December 26th 2004 is a day I’ll never forget as long as I live.
It was a day when 230,000 people in South East Asia lost their lives and a day where I learned to live my own more fully than ever before and more deeply than I ever thought possible.
Here’s my story…
My family and I had been vacationing in the Australian outback for a month, living in a camper home and seeing many off-the-beaten-track places throughout the Australian East coast, going as far as Cape Tribulation in far North Queensland where Captain Cook ran aground to the Blue mountains south of Sydney.
It had been an amazing trip that included swimming in rivers and waterfalls, feeding wild Kangaroos and wallabies as they came to our caravan early in the morning and even snorkelling on and even freefall parachuting over the great barrier reef.
It had been pretty amazing but, as you can imagine, was anything but relaxing and so, as a bit of a surprise to the family I arranged to stop off in Thailand on our way home for a week of sun, sea and sand and some general chilling out.
We actually had to catch our flights from Oz on Christmas day but that was ok, we were looking forward to lazing on the beach and soaking up some sun far too much to care about spending Christmas in an airport.
We arrived in Phuket, Thailand that same evening, too late to hit the beach but were very exciting at the prospect of catching some rays and chilling out by the ocean the next and quickly got ourselves to bed after eating.
The next morning was… glorious!
We awoke to clear blue skies and tropical 34 degree temperatures and set about getting ready to get to breakfast so that we could get out to the beach.
As we were preparing, Deana (my wife) asked “did you feel that?” and described that the room felt like it had shook. I didn’t feel a thing and just put it all down to jetlag and fatigue and carried on getting ready for breakfast.
After breakfast my kids decided that they’d have an argument with each other instead of getting ready.
They were still really tired from the Australia flights and were getting snarky with each other and delaying the process of getting ready to go out. I remember at the time being REALLY annoyed at them all because I really wanted to leave for the beach.
Little did I know that their arguing would be a deciding factor in the survival of my family in the moments to come…
FINALLY we left for the beach.
It was only a 2 minute walk from our hotel, down a hill about 150 yards away and, as we walked across the hotel car park we saw a man on the beach waving to us, I supposed he was touting for us to take up one of his sunbeds though, on reflection I realised he was far too close to the road for that.
His waving got more frantic and suddenly both he and a young boy were swept up by a mass of water and washed under before our very eyes.
We turned, we ran and dragged our kids back toward the hotel running as fast as we could as the water behind literally ripped apart buildings and vehicles alike with debris being propelled up the street like missiles from the force of the water.
After a mini-panic where we got temporarily separated we finally got back to the hotel and ran straight to our rooms which were on the 3rd story and up a hill that was well above the height of the water.
We made sure our kids were safe, grabbed our first aid kit then both Deana and myself went back out to the front of the hotel and were met by scenes that demonstrated the awesome force of water. Cars and tuk-tuk taxis has been washed up the street and overturned, wood and corrugated tin were everywhere adding an element of serious danger to the multitude of people still wading chest deep in water even though the water had had to rise some 10 metres to get to this point.
I noticed a small girl, she could have only been about 7 or 8 holding onto a lamp-post about 50 metres from me. She was screaming for her parents and was clearly in shock. I waded out into the water and after wrestling my way through the debris finally got her and had to pry her from the post.
The water had stopped it’s surge and was now in the pull-back stage which, though still bad, was not as bad as the in-surge had been, though once again the missile-like debris was an issue.
I started to carry the girl back to my hotel and she went into panic calling for her mum and dad and brother, all of whom were nowhere to be seen. I feared them dead and set about calming the little girl, stroking her hair and getting her back to the car park of my hotel to where Deana and a few other guests were waiting.
Once the handover had taken place, I set out back in to the chest-deep water and noticed a man screaming frantically and pounding on the windows and doors of a mini-bus. As I got closer I noticed that his wife and children had been trapped inside and only had scant inches of air at the top. The fellow was out of his mind (as I would have been) and I had to almost fight him away from the van so that I could speak to the hysterical mother inside.
I remember trying to calm her down and eventually resorting to swearing foully and angrily at her to get her to take notice of me. Thankfully she did and regained her wits enough to listen to me as I explained to her that the doors wouldn’t open without depressurising the vehicle first. She’d have to wind the windows down.
She got it. She wound them down and her husband and I managed, with some effort, to finally get the door open and half-carry, half-drag the family over to the car park to the first aid post that my lovely Deana had somehow managed to arrange among the hotel staff and a handful of survivors.
We had brief moments to check in with each other before I turned back out into the slowly receding water and noticed a group of frantic Thais screaming at a patch of water. I got to them to ask what had happened and they explained that their grandmother had been swept into the drainage ditch beside the road and hadn’t resurfaced.
I looked into the filthy water and could see why.
The ditch had filled with debris that would have surely trapped anyone down there beyond their ability to escape. That said, as far as I knew there was someone down there that needed help and I managed to persuade someone to help me as I jumped into the ditch and somehow manhandled a moped off of the top of a pile of sunken debris.
As I did, I saw her. The old lady. She was there. Totally unconscious but there.
Neck deep in water at this time I grabbed her and simply yanked her out from under the material she was surrounded by. To this day I’m certain I caused her more injury but there was nothing more I could do. She was drowning (or perhaps already dead) and getting her out of immediate danger was far more important than doing things ‘by the book’.
I’ve got to tell you, lifting a floppy, unconscious body (albeit a small one) out of the water and up onto the bank was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done but somehow I got her into the hands of the waiting Thais who took her from me as I jumped out of the ditch.
It was clear that none of them knew about CPR as they all merely stood watching and crying so as exhausted as I was, I heaved her off the wall she was on and into the back of a flatbed truck that was still standing the right way up and began CPR clearing her airway (or so I thought) and giving her mouth to mouth and compressions.
5 minutes into it I realised I’d made a terrible mistake.
The lady wore dentures and they were in her throat and somehow, in the heat of the moment I’d done the airways clearing drills without actually clearing them from her throat. Must’ve been the stress of the moment, but even though I spent about 15 minutes on the lady I couldn’t get her to resuscitate. I’ll never know of it was because of my mistake or if she was beyond recovery before I even got to her, but that thought buzzed around in my head for a long time after the events of December 2004, thats for sure.
At some point you simply have to give up. Not because you WANT to but because you HAVE to. I was both exhausted and because I could see other people around me that I was CERTAIN I could help.
It broke my heart to jump off that truck and quit on that old lady (and my eyes are watering a little even as I write this) but I know it was the right thing to do and I hope she understands.
The next people I came upon were an Italian couple. Rather, I came upon an Italian lady who was hysterical that her husband was laying on his back in the middle of the road (in the dry section where the water hadn’t reached) having suffered what she described as a heart-attack.
He looked in a pretty bad way and so I checked his pulse, his airway and chtted with him a little to relax him then lay him on his side right there in the middle of the street (there was nowehre else to go) and put him into recovery position as I told his wife what to do to care for him. It seems that she just needed some reassurance and that once she was settled, he calmed down a fair bit too. He looked bad still but a lot better by the time I went back down the hill toward the hotel where I wanted to check on Deana and the kids.
As I went down the hill I saw a man and a woman who were beside themselves with panic. They were Swedes who told me that they’d lost their kids, a boy and a girl and were, quite understandably hysterical. I offered to help them look and asked them to describe the kids. I couldn’t place the boy from anyone I’d seen but the little girl sounded familiar…
She was with Deana, I was certain of it!
I had to practically drag them from their search as they were determined to stay in the area where they’d last seen their kids (I couldn’t blame them, I’d be exactly the same) but eventually I got them to the car park and the moment they clapped eyes on the dishevelled yet still pretty little blonde girl, I knew they had found at least part of their family.
I checked in with Deana who was shaken but doing a wonderful job of organising survivors, hotel guests and Thais alike into doing what they could for those in need of help. Her forethought in taking her amazing little first aid kit on our camping trip certainly paid dividends that day, I swear.
I went back out into the water which was now only at mid thigh height in the street and started to feel that things were getting safer.
It was that moment, just after that thought, that I honestly thought that I was going to die.
A Tuk-Tuk taxi washed up the street at about 15 miles an hour straight toward an electricity pylon that was already buzzing and crackling with electrical energy. It crashed into the pylon which teetered left and right before begining a kind of slow motion topple into the water not more than 10 feet from where I stood.
I remember wondering who would win in a battle of electricity over this much water. Would the water short-out the electricity or would it conduct it to where I was standing? I really thought I was going to die but there was nowhere else to go. I simply had to wait on my judgement. Did it end here or did I get another chance?
The pylon hit the water and threw up a huge splash of water and turbulence but no electricity stung at me. I was alive and SERIOUSLY thankful to be so, I can tell you!
I was beside the football stadium and noticed a group of people shouting and screaming and pointing up a flight of stairs so, forgetting my recent near-miss, I wade-ran over to where they were to hear that they had a friend in the stands in pretty bad shape.
They weren’t wrong.
The lady had been hit by a hurtling sheet of corrugated iron when the wave first came in and had a deep cut through her thigh down to the bone. Someone had done a pretty goond job of immediately stopping the bleeding but every time they tried to move her to safety and treatment she’d start to hemhorrage badly and began bleeding out at such a rate that few believed she could survive.
I’ve never seen a leg like that in anything but a movie. It was like it was held together with gristle and skin. I didn’t know how she’d survived that long.
I took her handbag which was still wrapped aroung her chest and shoulder and a towel that was laying around and created a tourniquet and dressing, winding the strap of the bag tigher and tighter till she screamed out in agony and practically passed out (which was kinder than having to experience the pain of being moved) and finally got the bleeding to stop.
Then I and several of the men who had gathered picked her up and manhandled her back to the car park of my hotel where Deana had found a doctor and was doing her best to help organise things so that everyone was taken care of.
I was worn out by now. Both physically and emotionally.
All throughout I’d been pretty cool and calm and collected. Shouting orders to people about what to do and how to do it. A legacy of my military past, I guess, but people tend to follow others who seem to know where they’re headed and what they’re doing, especially when in a crisis.
But now I was starting to feel the adrenaline wear off. I felt fatigue, weariness and an emotional burden that I knew would start to cloud my judgement and put myself and others in danger. This was good timing, as it seemed most of the immediate emergency had subsided and that it was the ‘mop up’ part that was kicking in.
Still, before going back in I had one last glance around what I’d come to think of as ‘my patch’ and noticed a little boy with dark hair searching an area looking for someone. I waded over in the now shin-deep water and found him to be Swedish and, except for a few cuts and grazes, pretty unharmed but looking for his family.
Mum, dad and a little blonde haired sister…
It still amazes me to this day that this family managed to get back together without fatality or serious harm. I’m so glad that they did. They seemed a lovely and caring group and something seemed so very right in the world that at least this one group were to be reunited happily after all the devastation and confusion that they had experienced.
There would be no more trips into the water that day for me.
I went to the hotel room with Deana to be with my kid who had been frantically worrying about what their Mum and Dad were doing amidst all of this carnage and destruction. (Deana had gone back to check on them several times but still, it had fallen to my older kids to look after then younger ones while we were out).
I found it hard to ‘come down’ for quite some time after that. I remembered the bodies floating up the street, young and old, men, women, children and even a baby. I remembered the old lady with the dentures and I remembered how it felt to come close to that death by electricity.
I definitely shed a few tears that evening, for sure.
The next day, while everyone else was lining up for emergency flights home, we took our kids down to the beach. We didn’t want to embed a lasting memory of fear in their minds by just running away after the incident. We wanted to show them that life goes on and that, generally, there was nothing to fear.
I’ll never forget being down on the beach that day after the Tsunami amid the devastation and the destruction with debris buried throughout the beach and watching my 14-year old son Reece start to tug pieces of beach chairs and umbrellas out of the sand. He didn’t say anything at all, just started picking up what he could pick up and started making a pile.
“What are you doing son?” I asked and he answered something that will live with me forever.
“Someone’s got to pick up the mess Dad” he said, as if it were just another day.
And of course, it was.
It was just that, another day.
Something had happened, something that would change people’s lives forever but it was over and the only real choice left was to clear up the mess and start making things better.
Reece’s small gesture seemed to have an amazing effect on the other people on the beach too. After seeing him, then the rest of my family piling up debris, EVERYONE around us started to do the same. Working silently, smiling occasionally but playing some small part in moving away from the problem and becoming part of the solution.
Reece’s small, simple yet beautiful gesture was enough to start the ripples in the pond that pretty soon spread along the entire length of the beach as others started to clear debris too. Truly amazing to watch, experience and be a part of and a reminder that a small action by a single person can be the inspiration to move many others into action.
We stayed in Phuket after that.
We had the opportunity to fly home but we stayed and gave both our custom and our support to the people who needed us there rather than running away to the safety of our own homes and, as a result, we learned as a family the power of facing fear and overcoming it.
Lessons I’ll never forget.
Why am I sharing this now?
I truly don’t know. I do a lot of things purely on instinct since that day and just feel that now, after all these years it’s the right time to share the story.
Over the years since that amazing and terrible day (yes, it was both to me) I’ve come to appreciate several things more deeply than ever.
I’ve come to realise that time is indeed short and that we never know what’s around the corner so we need to enjoy every minute we’ve got by being the person we most want to be and doing the things we most want to do rather than stressing and fearing over what MIGHT or might not happen.
In mere seconds people had their families ripped apart and I was lucky enough to escape with mine completely intact and not a day goes past where I take that for granted
I’ve come to realise that courage is a choice rather than something you’re born with or skills you learn. For much of my time in the water I wasn’t courageous at all. I was merely on automatic pilot doing what I could do for the people around me. If you believe you can do something and that you’ll be fine then there’s no need for courage, right?
At the moment I’d felt true fear, however, the equation turned and each action I took from that moment on was an exercise in courage.
When I thought I was going to die and kept on I was being courageous but that was but a small part of my time in the water. There were people far, far more courageous than me. People who exuded terror so palpable that you could feel it just by moving close to them yet who, some how, some way, were able to continue to help people.
THAT is courage!
I’ve come to realise that sometimes your best ISN’T good enough… …and that that’s ok.
You can’t solve every problem, you can’t rescue everyone who needs rescuing. But in each case, you can still sleep well enough at night if you can hand on your heart say “I did the best I could”
I’ve come to realise that the thing we think are so big and important in our lives, the things that generate the most stress, are rarely life and death. They’re bills, and arguments and hurt feelings but generally (and hopefully!) no-one is going to die as a result of them.
They’re not life and death but we ACT like they are. Facing life and death and seeing it firsthand in others reminds me not to let non-life-and-death matters of daily life feel like they’re more important than they are.
I’ve come to realise that the lessons we teach our kids about how to deal with things when they go wrong is very important indeed.
I truly believe that had we simply got on a flight and left Thailand in panic that my children would have carried that lesson of ‘feel fear and run’ with then through to other areas of their lives. By staying we showed that fear can be and overcome.
By going back over 50 times over the last 12 years we’ve definitely hammered that message home : )
I’ve come to realise that even small acts can be courageous and life-changing when applied with a good heart and in the right environment.
Reece’s small act of tidying up the beach was a great lesson that the ripples in the pond can be started by anyone, anywhere who has an idea and follows it up with action, no matter how small.
I’ve come to realise that I love my family with all my heart. They are my pride and joy and I’m so very fortunate that we were all saved from harm when so many others were not. I try not to take that for granted (though I’m sure I do at times) and think often of that day when I was given my second chance with them all.
I’ve come to realise that sometimes, just sometimes, serendipity or plain old luck comes into play when you least expect it.
It was lucky that I was in that exact place at that exact time with the knowledge, skills, abilities and physical strength to do some of the things I did that day. If I had the skill but not the strength then more people would have died. Similarly if I had the strength but less skill.
It boggles the mind to think about it 🙂
It was also amazing luck that the Swedish family all got back together unharmed in the midst of everything that happened. If you could have seen the area, you’d know how amazing a feat that truly was.
In the end, I’ve made friends with most of the memories of Boxing Day 2004. I saw a lot of things that stayed in my memory for ages after the event but have never really been one to carry around excess baggage, instead choosing to either address it or let it go.
Now, most of that day is relegated to a memory with little emotion attached to it (though I was actually surprsed at the feelings that surfaced as I wrote about the old Thai lady) and, if anything, an immense gratitude that I was fortunate enough to be there at that time, in that place with the qualities I possessed as a trained soldier and the fitness and strength of a fitness professional.
Yes, I feel fortunate.
I hope that this not-so-little story serves to help you look at any problems you’re facing right now in a different way. To seek the solutions within the problems. To remember that they’re not all life and death and that even those that are can teach us something… if we’re ready to learn from them.
I hope the story serves you in some way.
Truth, joy and love
P.S – Since I first wrote this original story, the Tsunami came back into my life in unexpected ways and with unexpected gifts.
Just under 4 years ago I started to have vivid flashbacks of my time in the water, seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling all the experiences that I experienced but didn’t truly FEEL on that day.
For 3 of the 4 years my sleep dropped down to about 15-20 hours of sleep per WEEK and created thoughts and feelings that were so alien to me that I thought I was literally going insane, bursting into tears at work, mounting the kerb with my car and imagining seeing dead people almost everywhere I went.
It was truly distressing for a time, I can tell you!
Yet just like the tsunami experience itself, the PTSD brought an invitation to see, experience and feel life from a new perspective, allowing me a deeper understanding of stress, threat and the neuroscience of human behaviour that I simply would never have understood had it not been for my experience of madness and insanity.
I now know, (I mean literally KNOW rather than understand it intellectually) that none of us are ever truly as stuck as we feel, no matter how bad our circumstance, but rather, that we’re presented with situations where sometimes we get LOST.
Everyone gets lost sometimes. But as soon as we re-orientate with where we most want to end up and START taking steps in that direction, we have this amazing capacity to get FOUND again too.
I am truly grateful that both the tsunami AND the PTSD that followed came into my life.
I am a better man because of both.