Wednesday, December 29, 2004

SURVIVING THE TSUNAMI - Part 8 - Being a Redneck

TUESDAY, December 28, 2004

It is later in the day – 5:00 in the afternoon. I arrived home to my flat here in Singapore. It was quiet. Dull in sound. As if sound had been taken away. I looked at some emails – and then took a long and hot shower. My face is sunburn. It is the first time I have looked in a mirror for two days. I thought I had protection on – but that was yesterday. The first day – the day of the wave – we were in the sun the whole day. But I didn’t think about sunburns. There were other pressing items to think about. At the end of the day – as we were sitting around talking – someone asked me, “Why are you wearing pants?” There was no answer really. The suitcase was still sitting at the reception desk – right where I had dropped it – just in time to turn around and watch horrific things taking place on the beach below.

I am a redneck now.

The shower felt great. I stood there for awhile, just letting the water wash over. But then I started to think about how much water I was wasting – and how valuable that water will be to millions of people in the next 72 hours. In Phuket – the government was already driving around, just dropping off cases of water on street corners for anyone to pick up and drink at will. But in places like India and Indonesia and SriLanka – there will be no such luck for awhile. Having fresh water is such a concern right now. Lacking fresh water – many will drink any water – and soon – that water will be polluted with diseases like malaria at worst – and at a minimum, contain enough micro organisms that everyone will catch diarrhea.

I quickly turned the water off.

I was tired. I wanted to sleep. I have only slept around 2-3 hours over the last several night. The night before I left on the trip – I stayed up late – recording music on my new MP3 player. I wanted to relax to great music, read and have a peaceful quiet holiday. I wanted to sleep in everyday. Lots of sleep. But four minutes in to my vacation on the beach – it all changed.

I layed down on my bed. I hate naps. When I turned 6 years old, and my mom allowed me not to have to take naps again – I swore then that I would never take a nap again. And to this day – I still don’t like them. Unless really tired.

I layed there for a minute. Five minutes. Fifteen minutes. It was quiet. But there were sounds in my ears. In my head. I kept hearing the sound of the crashing waves. I heard people crying as they were walking up the hill in between the waves. The would make a run for it – and when they finally reached the hill where we were – many grabbed them. Supported them up in their stiff walk up the hill. People either cried – just thankful to be alive and to have help and to get to a feeling of safety. The other half walked without emotion – in shock – not believing what had just happened to them. But they walked. Or hobbled. And the climbed and climbed. Not just a little, but going as high as they could. As far away from the water as they could.

I kept thinking of the bodies I saw and so many images. I knew then I wasn’t going to be able to sleep – so I got back up – and went to watch television. I still needed to be connected to it for sometime as a way to slowly move away from it.


Sunday, the day of the tsumami, was a very long day. The day seemed to last for tens of hours. There was the initial “attack” as it felt. Three hours later – once it looked like there were stretches of some time – everyone sat around waiting for the return. We sat and waited. Finally – people began to try to recover items. And later – we all came back to the hotel. This small little boutique hotel normally serves 60 people. But that day – 200-300 people crowded its lobby. As the night went on – some left to return to hotels or to go to government camps. Others just stayed at our hotel – content to sleep in chairs around the pool.

Several of us sat at the edge of the swimming pool. It was quite luxurious really – dangling feet in to the cool water. A few of us sat there. And slowly – more and more came. We didn’t have a campfire, but we sat with dangled legs in the water. And people started sharing their stories. Where were they when it happened. When did they first hear the water. Were they on the beach? The street? One of the first levels of the hotels. Or were they in their hotel rooms on higher levels.

Here are some of the stories I heard:

People talked of what it was like to be taking an early morning walk on the beach. Many families were on the beach. Kids get up early – and what a great time to walk on the beach before the sun and the crowds set in.

“We saw that that the water had receded. We’d never seen it before and we could hear others talking about the same thing. You could even see fish flopping around on the beach – which was unusual. Small kids and tourists were walking to where the water had receded, curious as to why the water had gone. Then we saw it. Everyone started to crane their necks to see the horizon. We could see a wall of waters. At first – we couldn’t tell the size of it. And it was a different color – not the light sea blue we had first seen in the day. But it was dark black water. And as it came closer, we could see it was three or four stories high. It felt like watching a move. It didn’t look like it was moving at first. People were saying ‘Oh God – what is that?’ Then people started running. Some tried to get up on the sea wall. Some stopped – thinking they would be safe. After a few seconds, the wave hit and smashed against the beach. It was incredible – at least 1,000 beach umbrellas were swept along as all the water surged through.”

“There was a line of cars where people park by the beach. And there was hundreds of motorcycles – either parked or waiting to be rented. I saw them all picked up like toys – as if a hand just lifted them up – but at a hundred miles an hour.”

“I saw people just disappear when the water hit. I saw a lot of running. Some people were still snoozing on the beach. And I saw small children hit. People were just literally swept away.”

“A lot of inuries happened from people being hit by debris. If you were on the road running – and were between the buildings and the debris, it was dangerous. You got hit by big pieces of machinery. And once the second wave came – there was large shards of glass in the water from the broken windows. People were getting cut in the water and they didn’t even know it.”

“Once the water came in – we though we would be ok – we could sort of float along and be alright. But the current going back to the ocean is what was the most dangerous. It was like it grabbed you and just pulled you back into the mouth of an ocean monster. If you grabbed on to a pillar – you might get lucky. But if not – it sucked you away.”

“There were car accidents as people were trying to escape. The first wave hit – and went over the road. But it wasn’t enough to do most of the damage. Then everyone was trying to drive away and were smashing in to each other. But then the second wave came – and it didn’t make a difference.”


Everyone seemed to take on roles during the first hours of the ordeal. For me – it was messenger. Communicator. Or the guy speaking truth rather than rumor. Within the first hour – everyone was panicing. More and more people were coming up the hill. And when they did – they came with only their immediate possessions. But for most – a mobile phone wasn’t one of them. I had just arrived to Thailand – and so my phone was charged – and I knew people. I had a program on my computer that allowed me to plug my phone in to my computer – and use a program called Jeyo to quickly type instant messages. I sent messages out to my friends, telling them “News. I need news. Please look to see what has happened.” I SMS’d (Short message service) to my friend Tiffany and Simon. Both were away from their computers – but promised to get online within ten minutes. Like angles – they started to scower the internet and news services. Soon, my friends Peter, Jason, Even and Norman were looking for news. I was getting messages from Australia, Norway and Singapore – each scanning the news. They would send 25-30 words. And I would answer a question back. (to those friends who were helping me – I would love to have you tell your story of having received my first messages – what you did – and what you were thinking at the time!)

People began to hear my phone beep every few minutes – and realized that I was getting news. A small crowd gathered around – and I felt a bit like a news reporter – reading stuff off the newswire.

Here is a sample of the messages and how they flowed in the afternoon. I was selectively reading these out to the group as they came in. These came from about 7 or 8 different people. Knowing what what know now – the early reports from the news bureaus were really bad. Remember – the first of the tsumami’s hit Phuket time shortly after 10:15 – and pounded the beach for over two hours.

- 12: 38: Happy Holidays! Are you affected by the Indonesian earthquake? CNN repports that several tourists in Thailand have been evacuated....
- 12: 49: Rick - make sure to buy as much water as possible in case you get stuck...
- 1: 01: Death toll in Thailand is now 250
- 1:16 pm: It was an earth quake that caused the tidal wave. It has stabilised and is not expected to recurr. Are you ok? Please respond when you get this
- 1:23 pm: Thank god ur ok. At moment 4 foreign tourist missing, hotels evacuatd. Earthqke 6.8 in Indian Ocean off Aceh, Indonesia
- 1:29: CNN reports 8.5 quake, at least 2 waves
- 1:30: Reports from cnn say it was the worse quake in 40 years. The initial quake of 8.5 is over and after shocks are being felt. But nothing about further quakes at the moment.
- 1:33: It hit sri lanka, sumatra, east coast of south india. 4 reported dead in phuket.
- 1:36: Merry christmas., Rick... Sorry that it is very noisy here .did not notice message coming in. Am not online now. Outside with my family for lunch. What happened?
- 1:37: CNN reports 8.5 quake, at least 2 waves so far. Thai officials evacuting 10k. 162 killd in Sri Lanka. Expecting 300+ toll in TH. Can't find anythg abt any more waves. Earthqke hit at 7am ur time & 6 aftr shocks
- 1:50: Are you safe in thailand? Should be far away from sumatra...Do you have electricity there now? I will check the internet later when i am back........
- 2:03: Places like aceh were hit by flash floods. Al least ten feared dead and 200 wounded and missing in phuket.
- 2:29: My bro, the weathr guy, reckons 1st wave always worst, not normally furthr waves, but if any small
- 2:34: Not getting ur msgs, only "." Latest CNN news, biggest eqke in 40yrs, total 500 feard dead in SE Asia. Phuket 2 b evacuatd, nothg more specific
- 2:53: Death toll + 400 - mostly PhiPhi island (source: CNN). No news about aiport yet.
- 3:02: The airport is now operational accordning to CNN
- 3:06: Phuket has been badly hit. President has ordered the evacuation of people in low lying areas. Phuket airport is closed to facilitate rescue efforts. Quake has been upgraded to 8.9 on richter scale.
- 3:48: CNN Now! Bad bad bad. Hit also south india. 5th largest earthquake on record!
- 3:53: 8.9 richter scale from richter scale! U might wanna get out?
- 3:54: Hey Rick... Just read the news and realised that phuket was affected too....Tried to call u but your phone was off.. You must take care too. Will keep u in prayer..
- 4:09: Fears of more tidal waves depending quakes. Beware of building structural cracks damage. More govt help coming. CNN
- 4:44: This is Tiff. Tidal wave hit Chennai too. Quake origin north Sumatra. 150 killd in Sri Lanka. Maldives hit.
- 4:47: Reuters report 1 killd, 4 missing, 100 injured in Phuket
- 4:51: Rik . Hang in there mate. Pete
- 5:38: Hey, is all well in phuket? Heard abt the earthquake. Let me know u r happily sipping a cocktail by a beautiful beach.
- 5:57: US Tsunami Bulletin said "No Tsunami warning aftr earthquake" basd on historical info. Guess they wr very wrong!
- 6:40: Rick, i saw the news re phüket. Hope ü r ok. Did ü get affected?

The whole time, we were battling the superticious or rumor mill – many people claiming that another tsunami was on its way. In fact, there was even a time with the next one: 2:00. The next big wave would hit at 2:00 – so you had better not go down the hill.

I didn’t know much about this phenomenon – and so I asked my “internet reporters” about what will happen next. Tiffany eventually went to her “weatherman brother” and asked about what would happen next. “Unless there is another quake or tremor – there should be no more.” I started to tell this story – but with hesitance. How bad would I feel if I tried to counter the “2:00 rumor” – and sure enough – another would come.

But the message seemed to make sense to people – for it sounded legitimate. And it helped to calm people down.

People also realized that I was sending messages. And so, a few hesitantly asked, “Can you send a message for me? I will pay you for it….”

And of course I would. And soon – I was sending off messages to people in South Africa, Sweden, Norway, America, Denmark. They wanted to let loved ones know that they were alright – because they knew soon – people would begin to see the television reports…

The power of technology was amazing. I was getting back message from mothers and relatives – thankful to know that people were ok.

When the first wave struck – we heard to big cracks – and the electric power went off. With that goes internet, telephone and the rest. But mobile telephones keep on working – as most of the towers are spread around and can compensate for each other. I was told that most mobile phone towers have backup battery power – and can last for days. Hence, it becomes a very valuable type of communication during one of these moments.

We tried to call people in the first hours – but we just couldn’t get through. But we discovered how SMS message worked well because of the low bands – and therefore, it was a godsend.

Later – when we started to be able to actually make phone calls. I have probably racked up hundreds of dollars of phone calls. People would see my mobile phone – and sheepishly walk up and ask if they could PLEASE just make a quick call. They insisted on being able to pay later when they could find their luggage or belongings. I assured them it was not necessary – and helped them dial over and over until it would get through. I would hand them the phone – and most would walk to a corner – and just begin sobbing. They would finally gain some composure, assure their loved ones they were safe – and then hand me back the phone as if it was a precious jewel. Some would not be able to get through – but would leave messages. Several such messages also automatically recorded my phone number, and later in the day, I received phone calls back from people who wanted to talk to their loved ones. By then – they were gone – and I really didn’t know who they were. But I asked them to describe the individuals – and I tried to remember whom I had passed the phone to – and assured them that their loved one was safe and sound.

Everyone seemed to have a role. Mine was that of news reporter. Telephone company. And someone who was trying to bring some facts in to the situation. And I also served as a listener.

But after all – isn’t that what communication is all about? Being good at both receiving and sending?

SINCE I COULDN’T SLEEP – I decided to get my pictures developed. I headed to a favorite shopping area in Singapore – and have given them my camera for developing. UNFORTUNATELY – when I packed for this trip – I left my very nice digital camera at home. But on the way – I thought, “No problems – I am not going to take pictures. I am going to be reading – relaxing at the beach. What could there be to take pictures of?”

Yesterday – I managed to pick up a disposable camera – so I guess we will see if any of the pictures came out. I walked around for hours yesterday – and snapped 27 photos. I am having them developed in to digital images and I will be uploading them for each of you to see. Keep an eye open for the “PICTURE EMAIL.”

In the meantime – I wanted Thai food! In my 48 hours – I hardly ate any – and I have been craving it. So, I have gone to one of my favorite Thai restaurants here – and while the films I being developed, and feasting on Peek Gai Sod Sai (boneless stuffed chicken wings), Yum Ma-Muang Rue Yam Som-Oh (pomelo and shrimp salad), and a nice big bowl of Guey Teow Nam Nuer (beef noodle soup). I am drinking Thai beers. And will soon have a mango sticky rice. And I will do a take-away of two more dishes to continue living the taste over the next couple of days.

So yes – I am acting a little odd. It has been a very emotional last couple of days. But little by little – I will get this out of my system.

Before I sign off for this note – I again need to mention several things. First of all – again, a huge thanks to Tiffany, Peter, Jason (who got me back on an airplane today), Simon and Even for the SMS connections to my life – and for caring about me the last hours. And thanks to all of you who have started to send me notes.

Several of you have asked if you could send these emails to other people. Of course. The more who can learn first hand of what is going on here in Asia – rather than just watching it on television – the better.

And if you are a person reading this that doesn’t know me – and you want to stay connected – here is what you can do:

TO SEND A NOTE to me personally or to ask me to keep you on the SINGAPORE SLING mailing list – drop me a note at

If you want to SEND A STORY or a thought to the news group (please – don’t worry about writing) – you can send your comments to this address:

The more that people share the story – the emotion – the better.

I am glad to be back home. And I will continue to tell my story – and that of others – as the communicator – for a long as it needs to be said.



At 1:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

People like you – willing to help others – thank you. I have said many prayers for the families that lost loved ones. Now I will say a "thank you" for people like you, taking the time to help.

At 12:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I nearly cried after reading your blog. Thanks for sharing these stories, and most importantly for helping those who were affected by the tsunami in phuket.
God willing, all the survivors of these disasters will be able to continue with their lives normally.

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