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Surviving Christmas 2004 in Phuket
It is already 5 months ago and many people might have forgotten because it is not a hot topic in the news anymore but for me the memory is still alive. On Sunday, December 26 2004, a magnitude 9.3 earthquake, the greatest quake in 40 years, struck about 150 km off the Northwest coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra in Indonesia. This earthquake generated a giant tsunami that caused destruction in 11 countries bordering the Indian Ocean. One of those countries was Thailand, where I was spending a short Christmas holiday in Phuket.
We have been living in Tsu, Japan from 2003-2004 and after my newbuilding at Universal shipyard was completed, me and my family split different ways for a short while. It was at that time already confirmed I would have to move to Ulsan in Korea to start my next newbuilding projects in February 2005 and I had to return to my office in Singapore until then.
As my wife was pregnant and with a 4-year-old daughter, it was not the best idea to move my family including our personal effects back to Singapore for only 4 months. Therefore my wife went from Nagoya back to Nagasaki to stay at her parent s place for the next 4 months, while myself went back to my Anglo Eastern office in Singapore.
I have been scuba diving for the past 5 years, and thanks to my employment in the Far East I have been able to dive in various places all over Asia.
If you are a Scuba diver, Singapore is a great place to live, located in the center of tropical Asia, with dive spots located virtually on your doorstep: Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand to name just a few, all within one hour flight or ferry.
With my family not around it was a great opportunity to spend more time diving, so I was planning to do so on every occasion I got.
With tropical temperatures all year-round and a recommendation from a friend I thought Phuket would make a nice Christmas dive trip for 4 days and since I had not been there before, the choice was quickly made. After an hour or two web-browsing, my flight, hotel and dive operator were booked - confirmed and paid, all with just a few mouse clicks (and a credit card!)
Phuket is a popular dive destination in Thailand; it attracts divers from all over Asia as well as Europe. I was diving with DiveAsia, a well-known operator run by Germans. So off I went on the 24th of December and took 50 minutes Silk air flight from Singapore to Phuket. On arrival and after a short taxi drive from the airport to the beach areas, I checked in my hotel, Karon Beach resort, and had a quick look around. Nice place, located virtually on the beach, with the swimming pool and all apartments facing the pristine white sand of the Karon coastline.
A short visit to Dive-Asia s office close by in order to register, do with all the necessary paperwork & payment and we were all set up to go diving the next morning.
DiveAsia had put up a nice schedule together for us for the next few days.
On the 25th we went to Raja Yai , it is about 1 hour South of Phuket and is a beautiful tropical island with a lot of good hard coral reefs, colorful shallow water coral gardens and sometimes an opportunity for some enjoyable drift diving. An easy start for a dive week. DiveAsia has a well-equipped dive boat that can take about 40 people and could anchor in the shallow part of the bay. We had one dive in the morning and another in the afternoon.
Visibility was not great but nevertheless an enjoyable dive, we got to see lots of fish; nudibranches, parrotfish, bass, moray eels and much more. We were about 40 min in the water. After the morning dive, Thai lunch was prepared on board and the mood was good, sharing a good meal and having a good time. Just like in the HHI foreigner s compound, there was a mix of various nationalities present: Brits, French, Germans, Singaporeans, Swedes, and Thai, just to name a few.
Our 2nd dive was in the same area on the other side of the bay and was an equally pleasant easy dive.
After our trip back to shore all of us went back to our hotels and prepared for our Christmas Eve. My hotel package included a Christmas dinner and special events with great food and wine. Sharing this with friends at the beachfront in open air, made this a very special night.
The next morning on the 26th of December at 8 Am we were off again for our 2nd day dive trip, this time we had planned a wreck dive on the King Cruiser ,
The King Cruiser is an 85 m catamaran passenger ferry, that strayed of course on the 4th of May 1979 and hit Anemone Reef, ripping one of her twin hulls open. Subsequently the vessel sunk with no loss of life. With its multiple decks, great open passages and depths between 12 and 30 meters the "King Cruiser" is an ideal wreck dive site for all levels of divers.
We arrived at the dive site around 10:00 Am and prepared to start our dive. The weather was nice, clear blue sky and warm, although the sea was quite choppy. On the way from Phuket to the dive site our diving boat was rolling and pitching, not too much, but enough to make some people uncomfortable (Sea sick.) We did not much think of it at that time, after all we were about 15-20 miles off the coast, and the water can be rough in open sea. After entering the water we gathered to prepare for our decent. Current was strong even on the surface but after we all got hold of the buoy line we started our decent to the bottom. Visibility was ok until 10 meters but then rapidly got worse and at the bottom the visibility was less than 1-meter. Our plan was to make a tour around the bottom hull of the wreck; Stern-part, propeller and then gradually ascent to the upper decks and bridge before ascending to the surface. We tried to stay close together but with the increasing current and with poor visibility we quickly got lost of the group. My buddy and me had to hold hands to stay together and finally got our orientation back when we went up to about 18mtr. Due to swimming against the high current I became exhausted and used up quite a lot of my air. After we got grouped again, I signaled the dive master that I had to abandon the dive as I was getting low on air and still had to make a 3 min safety stop. We decided it was better to stay together and abandon the dive as a group instead of me bailing out alone. We started our ascent, did our 3 min safety stop and surfaced around 11:00 Hr We got hold of the dive boat again, got on board and put all our gear of to rest. This was NOT a good dive, exhausted, low on air, with virtually no visibility below 15 m and been separated form the group.
I was disappointed because I expected a lot from this dive and wreck dives are my favorites.
We all rested for a while and got our lunch on board.
Somewhat between 11:00 & 12:00 the captain got a call on VHF that from the Phuket port authorities to inform us that a giant wave had struck on the coastline of Phuket resulting in extensive damage and that all next dive schedules were to be canceled until further notice. At first we were in disbelief, after all, the weather was nice and we didn t see big waves. Little did we know!
I am not sure about the exact timings but we must have been under water at about 30 m depth when the Tsunami passed over our heads striking the coastline. Suddenly it became clear why we experienced extreme currents and such poor visibility. Normally the conditions to dive the King Cruiser are much better during that time of the year.
However, A tsunami wave only gets bigger when the shore gets shallower, near the coastline. In the open sea a Tsunami is not much more than a ripple. That is why nobody, including our boat captain noticed anything extraordinary.
By VHF, little by little information started to seep through and we slowly started to realize the scope of the disaster. At the same time many of us were still in disbelief because we didn t notice any BIG wave and otherwise the weather was fine. People on board tried calling ashore to contact their family but we were still out of mobile phone range.
We got instructed from port control to sail back to the harbor but were told do drift outside in deeper water, as there was fear that more waves would strike. So all afternoon we were just sitting there drifting and waiting until finally a patrol boat from the Thai Navy came to pick us all up. We all climbed on board the Navy boat and went inside Phuket harbor to put us ashore. Our diving boat was not allowed to go in and had to stay outside together with its crew.
We still didn t know what to expect, but that changed when we came closer to the shoreline!
For those familiar with Phuket and Challong Bay tourist pier, know that there is a big concrete pier that can accommodate bigger boats along with smaller wooden piers and platforms were speedboats and smaller yachts are moored. These speedboats are popular for day trips to Phi Phi and other island getaways.
We noticed on our return that almost all the boats had disappeared! Most of the wooden pier and boat mooring platforms were also gone. We saw several small boats capsized completely or partially, close to the shoreline. Some of the speedboats were lying on the beach and one of the souvenir shops got a 20ft speedboat inside his shop!
DiveAsia had transportation ready to bring us back to our hotels (or what was left of it) as we couldn t stay near the coastline fearing for more waves.
On the way to our hotels the full scope of the disaster became clear: Devastation everywhere! Debris scattered all over the roads, broken glass, tumbled structures and vanished walkways. The main road along the coastline was filled-up with beach sand about 30 cm thick, making it very difficult to drive, (Unless you are driving a SUV!) When I got of to my hotel, the lobby was wet and dark, packed with people & suitcases. There was no more power, no water or telephone. The Hotel staff was extremely happy to see me, they hugged and kissed me as I went in, (Never have been welcomed back in any hotel like this before!). They knew I went off diving in the morning and they suspected I was either missing or dead. They told me that all the guest had to check out and they will try to assist in finding other lodging as best as they could. The damage to the hotel was too much to be able to let the guest stay safely and comfortably. So everybody packed their belongings, or what was left of it, put on a brave face and moved out, Obviously finding another place was very difficult as many hotels along the coast were severely damaged and everybody was trying to get another place to sleep. I was lucky, one of the other divers was staying inland in a smaller hotel nearby and I was able to check-in there, but many other guests had to get into other cities and downtown Phuket trying to get a place to sleep. The Club-Med resort on Kata Beach was virtually completely wiped away and the guest got refuge in the Buddhist temple across the road. I was lucky that my room in my hotel was all the way at the end of the building on the second floor, so my room didn t sustain any damage and my personal effects were all still there, undamaged. Many others weren t so lucky. It is nice to have a room on the 1st floor with a terrace, wide glass doors facing the swimming pool adjacent to the sea . except when you have a tsunami striking!
It is not a pretty sight to see broken glass windows, blood stains in the corridors, people s belongings, bed sheets and furniture, tourist brochures and passports, empty suitcases scattered all over the pool area, ground floor and beach. You can imagine the mess your are in when on a holiday, in a foreign country without your passports, flight ticket, money or credit cards, everything just flushed away. Thousands of people have been trough this nightmare.
The breakfast restaurant located next to the pool area was in the same condition, definitely no breakfast here on the following day!
I collected all my stuff and had no other choice to move out.
I moved-in another small 2 star hotel, there was no damage, but complete chaos! Overwhelmed by new guest, struggling and trying to accommodate as much homeless new customers as they could.
I still had not been able to inform my family or my office in Singapore that I was ok. My mobile phone battery went down just when I needed it most. (they always do) and with no power, telephone or Internet in my first hotel, I was not able to contact the outside world. There was 1 single international phone in the hotel lobby in my new hotel, but you can imagine that it was occupied most of the time, Had to queue-up for an hour or-so, before I finally got hold of my wife to tell her that I was fine. My colleagues in the Singapore office feared the worst, desperate attempts to call and SMS to my mobile phone were to no avail as my battery was dead. They were relieved as well that I was ok.
Needless to say that there was no more diving the next days, Clean-up and contingency planning was in progress all over the place. I was surprised by the prompt response from the Thai government. The Thai army was employed with cranes and bulldozers to clear the beaches and streets with heavy equipment on the next day.
Countless police officers were posted on the beach coastline to keep watch in case dead bodies were washed up ashore.
Many people went missing, and the message boards in the hotels were covered with notes and pictures from friends, desperate for information or news. I was touched by the fact that people of all nationalities, race or religion were helping and assisting each other whenever they could, sharing their belongings to others that had nothing left.
Needless to say that there was not much of holiday mood left with so much of devastation and human grief.
2 Days after the disaster I left Karon Beach for Phuket airport on the 28th December to get back to Singapore. There was complete chaos at the airport. Thousands of people trying to get home with whatever belongings they had left to carry. People wearing just a short and T-shirt and two different kinds of shoes, because that was all they had left. The airport main lounge looked like a field hospital in a war zone. People in wheelchairs, walking with stitches, plaster cast limbs, arms, scarred, torn and stitched cuts and bruises. I found myself stared-at because I still had all my luggage and didn t had a single bruise or cut.
In the airport I spoke with a German guy traveling back home without his 2 friends, because they were still missing. He went to see a temporary morgue that the government had set up for people to identify missing persons. He didn t find his friends, but told me that looking at hundreds of dead bodies lined up for identification was the most gruesome experience of his lifetime, and I can imagine.
Arriving back in Singapore had put me back into normal life, but I have been thinking a lot of all those who suffered. The Tsunami was the main topic on all news channels but somehow I didn t want to see it.
Although I didn t witness the striking of the giant wave directly, (as it all happened above our heads), we all experienced the aftermath of the disaster all too well.
The end-balance of fatal casualties including missing is somewhat between 300,000 350,000, it can be even more as in some area s they simple don t know how many people are (still) missing.
Thinking of it, statistically speaking I should be dead, and made me realize how vulnerable life is. Things could have turned out differently for us, if we would have been diving Phi-Phi islands on the 26th instead of the King Cruiser, I would probably not be here to tell the story. Until today many divers diving in that area are still unaccounted for. I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time.
This experience has made me treasure life more than I did before and left me with new friends for a lifetime. Thailand is a great country with lovely people, they will recover without doubt, and I definitely will visit Phuket to dive again. The devastation of property, hotels, roads and facilities is something that can be rebuild, sadly, the loss of many lives cannot be replaced.
I will never forget the view of a picture posted on the hotel message board of a 3 year-old helpless girl that survived the Tsunami, with both parents missing, feared dead.
I wish strength to all those who have lost loved ones and trying to get on with their lives.
Alain Van Thillo