Friday, August 12, 2016

An introduction to the Tsunami Survival Site

Hello. Thank you for visiting the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami Survivor website.

Each individual who survived the tsunami has chosen how to live their life forward. For me, I chose to tell the stories of survivors so that family, students and the world could understand what happened, what it felt like, and what it mean to survive.

If you are a reader, you can find many survivor stories on this site, starting with my own over on the right hand side.

If you are a survivor, please feel free to reach out to me to share your story of survival – both on the day of the tsunami, and the years to come.

A good way to understand the enormity of the event is to first watch this video from the Thompson Reuters Foundation and Media Storm to get a sense of what happened, where and how fast. You can then read more blog posts and stories to learn of what happened.

Please keep the survivors in your thoughts.

Rick Von Feldt. Tsunami Survivor.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

On A Boat during the Tsunami

Editor Note: This is a transcript sent to me by Karsten Aichholz, a expat and entrepreneur living in Bangkok. Karsten has a website and podcast about living in Bangkok. Karsten interviewed Daniel Kvarnemo, a then boat excursion guide in Thailand. Today, Daniel is a Social Studies and Swedish teacher in Bangkok.

This transcript is an excerpt of an audio interview with Daniel Kvarnemo who at the time of the tsunami was a guide on a snorkeling excursion boat for tourists in Krabi.

You can listen to the audio version of the interview on the Surviving a Tsunami episode of the Brewed in Bangkok podcast. The interview was conducted by Karsten Aichholz

Podcast featuring Daniel Kvarnemo on being on a boat during a tsunami

Karsten: Where were you at the time?

Daniel: I was working at this company where we were taking people out on a boat and I was one of the two staff in the water. I and a few of the guests were in the water. And then my captain, he starts honking the horn on the ship. I was wondering: Okay what's going on now? But they had mentioned that there might be a bit of current in the water, so I thought okay maybe there's too much current in this part of the sea and we're going to go somewhere else. So I gather up all the tourists and everybody gets up on the boat and they were kind of not too pleased about not being allowed to be in the water but we said oh we're going to go somewhere else.

Karsten: What do you mean they were not too pleased?

Daniel: They were like "well we paid for this and we want to be here". We still didn't know what was going on.

Karsten: So the tourist were like "We paid for this, we want to be in the water?"

Daniel: Yeah, but at this time nobody knew anything of what was happening. So we get on the boat, the captain said we need to go quickly because boats are sinking in Phuket. I'm thinking: That's hours from here, that has nothing to do with us. But he was experienced and wise. We were between Krabi and Phi Phi Island next to an island called Bamboo Island and started going full speed ahead towards Phi Phi.

Karsten: So you were out in the open water basically and you just heard there were like boats sinking...

Daniel: Yeah he heard it on the radio

Karsten: How far were you away from the island?

Daniel: From Bamboo island?

Karsten: Yeah the next closest island, you were seeking shelter there right?

Karsten: Well no we're moving away from Bamboo Island because it's a small flat island and we were swimming distance from Bamboo which is maybe a few kilometers from Phi Phi Islands. We still didn't realize what was going on. At this time I would say the word tsunami didn't mean too much to me and I guess a quite big part of the population. So when we are like between these 2 island Bamboo and Phi Phi, I remember looking to my right and as far as I can see, the whole horizon is just like a white wall. I'm thinking huh, what the F is that?

Karsten: What do you mean - white wall, like...?

Daniel: Yeah as far as the eye can see the horizon is no longer flat and blue with a line between the sky and the sea, instead it looks like a white wall and it's coming towards us.

Karsten: Is it like in the movies where you...?

Daniel: It wasn't fast moving like that you can see, but you look at it and then you realize oh shit it's a big wave coming. So we told everybody put on your life jackets. We didn't have life jackets for everybody, me being a good staff member had to give up my life jacket. Instead put on 2 wet suits gives you buoyancy like floating if you had the wet suits on.

Karsten: How did you feel about that?

Daniel: Well didn't feel too great about it, I'm thinking like oh shit this could be bad.

Karsten: Were you thinking there was a threat to your life?

Daniel: Definitely thinking it's very likely that we're going to get hit by this massive wave coming our way and better be prepared for being in the water.

Karsten: So were you thinking this wave was going to turn over the boat?

Daniel: Definitely thinking it was going to hit the boat and probably toss us over the side yeah.

Karsten: Was that the moment where you're like reflecting on life or...

Daniel: No it didn't go that far, because it was still quite far in the distance and now many years later it's kind of weird to think about it, but I remember everybody put on the life jackets. We stood at the edge of the boat and we brought up cameras and we were filming it, my friend still has the file he says he's going to send it to me. I met him a few days ago and we sort of reminisced about this and we could see when the waves came in, they broke over the reefs, the waves went over the trees at Bamboo Island so definitely if we had stayed there we would have been screwed. But our captain then since he knew what was going on he got us to safety and we were hiding behind Phi Phi sort of sheltered from the swells of the wave.

Karsten: Phi Phi Island which is...?

Daniel: One of the two Phi Phi Islands, Phi Phi Don the big one we were behind a very famous tourist destination which kind of shaped like an hour glass, so there are 2 high peaks and in between there is low ground where you have the beach where most people were staying and most hotels were located. So when the wave struck Phi Phi basically washed away the low lying buildings in the middle.

Karsten: Did you see that?

Daniel: We could not see it from where we were but we heard on the radio people calling for help and assistance, boats sinking and so on. But when that happened we saw the waves crashing over the other islands where we had been and then we waited around, we heard on the radio people asking for help didn't know what was going on really bloody hot December in Thailand sun shining. Then came the tourists not realizing what would happen and they were getting upset when we say like everybody needs to stay on the boat we don't know what's going on, they said oh but we want to go swimming.

Karsten: This was after the wave hit

Daniel: This was after the wave. I can also that I didn't know really it was a tsunami so we saw the wave, I texted my family: "Big F wave. I'm okay.".

Karsten: You texted it after the wave?

Daniel: Yeah and after that connection died. My brother told me afterwards that he was like "Oh what's this?" then turned off his phone. A few hours later it's on TV all over the world basically. But at least then they knew that I was safe. Another weird thing that happened when we were waiting behind the island was that we get like a back draft or a second swell. I guess the water go up on the land and then was going back and when it came back then it kind of rocked the boat again. We waited around there with other boats for many hours, nobody knew what are we going to do. This happened in the morning first in the afternoon we decide okay lets go up to open water again and go back to Krabi main land. So maybe 10 boats or something went around the same time headed to main land and then we could see when we're getting closer to shore we could see broken boats, they were lifting up bodies on the piers.

Karsten: At this point you just knew there was wave, you hadn't seen any impact you just thought: Okay that was a big wave. You had no idea that this wave...

Daniel: Not how bad it had been to an extent no, we could see and heard people crying for help we seen wrecked boats coming in. We saw dead people, like they're lifting dead people up on the pier.

Karsten: Was there a moment when you, it took you to realize those were people or you were like...

Daniel: I don't really have a clear picture of it. It was after sunset when we came in and it was like sort of a little bit in the peripheral field that more like dark shadows lifted up piled up. And then for the next 2 days I volunteered at the hospital. It was obviously unorganized, injured people separated from their families. For me it was okay. I didn't have to deal with identifying bodies like some of my friends who helped out shocked people finding their family members; people have been bloated in the water which was sort of horrible for them. I was just walking around in the hospital asking people for their identification and collecting names and info.

Karsten: You mentioned when this wave first hit, you heard cries for help on the radio, were these in English? Were there in there in Thai? Did you hear like chatter, how did you...?

Daniel: I wasn't in the cabin it was retold to me I think it might have been in Thai and then I was told this is what happened they call in for help and so on. But nobody really dared to go across to the other side, we didn't know what was happening.

Karsten: So the tourists were obviously oblivious to what was going on

Daniel: At least in the beginning yeah

Karsten: And the captain kind of had a hunch, how did the crew react?

Daniel: There were 2 Thai crews and the very experienced Thai captain and his deck hand. And we maybe were like 5 westerners working for this company and then let's say maybe 20 tourists. I think the staff - Thai and western - we more understood there was something serious that had happened and many of the tourists were annoyed about sitting around. They were really hot and sweaty. And after a few hours we started to run out of food and water...

Karsten: Was there like a change in the mood when you started to come back in the harbor and you could see okay this is actually serious, did you see the tourists kind of caught up to the reality?

Daniel: I don't know if I can really remember other people change, but I'm sure that... we did talk to people later we met up days after and later in the evening we all met at the meeting point. And then it sort of dawned on people that it was serious: So serious that it went across to Africa and hundreds and thousands of people died. Because in Ao Nang I think like 2 people died.

Karsten: Ao Nang is...

Daniel: Is in mainland Krabi where you have one of the most famous tourist resort areas.

Karsten: Okay, so once you... how did that feel, you arrived at the harbor and the moment you set back foot on land, what went through your head?

Daniel: Obviously it's a very big sigh of relief, being on mainland you feel safe on land and you can start relax about not being on a ship on the ocean I guess

Karsten: Isn't that a bit ironic, given that the reason you were safe is because you were on a ship?

Daniel: I wouldn't go as far as saying that's why you're safe, some people are safe at the open sea but they're only safe on the open sea if it's deep enough so that the wave doesn't build up.

Karsten: At the time how many days a week were you working?

Daniel: 6 days a week for this company and when I was off I went diving

Karsten: Okay could there have been any constelation where you had been on land like...

Daniel: In Ao Nang it wouldn't have been a problem really. There's a big sea wall down by the beach that took like the biggest hit. And I think it's different angles as well so like some of the beach front shop places were kind of a bit messed up. Long tail boats got destroyed, 2 people died who were out on the next Island but nothing compared to like Phi Phi and Khao Lak and Phuket which were much worse hit.

Karsten: And that's just a distance of like 30-40 km?

Daniel: Might be something like that, it's like a short distance drive.

Karsten: So did that change you, I mean you apparently have been a very active diver at the time, did that change you relationship with the sea did you get afraid of going out again?

Daniel: No I wasn't affected by that I guess it's such a small and unusual event it's nothing that I thought about that it would happen again.

Karsten: So you spent 2 days volunteering at this hospital, taking down details of people and was then there a point where you said I had enough I can't take this anymore or...?

Daniel: No for me that wasn't the point but after like 2 days the government started to get more organized and proper so the help organizations got involved. But the first 2 days many of the victims of this situation they were asking "who are you?", "why are you doing this?" and "it's really got that you do but why isn't the government here, why don't they do anything". The Swedish government actually got a lot of critic about having a delayed response considering how many Swedes are down in Thailand.

Karsten: Did that event change your outlook on some things in life?

Daniel: I don't really think so but of course you're lucky and you appreciate that you had that luck and you realize if you hadn't had this experienced captain I could have been dead basically.

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Monday, November 30, 2015

The Story Behind The Tsunami Warning System

Nithin Coca has written a great article on how the new Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System (IOTWS) became fully operational finally in 2013. It coordinates efforts to detect and warn people around the world when the threat of a tsunami has occurred. 

Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System

The story behind the Indian Ocean tsunami warning system
The Kernel / The Daily Dot
By Nithin Coca on November 29, 2015

It took nearly three hours for the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the deadliest natural disaster in human history, to travel from its epicenter near Sumatra, Indonesia, to the eastern coasts of India and Sri Lanka. By then, it had already devastated Phuket, Thailand; Banda Aceh, Indonesia; and India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands—and was making international headlines.
It was 2004, well into the era of the Internet, mass communication, cellphones, and social networking, but for fishermen and villagers in southern India and Sri Lanka, it might as well have been 1904. Though warnings were sent to the Indian coast guard, there were no protocols for getting that lifesaving information to villages far from urban centers.
The tsunami hit with virtually no warning, killing more than 47,000 people in just those two countries. Across the Indian Ocean, the final estimated death toll was more than 220,000, nearly all of whom received absolutely no advance notice.
In the wake of the tragedy came a new drive for a tsunami warning system.
Continue reading the rest of the article here.

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Friday, December 26, 2014

A 10 year reflection on the anniversary of the Indian Ocean Tsunami

Today marks the 10 year anniversary of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami.

Around the world, in both public and private moments, individuals, families and communities are stopping to remember the impact of an earthquake that produced a tsunami that reached, in some places, over 100 feet (30+ meters).

Ten years ago, I was living in Singapore, and found myself on a beach in Phuket, Thailand when the disaster hit. Today, my life has placed me in Sydney, Australia.

Like many survivors or families of individuals lost in the tsunami, for the last months, I knew the ten year anniversary was coming. It is one more year than nine. One year less than eleven. But the number ten seems to be a number that if far enough away from 2004 that it requires you check in to see how you are feeling about a frightening and sad anniversary.

Over the last week, I have spent time being interviewed by newspapers and making television appearances as a “spokesperson” for survivors. No one has asked the question. But I am sure some must wonder. “Rick, it is ten years later. Why don’t you move on?” They don’t dare ask it in the interviews. But many ask that related question to find out, “Are you still suffering from the loss?”

December 26, 2014 "Sunrise" Channel 7 interview of Rick Von Feldt
on the 2014 Tsunami, Sydney Australia

For survivors that lost loved ones – a son or daughter – a brother – a girlfriend, boyfriend or spouse – the answer will always be, “Of course I suffer.” Anniversaries remind individuals of the loss of others – but also the horrific seconds – minutes and hours during the day and days following of the tsunami.

For other survivors, like myself, who happened to get a lucky break that day, we reflect on what could have been. But as many tell me, the goal is to put it in the past – and move on. We were lucky enough to have survived. Why keep dwelling on what might have been?

For me, writing and providing a site for reading helps two different people. With the tsunami now really being a part of history (it is amazing to me that it is already 10 years ago!), I want to keep the stories alive of survivors for others to read about. Every day, close to 500 people read this site. It might be only for a minute. Others write to me and tell me they read the first story, and go on to read story after story, drawn in to the drama of life and survival. One of my favorite uses of the website is when entire school classes choose to study the tsunami. It might be for a literature class – and they read about the tsunami. Other times, it is a science project and they want to learn about the science behind the tsunami. Either way – the stumble upon the internet of these stories – and it suddenly becomes real. Real people. Real challenge. Real horror. Real loss. And real survival.

Three weeks ago, a school librarian in Knoxville, Tennessee wrote and asked if I would be interested in speaking to a class about my experiences with the tsunami. When possible, I always say yes to any school type project. Once the teacher announced the project, other teachers suddenly wanted to participate. By the time my actual Skype call happened, the event was broadcast via televisions to every classroom in the school. The discussion and interview lasted nearly 30 minutes. Later, the librarian wrote and said that the discussion made a human impact on how kids understood what really happened.

Each survivor – each family member or friend that lost someone – deals with the horror, memory and loss in different ways. For me – I write, and represent the story of survivors.

Each of also has our own challenge that we must also overcome.

My journey to Phuket in 2004 was to be near the ocean. Born in the middle of America, I was not privileged to live near the water growing up. But after seeing the Pacific Ocean for the first time as a young teenager, I was hooked by the sound – the site and the life giving as well as destructive nature of the ocean.

Since then, beaches, sunsets over beaches and water draws me to their edge. Like so many, the tsunami, created this dramatic mixed emotion for me. I wanted to be near the beach – but in doing so, it also created an anxiety
Over the last ten years, I have returned to the ocean. I have convinced myself that I will be ok on those visits. I always know where the tsunami evacuation routes are. I am conscious of the highest spots around me. Friends or family traveling with me won’t see me doing this. It’s my own small ritual. But it is on my mind.

When walking on beaches, low tides scare me. In all honest, I don’t quite believe them.
For me, in 2004, the tsunami started with what appeared to be a low tide. It got lower and lower. But few people stopped and said, “When does it cross over from low tide to a tsunami withdraw?” Most didn't – and many paid the price for it.

For the last ten years, one of my goals is to sleep in a cabin on the beach. I have not been able to do that. During the day, when I can see the water and the beach – I always feel as if I am in control. I can run. I can climb a tree. I can see the low tide getting lower – and make the choice to scream and shout to everyone to “get off the beach – a tsunami is coming” which I have done in my dreams and nightmare countless times over the years.

If you are in a bedroom, with the door closed, that is not so easy. For the last ten years, I have returned to the beach, but always stayed in hotels in at last the fourth story or taller. Or away from the beach. And when I could still hear the ocean, I felt myself hold my breath when for some reason, I didn't hear that regular splash of wave.

My goals to commemorate this ten year anniversary was to stay in a cabin, on a beach.

I wasn’t ready to do that in Phuket. But two weeks ago, I returned to Thailand, and went to another island called Koh Chang. It is an island south of Phuket – and is more protected by the Gulf of Thailand than the Andaman Sea facing Phuket. 

Koh Chang Thailand - in the Gulf of Thailand, less exposed to a tsunami than Phuket.
I rented a cabin within 10 meters of the beach – and spent every evening watch the sunset. I spent moments each day reflecting on the beauty of nature – and the unintended events when nature collides. Each day – I saw the low tide, and watched carefully to see how far it would go out – and when it should be returning. I focused on the beauty and blessings and sunsets. And not on what might be bad or might go wrong.

That is the path that most survivors have taken over the last ten years. Some have returned to Phuket to retrace their steps. Others have gone with family or friends to give the a glimpse of the bad bedtime story that they have tried to share for so many years.

In the end, we grieve, celebrate and miss the people who did not survive that day. And the rest of us do what we can to move on – to celebrate - to remember and to live.

To all of those that lost someone special on December 26, 2004, I am thinking about you today. And to the survivors – may you have the strength to move on and thrive in your own way.  How did each of you commemorate the day? And please let me know if I can help share your story.

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TOP STORIES of the Boxing Day Tsunami 10 Year Anniversary

Today, survivors and families and friends of those lost in the Asian Tsunami (Boxing Day Tsunami) commemorated the ten year anniversary of the disaster.

Off and on today, I have been following media for organizations providing great coverage of todays anniversary. Here are some of my favorites:

European lay flowers for ten year anniversary of Boxing Day Tsunami

MORE SURVIVOR STORIES including Rina and Mustafa from Aceh, Indonesia. Mustafa, father of Rina was away when the tsunami hit and thought he had lost her father. But she survived.

BEFORE and AFTER PICTURES including this of Banda Ache.
Before and After picture of Banda Ache

MORE SURVIVOR STORIES including stories from Louis Cryer, Zoe Cryer and Felix Cryer in Sri Lanka. And the story of Tom and Arlette Stuip who were holidaying in Khao Lak, Thailand, along with a photo from Marlene Lohmann. The story of Kay Howells on Phi Phi Lei – all at: 

MOST TOUCHING INDIAN OCEAN tsunami photos from The Indian Express

BOXING DAY TSUNAMI SERVICES mark 10-year anniversary from

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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

10th Anniversary Tsunami Remembrance Event announced by organizations and governments

December 26, 2014 will mark the 10 year anniversary of the Indian Ocean Tsunami. Here is a listing of events that have been submitted to commemorate the events across Asia.

If survivors are planning to attend events, several different news organizations are interested in interviewing attendees. Please contact (check back for additional requests)

Annie Phrommayon
BBC / Bangkok Bureau


The Thai government will organize a remembrance event entitled “Ten Years on: Remembering the Indian Ocean Tsunami” on 26-27 December 2014.

The two-day event will take place at the Police Boat T813 Tsunami Memorial, Khao Lak, Takua Pa district, Phang-nga province.

The objective is to remember those who lost their lives and show support to those who survived from the massive tsunami of 26 December 2004. The tsunami disaster 10 years ago was tremendous in both scale and scope, leading to unprecedented loss of life. It devastated the coasts of more than 10 countries around the Indian Ocean.

Six Andaman coastal provinces in southern Thailand were affected, with the death toll rising to over 5,000, comprising both Thais and foreigners, who were vacationing or living here. The six provinces were Phang-nga, Phuket, Krabi, Trang, Ranong, and Satun. The worst of the damage was concentrated in the resort town of Khao Lak in Phang-nga.

The remembrance event will show the regeneration of communities affected by the tsunami and create confidence in Thailand’s effective early-warning systems and disaster preparedness.

The ceremony on 26 December will begin on 4:30 p.m. There will be speeches and poetry reading, wreath-laying, and observance of silence. It will end with a candle-light memorial ceremony. On 27 December, there will be trips to two local communities which have survived the tsunami and returned to normal life ever stronger. The two communities are Ban Nam Khem and Ban Thung Rak.

Participants will include Thais and foreigners, individuals who survived the tragic event, relatives of those who lost their lives, members of the diplomatic corps, and high-level representatives from the United Nations as well as from countries affected by the tragedy.

A Media Center will be established at the remembrance site, the Police Boat T813 Tsunami Memorial, and also at Pullman Khao Lak Katiliya Resort & Villas.

Police Boat T813 Tsunami Memorial, Khao Lak, Takua Pa district, Phang-nga province.


As reported by the PhuketWan Tourism News. Let's hope the government helps get ready for the tourists who will be visiting Phuket.

Tsunami Graves Covered in Weeds

Tuesday, January 15, 2013


A survivor reacts to “The Impossible”

 By John Thompson

(Editor's Note: John Thompson was in Khoa Lak during the 2004 Tsunami. Recently, he attended a showing of “The Impossible.” This is a note from John Thompson, describing his experience from seeing the film, and his subsequent reflections). You can read John's original story here. 

It's not very often a movie is made about an event that received worldwide attention in which you can picture yourself in every scene.  The opening moments in The Impossible, of a family enjoying Christmas day at the Khao Lak Orchid hotel were especially meaningful to me, since I also spent that
same day at the same hotel.  Christmas evening I also spent at a beach front restaurant watching lanterns being released into the sky.

The morning of December 26 I ate breakfast on an outdoor patio at my bungalow hotel, watching a British family with two young boys playing in the surf  (the boys survived, but their parents would end up dying later that morning)." Despite the extraordinary special effects that went into recreating the tsunami, I didn't find that part especially frightening.  I supposed when you have lived through the real thing, it just isn't possible to re-live it in a movie.  Maybe it is because my experience was slightly different.  I saw the wave coming, didn't recognize what it was, watching on the beach until it was almost too late.  Then I started running away from the wave, with a group of people, on a street leading up from the beach.  About a block up the street I saw there was no way I could outrun the wave, and darted into a strong looking hotel building.  That split-second decision likely saved my life, and I wish I had called out to the other people running on the street to do the same, but almost no one did; they all kept running up the street. 
The Impossible did bring back many memories of those moments.  The fleeing of the birds, the rush of air, the total inundation with water after the initial crashing wave passed through.  
(Original Photo from John Thompson taken on December 26, 2004 in Khao Lak)
Parts that weren't quite the same were the screams from people in the water that I can still distinctly hear, the raging muddy water, and the irony of such a devastating event happening on a beautiful morning with a bright blue sky.  After the initial wave rushed through, I and the few people remaining in the hotel, climbed to the highest point in the hotel, similar to how the mother and son in the movie climbed into a tree fearing another wave.  There we waited for several hours, watching and listening to the water slowly drain back into the sea.  Other than the sound of the draining water, it was quiet.  There were few people left.  Finally when the water receded enough so that our refuge was no longer an artificial island, but once again connected to land, the small group of us on the roof climbed down and began picking our way through the mud, down power lines, overturn vehicles, and other debris, making our way to higher ground and safety.  Like in the movie, we salvaged water and drinks from the hotel, and made tourniquets out of hotel towels for a few badly injured people.  

That night, I and many other survivors camped out in the jungle on a hill top, hopefully above the reach of any further waves, although I do remember talking with people about the possibility of another wave could even reach our height.  By morning, helicopters were buzzing our camp, although no relief help seemed to be in site on the ground, so I and another survivor started hiking up the highway towards the next village.  We soon were given a ride to a bus station where we caught an overnight bus to Bangkok.  A few days later, after getting a new passport, buying new clothes and other essentials, I flew back to Krabi on an American Air Force C-130, where I and a friend volunteered at a hospital.  Later we rented a jeep and drove back to Khao Lak, where the devastation was still very fresh.  Similar to the movie, we saw bodies piled in trucks, lined up on the side of the road, and stacks of coffins.  The smell of decaying, rotting, bloated, water-logged flesh was overpowering, and not possible to convey in a movie.  We looked at postings on bulletin boards of photos of bodies and lists of missing people.

The movie really captured the horrific time that survivors went through trying to locate family members with whom they had just hours before been enjoying an idyllic Christmas holiday.  The randomness of why people survived versus those that didn't is hard to comprehend.  Out of couples and families, it was unusual that all members of the family made it through alive.  As for me, I am forever thankful that I ended up on the side of randomness of those that lived.  Survivors of the tsunami share a special connection, knowing what it is like to come so close to losing everything.  For those that were lucky enough not to have had to live through it, The Impossible does a very credible job of providing a glimpse into the chaos and suffering caused by the 2004 tsunami.

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Monday, January 07, 2013

Survivors applaud "The Impossible."

It is Sunday evening in California. This weekend, the movie “The Impossible” (Director Juan Antonio Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G.Sanchez) and starring Ewan McGregor, Naomi Watts and TomHolland premier in wide screen at over 500 screens across the USA. As I mentioned in last weeks blog post, I saw the movie about a week ago, knowing I wanted – needed – to see this movie before friends and family saw it this weekend.

As I anticipated, the weekend has been filled with mixed emotion. A number of family members, friends, and even strangers attended the movie. And following the movie, felt compelled to call me or send me emails. Most of their reaction was, “Rick, I had no idea that is what you went through.”

This reaction, along with the reaction of movie critics and film goers confirms what I also believe. The movie is that good. Or better said, “that real.”

This afternoon, I spent about 45 minutes talking on the phone with another tsunami survivor. He was also on Khoa Lak, the same beach that Henry (Erique) and Maria and their three boys were on as dipicted in the film. This is about 15 miles north of Patong where I and others experienced the same tsunami in Phuket. We had not talked in three years. But we both knew, as the anticipation of the release of this film, that we would eventually find a way to call and talk with each other when this film came out.

One of the things that both Peter and I agreed on was the small details of the film. In fact, there were items that we both agreed were so real that we had even forgotten them from our actual experiences.

For us both, the film was emotional to watch. Not because we were necessarily thrown back into the reality of those 72 hours beginning at 9:30 am on December 26, 2004. But because for the first time, we both said, “Now people can actually understand and feel what it felt like to be in the middle of the tsunami.”

 Over the last 8 years, I have been asked many times to explain “how did it feel to be in the middle of the tsunami?” Well meaning reporters and friend urge us to describe the details.

But this movie “shows” the details.

One of the best example of how this movie gets it right is in the “swirling debis ofwater.” For so long, I have tried to explain to people how dangerous the water was. Huge shards of glass from broken out hotel plate glass windows, pieces of tuk-tuks and huge chunks of pieces of building filled the water. Once a person asked, “Couldn’t you just swim” in the water. But as this movie so well describes, it was like being in a washing machine of deadly debris.

The director and writer also accurately depicted the sense of desperation as mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters walked around looking for missing loved ones. Because most people had their personal belongings swept away, they didn’t even have pictures. And so they were walking around desperately trying to describe their children or mothers or fathers. And because there were visitors from around the world, and many were in shock, people would walk right up to you and start to speak in Swedish or German or Spanish – not even realizing or understanding that you didn’t understand.

There was another interesting moment and a poignant moment for me, when Henry Belon (Ewen McGregor) is shown in the movie calling his wife’s parents. McGregor struggles to explain that he has lost his wife and two of the children. On the other end of the line, you hear a father trying to comprehend what he is being told. That moment in the scene struck me also as very real.

I remember calling my parents back in Kansas, and trying to explain to them to “not be worried, but eventually they would see something on the television about a wave in Thailand, but that I had survived.” I remember her reaction was calm, almost unbelieving. Like many people in the world, true word and news of the devastation did not reach mainstream media until 4-6 hours after the first wave had hit. And even then, news stations like CNN reported that “…25 people had been killed…” No one knew the level of destruction until days later. The phone call was meant to tell someone that I was ok. But later, as I reflected on it, it was also a way to report to the outside world that I had lived. That I was ok.

As I talked about in my in my initial journal entries, I had a cell phone that lasted for hours that morning. Over 200 people used the phone to call home to places all around the world, mostly to say, “I am ok. I am alive.” For days afterwards, I continued to get return phone calls, asking to talk to people who had originally used the phone. I had no idea of how to find them or what to even say. But I would take down a phone number and description just in case. About 24 hours after the original calls, I started to get phone calls from individuals who had heard about my phone number from others who had heard from their loved ones. The cell phones that worked that day were important moments of comfort for many people that fateful day.

With other survivors this weekend, we talked about memories of things we had forgotten. We talked about the splitting of families, and the struggle on whether to move on to a hospital, or stay were you were to look for missing people. The movie accurately showed an element that has been a little embarrassing to discuss up until now. The speed and turbulence of the water as so strong, that it did remove clothes. IN the movie, Maria Belon is shown with ripped clothes. But it has been reported that she, like many others, had their clothes completed stripped away. Standing on the cliff, many survivors came to us completely naked, and bleeding badly.

We also talked about the “post 24 hour false tsunami warnings.” The next day, after the tsunami had struck, there would be moments in which you would be working to help clear debris, and suddenly, locals around you would start to run. At least 5-10 times, false warnings would be spread via cell phones to other cell phones. And people would just start running.

There were other details that the film didn’t show. The amount of dead bodies strewn about were tough. You see in the movie the rows of them at hospitals or make shift morgues. Most of that happened after about 24 hours. But before that, there were bodies jammed into debris everywhere.

Another item that even some of us as survivor disagreed on, were the number of waves. From my perspective, the waves, at least in Phuket started at about 10:00 am – and continued with swells that washed into the streets until 4:00 that afternoon. The first wave was small, but it was the second wave that was the tallest and most devastating. The wave you see in the movie made it look like it was the first wave of destruction. But most of us agree, that the size of that wave was actually the second. But I did read the real Maria Belon did agree that the six hours of relentless waves had been consolidated in order to get on with the movie. Fair enough. But as survivors, we just wanted everyone to know that water and waves were an issue for the first six hours. And not only did people lose their lives in those first waves, but they also tried to make a run for it afterwards, and were also struck and swept away in waves three, four and five.


 For the last 10 days, I have been reading some reviewers who need to point out what they didn’t like about the film. Most need to point out that the movie skips over or ignores the emotions of the locals. I don’t think that this is an “and/or” discussion. This movie was about 5 people and what happened to them. There could and should be another movie about the amazing local people that were also impacted by the tsunami. They also felt pain. They also lost loved ones. They were crying and hurt and scared just like people around us.

After the tsunami struck, many of the locals left the resort I was staying in. If they had survived, many had homes inland and left to go be with family. But not without grief. Most locals had an aunt or uncle or cousin who they knew were killed that day on the beach. But the process of finding and navigating and dealing with the process of finding / mourning and deciding what to do next was very different.

Each of the survivors I have connected with over the last days applaud this movie. We have a sense that others are really understanding what we went through. We also hope future movies can be made of what the locals also went through – not only in Thailand, but also in the other countries where 220,000 more people were killed.

It is likely that many of will have nightmares again for a few days. But the difference is this time, when we wake up, we can talk to people who have seen the film, and have a little better idea what we experienced.

Thanks to the actors Ewan McGregor, Naomi Watts, Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast for bringing the characters to life. Thanks to Director Juan Antonio Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G. Sanchez for trying to make it real. Thanks to Maria Belon for sharing her survivor story with the world.

Because of this, a few of us are a little more healed.
(I invite other survivors to comment on their reaction to the movie. Or others to ask us questions. - Rick Von Feldt)

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Saturday, January 05, 2013

How the mobile phone saved my life

A new Discovery Channel Series is beginning to air this month in Asia and Europe – and will soon be airing in the US. It is called, “How We Invented The World.” It is a four-part series that examines the four inventions that define the modern world – mobile phones, cars, planes and skyscrapers. The series not only talks about the invention, but also “The People and connections that made them possible.”

The first episode features the mobile phone. For the episode, the producers learned of the impact the mobile phone had on me during the 2004 Asian Tsunami (my mobile phone story here). They came to San Francisco and interviewed me for the episode. And the in the first show, recreated the moments around the mobile phone and how it saved my life that day. If it had not been for the cousin of my taxi driver, and the mobile phone connection between the two, I might not be living today.

If you are in Asia, the episode airs this week. It has already aired in the UK, but you can find repeats. I have not seen the release date yet for the series in the US. I am impressed with the effort and research that went into each episode.

In the meantime, here is an excerpt about how the mobile phone helped save my life that day in Phuket, Thailand. (See video here).

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Thursday, January 03, 2013

"The Impossible" painfully shows the reality of a tsunami

Three days ago, I had the chance to sit in a theatre in San Francisco to see the limited release of "The Impossible." I am still trying to pick the best words to describe my reaction to the movie.

But I think that I can speak for tsunami survivors from around the world. This is the first time a movie has captured the chaos, pain and horror of the 2004 SE Asia tsunami.

There are many stories from the tsunami, many of which are captured on this website. This story is just one. For tourists who experienced the tsunami and survived, the movie shows many accurate emotions and realities of what happened. The best may be the feeling of what it was like to be in the swirling "washing machine like" swell of waves and water. And secondly, the sense of grief and frustration by so many people who wandered around for the 72 hours following the first wave, looking for missing family members.

It is not an easy movie to watch - neither for survivors or for movie goers. But it is real. Honest. And worth seeing.

I will post more reactions to the movies over the next several days, and so please check back. And if you were a survivor, and saw the movie, please also share your thoughts and reactions.

I have responded to a few online reviews and articles about the movies including these:

Emotional Deluge (The Economist)

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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

SURVIVOR John Thompson - Why I was one of the few to survive, I won't ever know.

John Thompson - Khao Lak Tsunami Survivor
Why I was one of the few to survive, I won’t ever know.
John Thompson, Khao Lak Tsunami Survivor

Information from the website of John Thompson. Reproduced here by permission.
Copyright © 2005-2010 John M. Thompson | Contact for photo use permission and questions/comments.
Thailand: 8,245 Dead

Why I was one of the few to survive I won't ever know. My fortune was partially due to luck and partially due to a few calculated gambles. This website tells the story of how I survived one of the world's most destructive natural disasters in modern history.

Having narrowly cheated death, I am left with a sense of extreme optimism for my future. Perhaps because I came so close to losing everything, that now every day of life seems like a new beginning. Being laid off from my job upon my return home was not a crisis. Combined with surviving the tsunami I saw it as an opportunity to reassess where my life has been going and how I could rebuild my career in a meaningful way.

This website is dedicated to the memory of the thousands who were less fortunate than I on the fateful day of 26 December 2004. Special thanks go to those I was with during and after the disaster - Petra, Bob, and Timothy. 

Here is a timeline of what happened to me those days in Khao Lak, Thailand.

Saturday, 25 December 2004 16:53:25
Arrived at Khao Lak. Explored area north of bungalow at Khaolak Orchid Beach Resort.

Enjoyed Christmas dinner at Ristorante Da Gorgio and then later had desert at a beach front bar.

Sunday, 26 December 2004 08:00

While laying on mattress, contemplating whether or not to sleep in longer, felt vibrating sensation for about two minutes. Did not think it was an earthquake and thought nothing of it after vibrating stopped.

9:00 Enjoyed breakfast at Mai's Quiet Zone on open patio overlooking the beach. Watched two boys from English family I had met when checking in the previous day playing frisbee in the waves.

9:45 Stopped by motorbike rental shop and paid 200 Baht for one more rental day.

10:00 Purchased souvenir shirt and some food at market across the street from motorbike rental shop.

10:10 Began motorbike journey with eventual goal of checking out the Poseidon Bungalows which had been recommended to me. Also intended on visiting the Ton Pling Waterfall on the way.

10:17 Unsuccessful attempt at finding "View Point" as listed on the map. Continued driving down the road.

10:21 Parked motorbike at Sea Gull Andaman Resort and walked down to inspect beach and what appeared to be an extremely low tide.

10:26:16 Noticed wooden longtail boat struggling in the water and eventually turn over. Also saw many people standing on the shore looking at something, which I then assumed was the struggling boat (but in retrospect I think they were looking at the approaching wave or the bay empty of water). Took camera out of bag to take picture of boat.

10:26:23 Seven seconds later: After taking picture of boat, the bay had already completely filled with water and I took picture of what I thought was just an extra large wave.

10:27:14 Fifty two seconds later: When I realized the wave was not stopping at the shore I and others at the beach began running as fast as possible. Since I already had the camera out, I took a picture over my shoulder as I ran, hoping to capture the rushing wave.

Running from the Waves - Photo by John Thompson

10:28:04 Fifty seconds later: It was obvious that the wave was not stopping and that I was not going to be able to outrun the wave so I ran up the front entrance to the nearest big building, dodging falling roof tiles, and hoping that the building would not be washed away or collapse. Took photo of now flooded street as I ran into the hotel.

10:31:41 Climbed up on wooden balcony railing and prayed I was high enough above the water. The water eventually came up to the top of the railing and then started receeding. Started taking photos as the water drained out.

View of the Courtyard - Photo by John Thompson

 Woman on mattress in the water

2004 11:01:04 Sought refuge in alcove at highest point in the building. Was bracing for additional waves which never came.

John Thompson, On the Roof - Waiting for the water to recede - Photo by John Thompson

12:04:16 Almost 2 hours after seeing the struggling boat, the water finally drained out far enough so that it seemed safe to walk out.

Walking Through The Rubble - Photo by John Thompson

12:20:34 Hitched ride on a passing pickup truck back into main beach of Khao Lak. Photographed some of the devastation as seen from the road.

Sunday, 26 December 2004

14:11:14 Photographed what was believed to be a second wave but which turned out to be a false alarm. Spent the rest of the day and night in safety on top of high hill.

Monday, 27 December 2004

09:27:39 After being scared back to the hill by several false alarms, Tim and I finally made our way through the wreckage to retreive some of his belongings from his third floor hotel room before beginning hike out of the area.

11:26:50 During another false alarm we were driven to military staging area where we were finally taken by private car to a bus station to catch VIP bus to Bangkok.

Friday 31 December 2004

06:59:32 Solomon and I inspected donated goods at military side of Bangkok airport while waiting for transport plane back to Krabi.

Saturday 1 January 2005

09:39:23 Distributed donations to owners of damaged longtail boats in Krabi area.

Saturday 1 January 2005

12:18:37 First return vist to Khao Lak area to determine extent of damage. Toured area and local hospitals with Jenny, a relief worker for American medical aid organization.

Sunday 2 January 2005

12:18:25 Toured ruined resort island of Phuket. Photographed destruction at Patong beach.

Daily Collection of recently found bodies - Photo by John Thompson

Uncovered bodies waiting to be identified - Photo by John Thompson

Monday 10 January 2005

14:55:03 Second return trip to Khao Lak. Distributed thousands of dollars of relief aid to refugee camp near Takua Pa.

Tuesday 11 January 2005

09:08:11 Final bit of aid work. Distributed donated money to Monitee Temple in Krabi.

Saturday 22 January 2005

07:12 Returned home to California after continuing trip to southern Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore.

December 26, 2005

After coming within 15 seconds of an almost certain death one year ago today, one of the most common questions I am asked is "How did that experience change your perspective on life?" To answer that question, I look back on how I have lived during this past year. 

As all people realize who come so close to loosing everything, the only thing that really matters is life. While it is nice to have physical things without life none of those things matter. In recognition of this simple premise, I try to make the most of life, by continuing to travel, mixing work with play when possible, and developing new hobbies.

After returning from Thailand, I spent some additional time traveling, spending a month in Peru exploring the Amazon and climbing peaks high in the Andes. In May I came into possession of a new sailboat and have sailed almost every weekend since then. Beginning in July I started working again as an attorney. Although I currently work for a law firm, I continue to explore other career opportunities.

As for the future, I am sure the lessons from the tsunami will stay with me forever. Not one day has gone by where I have not somehow been reminded of the traumatic and overwhelming events of one year ago. I have not been able to answer the question as to why I survived when over 223,000 people did not, inlcuding the fact that 80% of Thailand's tsunami casualties occured in Khao Lak.

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