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DECEMBER 26, 2009 7:22PM

Remembering the Tsunami of 2004

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My friend said that if there is any lesson to be learned from a disaster it is that of living in the moment, for the moment. 

He said that grace is present in the most disastrous and painful situations.  We need to recognize grace and use the grace for good.  For me to have been present to experience the tsunami was a result of grace and privilege.

These five years later, I believe it.  It has been a gift in my life, though not an easy one to receive. 

Thank you for holding space with me today on the anniversary. 


Here is an article that I wrote just after the tsunami.  It was published January 11, 2005 in the Asheville Citizen Times in North Carolina, and also in the Whitewater Register in Wisconsin. 

"Every day since December 26, at least one person has told me how lucky I am to be alive. When the tsunami hit Thailand, I was scuba diving South of Koh Phi Phi near Phuket.

I came to Thailand in mid-November with my boyfriend with the hope of spending the winter here. We wanted to see and experience everything. We arrived on Koh Phi Phi around November 20th. It was where the best scuba diving met the best rock climbing.

We stayed in a tiny room on the first floor of the Luk Guesthouse. It barely fit a double bed and mini dresser. In that European paradise, it was a steal at $225 a month.

On the morning of the tsunami, people felt a tremor around 8:00. I didn’t notice. I was on the telephone with my family in Wisconsin, wishing them all a Merry Christmas.

The morning was typical in almost every way. We went to the local dive sites. We saw leopard sharks and lion fish, moray eels and trigger fish. When the other pair of divers left to do their safety stop and surface, my dive buddy and I stayed down for another fifteen minutes. I wanted to surface then as well. It was unusual that I felt ready to surface before I was low on air, but I attributed it to a big Christmas celebration the day before.

The dive had been a safe one and not remarkable up until that point. The current seemed to be growing stronger. I signaled to my dive buddy, a seventy year old German man named Guenther, to turn around and swim with the current. It wasn’t that unusual to be turned back by current, as we were coming to another side of the island. We floated another ten minutes at 36 feet. Then Guenther signaled that he was low on air. I signaled that we would swim at 15 feet for our standard three minute safety stop. Then I signaled that we should turn around again because the current had become too strong from the other direction.

This was highly unusual, but we were headed up to our safety stop and then the surface anyway. As we attempted to slowly ascend to fifteen feet, the current became very strong. We were pushed away from the coral wall toward the open sea. I motioned to Guenther to swim toward the coral again. In the next moment, we nearly ran into it. We were thrown almost to the surface, too high for a safety stop. But before we broke the surface, we were rolled back down. Guenther grabbed hold of my hand then and I signaled up.

We had had a safe dive. We didn’t technically need a safety stop. It was just a good habit. I began to kick hard toward the surface. Guenther was attached to me, but below me. Waves were crashing on the surface and there were now at least twenty feet of whitewater above us. We were being sucked further down. I fully inflated by Buoyancy Control Device. It should have more lift than a life jacket. I kicked as hard as I could. I was breathing heavily, half air and half water it seemed. It was probably less than a minute before we were thrown to the surface after that, but it felt like an eternity.

I spit out my regulator and gulped air. I had cramps in both of my calves. I told Guenther to inflate his BCD. All of the dive boats were sitting together between the two islands of Bida Nok and Bida Nai. I signaled okay to the boat and started to swim away from the sheer wall of rock. I still thought it could have been surge, so I tried to make small talk, remarking on the two lion fish we saw before we tried to surface.

The surface current was very strong, but the captain anticipated it and we each clung to a ladder. I only removed one fin before I climbed up to safety. I told my Swedish friend, “That was the scariest dive I’ve ever done.” Then I helped Guenther get out of his gear. I changed my tank for a second dive, though I was still shaking from the first.

I talked with the two instructors on the boat. They had felt a strong current but had not been thrashed under water. It was quickly decided that we would not do another dive.

We were one of the only dive boats to return to Ton Sai bay on Koh Phi Phi at that time. The Thai radio was buzzing, but none of the divers understood what it meant. As we got closer to the island, a river of rubble met us. At first it was a game. The captain found a stereo speaker, pulled it onto the boat, and rinsed it with fresh water. We saw single fins and gas cans. Did a Longtail boat sink?

The shore looked strange, but we weren’t close enough to see any details for awhile. There was no one on the pier. The water was rising and falling at least six feet on the pier every few minutes. As we floated closer, we saw roofs collapsed. It looked almost as if there were water coming out of the second story of a hotel. Then we saw strong longshore currents and confused seas that carried more debris into the water.

It smelled like gasoline and something else. Soon our boat was surrounded by rubble. Someone spotted a dead child floating in the water. The captain brought the body onboard. We started to put the pieces together. It looked like a tidal wave, but those come from earthquakes… We didn’t have any information.

We saw two more Thai infants floating in the water. We didn’t take them onboard. We couldn’t guess how many more there would be. We eventually reached the pier. We left everything on the boat and tried to make our way back to the dive shop.

The roof of the tourist police building sat in the water. The streets between the pier and the shop were unnavigable. They were blocked by debris or gas leaks. We saw two more dead people covered with a blanket outside of PP Princess Hotel. Tourists were still coming out looking dazed. Someone told us that people were gathering at Phi Phi Cabana, to the West.

We went back to the pier. We couldn’t get anywhere by land. The water was still moving. But there was nothing to protect us at the pier. We had to walk into the water, first at our ankles, then suddenly at our waists. We climbed up a fallen concrete walkway. People saw us and started screaming, “Run! You have to get up!” Another wave was expected at 1:00pm. I looked at my watch. Five minutes.

We had scarcely reached the third floor of Phi Phi Cabana when we had to move because of a gas leak. The new haven had been the restaurant on the second floor of another building. Some people climbed immediately to the roof. This was the triage area on the West side of the island. Friends and family had wrapped torn sheets around victim's deep gashes. A handful of people lay by themselves, covered with blankets or sheets with water next to them. I offered them water and took in my surroundings.

Rumors flew. Another wave was coming. A rescue boat was coming. People yelled for the doctor. Seven of us used a lawn chair to carry a woman with a broken ankle toward the beach to wait for the boat. But without any sign of the boat, we didn't want her too near the beach yet.

Walking onto open ground made me want to vomit and defecate at the same time. When we returned to that makeshift ward, I looked for the doctor and offered to help organize. Later I learned that the "doctor" was a doctor of psychiatry with a broken toe of his own. He asked me to check around and make sure everyone was still responsive. That's how I started doing my own triage, assessing the condition of people so that when a doctor was delivered from the mainland, I knew whom he should attend to first.

Dr. Alon brought a few gloves of his own. A Japanese woman and I hunted for supplies. We found a bag of cotton balls, a little antiseptic, and some more sheets to tear up—next to nothing. The doctor rinsed his gloves with water between patients, tied the fingers when they got holes, and changed them only when they fell apart.

A rescue boat did come. Able-bodied people helped to load approximately 35 of the most injured people onto one boat. We could hear a helicopter, but people said that it couldn't land.

Rumors started again. Another wave was coming. Only this time the water was moving. My body felt the familiar urge to purge itself of everything. Suddenly everyone started moving quickly. They were all going to the mountain. Even victims that had been lying on the restaurant floor were hobbling toward the mountain over the debris.

There was not another boat coming and no more supplies to help anyone. At best, I could hold their hands and get washed away with them. I couldn't help anyone else if I were hurt. That's one of the first rules of emergency response. I looked around but couldn't find either doctor. A German woman was calling my name, saying that I should come to the mountain with her. Fear overtook me, and my logic seemed sound. I escaped with everyone to the mountain.

Some people stopped at the base of the mountain. I questioned whether they would be safe there if another wave came.

From the top of the ridge I watched the water get sucked out toward sea again. The small wave that came afterward wasn't even visible from the mountain top. So we continued to anticipate a wave.

At dusk, I made a decision to sleep in the forest. Twenty-six Europeans stayed as well. We heard helicopters and boat horns during the night but didn't know what it meant. In the darkness, I tried not to think about my boyfriend, Clayton. "He's strong and resourceful," I told myself. "If anyone survived, it was him. He's probably helping people on the other side of the island."

At daybreak we returned to flat ground. The North side of the island had been swept clean with only palm trees and concrete foundations of bungalows remaining. The South side was piled high with debris. Looking across the water in morning light, islands in the distance appeared postcard perfect again. But in front of me on the beach, rescue workers wrapped a body in a sheet.

I searched for an hour for Clayton, picking my way over corrugated metal roofing and avoiding bodies. When I described him, people I didn't know assured me that he was alright. With every reassurance, I only became more panicked. Why couldn't I find him? We finally found each other at the helicopter pad. His face reflected the weariness and loss of all those around him. We held each other and cried with relief as another helicopter rose, stinging our legs with sand.

Clayton had been at the entrance to our guesthouse when the wave came. He heard screaming, saw a trickle of water in the street, and bolted up the stairs with our landlord. Water and debris trapped his ankle under the top stair. He pulled it out forcefully, which left him with a sprained ankle and a swath of missing skin. Instantly, he was swimming in water up to his neck, holding onto the roof. The guesthouse owner was on top of the roof calling for his wife and screaming, "Why is God doing this to me?"

The guesthouse landed in a reclaimed water reservoir 150 feet from where it started. The second floor was visible, but in ruins. The bottom floor, where our room had been in the back corner, was either fully submerged or washed away. Four days later they found 99 bodies in that reservoir.

After the two waves, Clayton helped carry people to the viewpoint. Then he came looking for me. Overnight, he carried more people to the helicopter pad. The next day, I think I noticed his sprained ankle before he did.

Nurses had been flown in at first light. And there was food and water. We continued to help, but in limited ways. His ankle was badly swollen and I wouldn't let him out of my sight. We threw down curtains and umbrellas from the hotel to create shade for people waiting for the helicopter. We carried water to a location where others were supposed to be. During that time, people started to panic and run again. Phuket had been hit by another wave. Again we went to higher ground.

We watched the nurses take off in a helicopter. I asked a Longtail boat driver to take me to the dive boat to retrieve my gear. Then we boarded a boat to Krabi.

In Krabi, the shore was teeming with people waiting for a glimpse of their loved ones. Thai immigration offered us more food, toothpaste, and free international phone calls. With tears in her eyes, one of the immigration officers offered us her home for the night. Instead, a nearby hotel hosted us for free. Twice during the night, I woke up in a panic. I flipped on the light and hastily dressed before I realized that I was safe.

In the morning, I looked for a motorcycle taxi to take us back to immigration. I started to cry when I explained that we had no money to pay him. I told him that I could walk, but he took both of us without any questions.

Everyone suggested that we go to Bangkok to get new passports, so we waited at the airport for a free standby flight. There was more food, international phone calls, and even free email. My eyes were glued to CNN, where I finally understood the scope of the tsunami.

At 3:00am in Bangkok, Rafael met us at the gate. The U.S. Embassy gave us a three-star hotel with a huge breakfast buffet for two nights. Not only did we get new passports, but we were given new clothes and toiletries as well. We stayed with a friend we had met on Phi Phi who lived in Bangkok. Everywhere we went people were overwhelmingly kind to us.

Over the next week we donated blood and volunteered at a call center while we tried to figure out how to return to the South. Our families sent us money and we found size 14 shoes for Clayton. They were only a little bit too small.

After my general aches and pains went away, I continued to have pain in my ribs, neck, and collarbones. I was treated for Decompression Sickness in a hyperbaric chamber and have felt better ever since.

Now we are back in Phuket. We helped to purchase and deliver toys, household supplies, and food to families in Krabi and Ko Lanta. We will deliver clothing to the Khoa Lak area in the coming days and survey more areas for need. We are working with a team whose leaders were also on Koh Phi Phi during the tsunami. Though difficult at first, being back here to help is the best thing I can do for others as well as myself."

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I was diving in near Phi Phi a month before the tsunami. When it occurred I frantically sought assurance that the dive guides were safe. Fortunately, they were. Your post brought back the emotion I felt at the time. Thanks for helping me remember.
My bro was headed there, his normal retreat after his working season in Alaska just ended, but I said "spend the holiday with us playin'/divin' in Cozumel"... Life's a strange thing... Thanx for the flashback Karen... Great post! RRR
Very interesting post! Thanks for sharing your experience.
Fascinating insight. Thank you.

Having gone through a flood myself, which is no where near the widescale devastation and loss of life of a tsunami, I know the first hand experience of the confusion and devastation upon rebuilding. Thank you for putting a window back into this world.
That's an incredible story. I had no idea it was possible to survive something like that being in the water, but I'm very glad you did. And your boyfriend too.

Having been in Manhattan on Sept 11 and then in New Orleans a few weeks after Katrina, your descriptions of the aftermath brought back a lot of the sense of the utter weirdness of being in the midst of that level of destruction and how unreal everything seems. Rated.
Amazing story, superbly told. Thanks for sharing, Karen.
Outstanding recollection of a tragic event . . . thank you for sharing it with us.
Oh my God. This is an amazing story. I admire your courage and, as someone else said, your grace. Thank you for sharing this.
A sobering reminescence. I'm grateful you lived to tell the story and serve a purpose afterwards in helping many. An awesome tragedy; awesome story.
Good God. That must have been so awful. Wonderful post. Thank you for sharing and I'm so glad you found your boyfriend!
A truly chilling story. To be in the water at that time? Mother of God. Truly chilling.
An utterly amazing account of the disaster. It is a grave thing to have been spared in such a massive disaster.
Now that is what I call close.

Question for you. If you did all your safety stops how did you end up with the bends? How deep for how long was your dive or was this something that was caused from the wave passing over top of you?
What unimaginable tragedy. That you and Clayton stayed on to assist others says a lot about you.
I am deeply grateful for your supportive comments. It is still a powerful experience for me. Thank you for reading, and for holding space so the experience can live-on in some connecting way.

I am continually surprised by how many people knew someone involved or were somehow affected by the tsunami themselves.

I do think that we all eventually have an experience that takes us to a place of shattered humility or shameful trauma or, at best, experience life- affirming and re-framing catalysts. I think we are all connected in this way.

Monsieur Chariot: It's not a grave thing at all to be spared. It felt grave for five years. Now I know that it is a lucky thing to be directly involved in an experience that has touched so many lives. Hopefully, the compassion and perspective that I gained from this experience will continue to deepen and influence my life positively.

And thank you all for helping me to find my way to your blogs by interacting here.

Happy New Year!
Guys, you should really respect her blog. If you have problems with each other, you can always PM.
Seriously insensitive. My family are LDS missionaries and we spent a year in Thailand after the tsunami helping people rebuild their homes. That was crazy seeing the damage in person. The Thai people are so friendly.