the morning, had a great flight to Singapore, rushed home, showered and headed to the doctor incase we needed any shots. Becky slept for 14 hours straight, and so would have I had our dear friend Sherie Vekved not woken me up at 5:45 am with a couple of phone calls (that I of course thought were sirens and “another wave.”)
There are a million more smaller sidelight stories that neither of us will forget, but at this point I am too tired to write about. Also, I realize that after three and a half pages, the only one still reading this is my mom.
I left out the gory details, and honestly don’t really want to go into them. Yes there were dead people, yes there was blood all over, and yes I resorted to some of the behavior one resorts to when there is no running water, electricity or proper waste disposal mechanisms. It was ugly and awful. There are some images I will never forget, and some that I might never acknowledge again. I am left with an immense respect for the power of nature, and even more for the power of God.
Love you all
PS. There are pictures and a little video up on my website: