It was about 10am on the 26th December 2004. I was on Phi Phi Island, Thailand. For those who have never been there, picture paradise. I had just sat down for breakfast. I was travelling by myself and was near the end of a 9 month round the world adventure. I was wearing a pair of red boardies, had no t-shirt and my thongs (flip flops) were outside. I was carrying a small shoulder bag that held my wallet and a tube of Vegemite.
Only my two closest mates knew I was on Phi Phi. We had partied there for a week in early November. I told them I would return for Christmas and spend a month learning Muay Thai. My family thought that I was in Cambodia. I tried calling them on Christmas Day to update them on my whereabouts but they were out of range. In retrospect, it was better that they did not know where I was.
Before breakfast was served, I heard what sounded like a helicopter right above me. I heard screaming and saw people fleeing. It was chaos. My first thoughts were that this was a terrorist attack. I didn’t want to run for no reason. As I watched, I saw beach shacks being engulfed in water. I immediately started running. I didn’t know where, I was on auto pilot. Self preservation kicked in and I overtook many people dodging and weaving. This later haunted me.
There was a fork in the road and I choose left. Had I turned right I have no doubt I wouldn’t be here. I could hear the roaring power of the wave getting closer and closer. As I was running, a man on a small hill yelled out “get up here, it’s high ground.” I scrambled up the hill. When I turned around, I saw complete carnage. The main part of Phi Phi was entirely covered in water, with water receding and covering over the island like a pendulum for the next 30 minutes.
This was the first time I thought a tsunami had hit the island. People were screaming and crying. The island was now covered in debris of concrete, rubbish and corrugated metal. I heard locals on mobile phones saying another wave was coming and for everyone to get up higher. As the water receded and stopped washing back over the island, I headed down the hill. In front of me was a dead, unclothed Thai lady. This was the first dead person I had ever seen and the first of hundreds that I saw during the next 36 hours. I had reoccurring nightmares of this vision for months.
Everyone scrambled for higher ground whilst a few of us joined together to pull out those who were trapped in the rubble. We made groups of four, as this was the easiest to carry the injured and dead over the rubble. I estimated about 50 people helping to recover the injured. The rest of the island was in shock and fled to the lookout, high above Phi Phi.
Over the next few hours we dug out and pulled to safety many injured, whilst constantly dealing with the threat of another wave coming. I can remember being in the middle of the flat section, exposed and having to run over the debris to safety as apparently another wave was coming. It didn’t. We gradually gained confidence to stay in the exposed area for longer.
We found the one high hotel in Phi Phi. It was next to a grassy patch that helicopters could land on. We used doors as stretchers and would take the injured to this hotel. It was like a makeshift hospital that held many injured and dead. The hotel provided protection in case another wave came and also provided easy access to the helicopter.
Whilst carrying seriously injured people to the helicopter, we noticed some individuals with all of their luggage, trying to push in front and board the helicopter first. This was tough to deal with but we managed to install some order. People react differently in tough situations.
We searched the ruins until well after dark using torches that we found. We were exhausted. It was too dangerous to remain in the open area and I needed a rest. I headed to the top of the lookout. It seemed like everyone on the island was there, including all the animals and insects. People were screaming and crying uncontrollably. I would wake up for months after this night feeling like insects were crawling all over me and from the wailing screams in my dreams.
I didn’t sleep at all that night. I was lucky to find the only person I knew on the island, Maria. I was sure she had died as I tried searching for her earlier in the day. She was one of the lucky ones and for once had woken before 10am. We lay on the dirt, hugging to keep each other warm. Despite finding Maria, it was by far the worst night of my life.
As soon as the sun rose, I headed back down to continue looking for others. I ran into two blokes who are now great mates. We continued looking for the injured and would take them to the helicopter area for evacuation. During this time, I learned that one of them had lost his wife during the tsunami. We searched for her everywhere but could not find her. We later found out she was in the morgue in Phuket. Despite the trauma my mate was suffering, he kept it together and worked tirelessly to help others. He was a true inspiration.
Having pulled to safety many of the injured people, we began to find only dead people. One highlight of the day was digging out a young girl from sand and dirt. She had survived over night, trapped. She had amazing fight. Others that we took to safety had missing limbs, broken bones and large lacerations.
Those that were injured and trapped had now mostly been pulled to safety. Ferries began arriving during the day and evacuated people to Phuket. I knew a hidden track that went from the beach to the lookout and provided the easiest evacuation route so people did not have to climb through debris. Over the next few hours I led people down to the ferries. We were the last group to leave the island jumping on a large cargo type boat at dusk on 27th December 2004.
We were taken to Phuket and stayed in a school hall. The next day we went to a large area where embassies had been temporarily setup. We were issued with temporary passports. This was basically a piece of paper with a photo on it and a short letter asking the Thai and Australian authorities to be lenient on me and allow access back to Australia.
We did what we could for our mate who had lost his wife. His family were joining him and so we left for Bangkok aboard a flight that the Thai government paid. When we arrived we felt like zombies. Nobody had any concept of what had just happened and this made me feel terrible. I seriously struggled, even battling to have a conversation. I only had to wait 12 hours for my flight to Australia. I arrived back home on New Year’s Eve, exhausted and seriously sunburned.
It took me months to deal with the trauma from Phi Phi. Having a loving family who supported me through this was of great benefit. I dealt with the feelings I had of leaving others to die when I ran past them by justifying it with what I did after the event. Had I not got to safety, others may not have been pulled to safety.
We were on an island paradise. Half the island died on that day, approximately 2,500 people. I am one of the lucky ones and although it was a traumatic experience, it has made me stronger and changed my outlook on life. You never know what is around the corner so you may as well get the most out of life as things can change in an instant.
Next year I will return for the 10th anniversary along with my family and some of those who went through the experience. I will pay my respect to those who died and reflect on the experience, as I often do, that someone is looking out for me. Life is too short so get the most out of it.