SURVIVOR: Pat BentonTHREE DAYS OF HELL IN KHAO LAK
Posted By Pat Benton
Originally posted by Pat Benton at http://www.tsunamistories.net and reposted by Rick Von Feldt at www.phukettsunami.blogspot.com
The words of Pat Benton:
I have only just found this website and have been reading everyone’s stories. My family’s experiences were not quite as terrible, but to us at the time it was a complete nightmare from which we thought we would never awake.
My husband & I had been in Bangkok for a busy three days and then we arrived in Khao Lak (Lah Own Resort) on Thurs 23 December for 17 nights, to spend Christmas & New Year with our 3 children (Anthony 31, Debbie 29, David 21), all of whom were Dive Masters working with Phuket Divers based in Khao Lak.
Debbie & her instructor boyfriend left KL on Christmas Day evening to go on a 4-day live-aboard boat dive trip to the Similans. My husband & I had planned to meet our two sons on the beach the next morning to relax (as we had been really busy until then, as we had only had an hour or so on the beach on Christmas Eve).
Next morning - Boxing Day - we had finished breakfast in the restaurant on the beach and gone back to our 2-storey "bungalow" (we were on the top floor) to get our beach things. My husband suddenly changed his mind and said he’d walk into KL to see about a hire car and he’d meet me on the beach. However, very surprisingly for me as I am a bit of a sun worshipper, I said I would go with him, so we set off at 10.10 am, reaching our sons’ accommodation (the dive master hut in KL) at 10.24. We woke David, who he said he’d have some breakfast and then join us at the car hire place about 50 yards down the road.
We walked along the road about 50 yards when suddenly people started running around excitedly, then cars started hooting & motor bikes rushing about, then screaming started. We obviously knew something was wrong & tried to convey the question. Someone shouted landslide, landslide, so we thought there'd been an accident up the road or something. But everyone was in such a panic we rushed back to the dive master hut & David was outside. We woke Anthony & his girlfriend, Lei, & we all walked up the road a bit. Suddenly, injured people started coming up from the beach – the first person we saw was a man with all the skin gone from his front. Then obviously the word got about that there'd been a giant wave.
We started trying to help people who were all in various states of undress, shock, etc. Blood everywhere, gashes in legs, heads & so on. One woman's bikini top was half off so I put it back on her. We fetched water & tried to clean up some wounds. I suddenly said oh my god, the Similan islands, Debbie’s out there. We all just stared at each other as the realisation hit that she was most likely dead. From then on, for the next 36 hours, there was this huge lump of frozen fear & dread in the pit of all our stomachs and it was difficult to function.
Then suddenly a huge panic set in as people yelled another wave coming - run, run, run up the mountain. You could taste the fear, it was awful. We grabbed a bottle of water, our 3 men picked up this German woman whose leg was badly broken at the knee and carried her while we all tried to run up this long wide track lined with tall rubber trees. Very difficult in over 90 deg of heat with a badly injured woman who kept screaming in pain. We finally reached the end of the track & left the woman with several other injured people. There were some vehicles there to take the injured people further on, as it would be impossible to carry the badly injured up this mountain.
We started up the mountain with many many other refugees - injured and uninjured, including one Swedish boy about 9 yrs old, whose calf was ripped open at the back as well as other injuries, but the leg was horrific. His parents were also missing. We climbed up & up, along narrow twisty, slippery track up through a rubber tree plantation, absolutely DRIPPING pouring in perspiration until we thought we might be safe. We'd reached a short of ledge. A Dutch couple who had been on the previous diving trip with Anthony were with us. They'd been asleep in their bungalow in Countryside resort on the beach, theirs was at the back. He'd heard screaming, looked out the window in time to see a giant wall of water coming over the swim pool. He screamed RUN RUN and they just had time to grab the first item of clothing next to them cos they were naked. He had shorty swim trunks & she had vest & thong, neither had shoes.
Anyway, we all sat for about 3 hours, just staring & telling each other what had happened to us. Just a couple of yards away was a group of Swedes & all around us were groups of other people. We were the only Brits. Behind us there was a German woman who was in complete shock as her husband was missing, her daughter was with her. Then a Swedish tour rep came up to us all & told us there was a camp set up across the way which was safe & suggested we all came but that we'd have to go down to the road & walk for 10 mins before getting to it. We all decided to stay where we were, as we were all frightened of more waves coming, but meanwhile everyone put their names & nationalities down on a piece of paper he'd brought.
Our older son decided (insisted) on going back to their place to fetch water, etc. One anxious hour later he came back with a rucksack full of clothes, a kit bag full of bottled water & a huge jerry can full of water. We then decided to move to a different place so we could all sleep later, as we were going to spend the night. This we did, climbing higher and higher, when a Thai man suddenly appeared & told us to follow him 500m to his house where we could all stay. However, it wasn’t 500m, more like 5km - up more & more steep mountain into the jungle proper. We were all utterly exhausted, sick, frightened, scared of snakes and surrounded by swarms of mosquitoes & we had no protection. We eventually reached a clearing with his house on stilts; groups of people around fires the Thaïs had built – I would guess there to have been about 60-80 people altogether. A man appeared later with a bag full of takeaway packs of noodles he'd gone down to fetch especially so each group got one pack so we had a mouthful each. Otherwise we had no food for 36 hours.
There then passed the most uncomfortable, horrific night ever. When it got dark, the noise from insects (cicadas?) was deafening, the fires smoked incessantly but we had to keep them going to try to keep mosquitoes away & snakes! The ground was obviously hard, we'd tried to line it with banana palm leaves but I don’t recommend it, as each one had a thick very hard stem up the middle & we spent all night trying to shift them, along with funny nut things that somehow got under us. My husband & I had a sleeping bag each, which was ghastly, because they were nylon so in that heat we stifled but we at least had protection against mosquitoes, etc, for our bodies. But things did crawl in & I had bites next morning. A few times in the night we got out of the sleeping bags to go to the edge of the clearing for a pee, taking the small torch we were all sharing and shining it widely over the ground as we walked, terrified of snakes. Getting back to the sleeping bags then meant opening them right out & shining the torch on to them to check no snake had slithered in.
Anthony meanwhile dished out a few clothes to people who had nothing. The Dutch girl with us wore a t-shirt like shorts to cover her thong, poor girl. People just sat around in their little groups, talking very quietly to each other.
Believe it or not, at about 3 am a film crew turned up with camcorder, spotlight etc, & filmed us. I went up & asked if they were some sort of news team They were, & they told us there'd been a huge earthquake in Sumatra, which caused the tsunami & that after shocks were expected, more waves, etc, etc, Some German man shouted at them to turn the light off. I asked if they knew anything about the Similans and was told that island no eight had been flattened by the tsunami but that no other news had come in and they had no news of the boats.
At just before sunrise we prepared to leave. One man could hardly walk so I gave him a distalgesic in the hope that it would dull his pain a bit to help him down the mountain. Everyone trouped down the mountain very slowly, it was worse in a way going down because we were all pretty weak & tired from lack of sleep & so much stress. It took about an hour to get down by which time my legs wd hardly work they were trembling so much. We gathered at the bottom & then made our way back to the dive master hut & then to a meeting point at the Sea Dragon (one of the other dive operator outfits in Khao Lak).
Chris & Anthony then went to see what had happened to our resort – they were given a lift on a Sea Dragon motor bike (all 3 on the bike!). They were gone for some time and then came back with, incredibly, two of our suitcases and most of our belongings!!!! However, the reception office was no longer there so our passports & flight tickets & travellers cheques were gone in the waves. Chris & Anthony found that the resort had been completely flattened apart from the second-storey of the 4 bungalows right at the back - one of which was ours. The pillars were still standing but the downstairs bungalows had been completely trashed. There were bodies on the track we had walked up the previous day and there were bodies everywhere. We put all our stuff in the dive master hut & went back to be with others.
They both went back (walked this time) a second time to retrieve odds & ends from our bungalow. Incredibly, the only things missing were Chris's timberland shoes, his swim trunks, a pair of trousers and several other, unimportant, things. There were several books that had been soaked beyond retrieval. The water had obviously entered our bungalow through the window but had not done much damage to it. All the other upstairs bungalow were, however, very badly damaged. Chris & Anthony helped 2 Swedish chaps look for a member of their party who was missing. they had been on the beach at the time of the wave & had managed to run away having realised the situation quickly enough (3 families with one father missing). They helped gather recognisable belongings of the other Swedish people in the resort.
One couple had been on the beach when the sea had suddenly been sucked out about 2 kms. Everyone stared, what a phenomenon, people walked out to pick up shells, took photos, etc. One couple, the husband went out to take pics & she didn't like it, felt something wrong so told him to come back but he didn't. She walked away & then the wave came so she escaped & he died. There were so many many stores from people how they escaped.
Anyway, while they were still there at the bungalow, David & I were waiting anxiously when suddenly there were sirens of police cars & shouting on megaphone, RUN RUN RUN, another wave is coming (a helicopter was overhead as well, so everyone assumed they could see the wave). There was nothing for it but for us to run with everyone else in a flat panic, knowing Chris and Anthony were down there and that this time there was nothing between our bungalow and the beach to stop the water. A truck stopped & dragged us into the back & we were driven very fast up a different track towards the safe place on the hill the Swede rep had told us about. After several minutes, David then insisted on borrowing a mountain bike to just ride to the end of the track to see if he could spot the others. After an appallingly fear-filled half hour, Chris & Anthony appeared, with David and the bike in the back of another truck. Thank God. We also found Kirsty, Debbie’s best friend who was also living in Khao Lak and working as a teacher. She'd been asleep in her house & was woken by her boyfriend who'd felt something was wrong & came back just in time. She had spent the night up the mountain as well, dressed in her silk pyjamas, which she was till wearing & was very hot. Chris gave her a t-shirt. She was in an almost hysterical state, not knowing whether any of us were alive. Her Thai boyfriend lost 14 members of his family in the tsunami.
Among all the other emotions, there was this overriding FEAR of Debbie being dead. On Christmas day, just before they’d left on the boat trip, I’d taken a couple of pics of her in a short white skirt & red top, with a santa hat on, cos she wanted to be Christmassy for the punters on the boat, and all I could see was Debbie in this outfit posing on a motorbike. David however, all along was convinced she was still alive because he tends to get a sick feeling or something when anything is wrong with any of his family (he has done so a few times before). But this of course was not really of any help to me as I was convinced she was dead, despite various so-called experts telling us that the safest place was at sea. In addition, there was this awful sick feeling of not being able to tell anyone at home that we were ok, knowing how they would be feeling as we knew that by now the news would be worldwide. I could imagine how our families would be feeling, as I knew how we felt.
After a few hours they started evacuating everyone to a wat (temple) between KL and Phuket (about 10 kms away from us). We however, could not possibly leave without knowing what had happened to Debbie. The Dutch couple (Jos & Anne Marie) went as well, as they had literally nothing except what they stood up in and some unmatching sandals they’d found for their feet. We didn’t have much cash on us but we gave them a Thai banknote, worth about £14, and they both cried. There were no communications whatsoever, the mobile signals had all gone as had the electricity. In fact, now I come to think of it, that was the very first inkling I had of something very serious because, before we knew of the wave, but when people were yelling, I checked our mobiles (one Thai & a UK one) and no signal on either. So something serious had obviously taken the signal.
At some point during Monday, we had been at the dive master hut when we realised that the family next door was in a terrible state of grief. Anthony and David went to find out what had happened and one of their two little boys (they had a two year old and a four year old – such beautiful children, with huge dark eyes & long lashes) had been on the beach with a friend of the family and they had disappeared. Anthony and David went down to the beach with the father to try to find them. They never did find the four year old but found the woman he’d been with – dead, mangled in a tree. They saw such horrific sights and were very quiet for a long time after that. David had taken several lovely photographs of the two little boys on Christmas Day, each with a red santa hat on trimmed with white fur. (David later sent these photos to the family).
We spent most of the rest of the day at the Sea Dragon, just waiting for news. There was a big board with lists of people who were known to be alive, dead or missing. More people kept coming in, including Sea Dragon's dive boats. The people on those boats said that 40-50 boats had sheltered behind Similan island no 8 the night before. However, that didn't help us at all because the news team had told us that island 8 had been flattened by the wave.
There were one or two more wave alerts as we'd come to call them. The Thaïs just went into flat panic & ran so of course this infected us as well and we all ran with them. We had plenty of bottled water but not really any proper food. The Thaïs are such a friendly and wonderful people, they kept giving us water, but we all had loads, more than we could carry, also medicine, first-aid stuff, etc. & little bits of food, all cold fried rice, which was obviously at least 24 hrs old. I really love fried rice, but......
The day dragged by in a haze of fear, people just sat numbly staring (apart from the times we all ran from yet another police car megaphone shouting RUN RUN more waves). At around 6pm, we suddenly heard someone's mobile receiving a text message. We rushed up to him & sure enough he had a signal. We checked ours & we had a signal too. Before we could ring anyone, dozens of messages came flooding in, one after the other. We immediately rang various people. Tried to contact Debbie but no signal there. Dread returned full force. Several people rang home with our mobile. Everyone's signal then disappeared. It was dark then, we were still at Sea Dragon & suddenly got a message that someone had heard the two boats from Phuket Divers (Anthony, Debbie & David’s outfit) were returning & were safe, but no news on any individual.
In fact, we discovered later, Debbie & Jerry had left the dive boat & had come ashore in a naval boat, armed with blankets, torches, first aid equipment, compass, etc, etc, as by this time they'd been sent a text by someone saying that Khao Lak was completely devastated, hundreds dead (so they thought we all were) and came convinced they were going to have to trek thro the jungle to get there!! When they’d reached shore in the naval boat, they saw a body floating in the sea. The pier at (I think it was called Tap Lamu) had been completely destroyed.
They eventually reached us at about 8 o'clock that evening. You can imagine the emotion of that moment. In fact, all of our family back in the UK knew Debbie was safe before we did, thanks to my sister hassling the Foreign Office half the night and becoming Sherlock Holmes to get through to the boss of Phuket Divers, insisting on getting boat's phone no, but she was given jerry's mobile number, but we didn't know all this at the time.
We then heard their story. Debbie had been diving, had been down about 35 mins, when suddenly the current got very, very strong & she turned to her punters with one arm stretched out & grinned, Hey, look at me, I’m superman, as she was whizzed along. However, suddenly the coral disappeared under clouds of swirling masses of sand & they knew something was wrong. in fact, she was propelled fast up to the surface, which would have been very dangerous & resulted in the bends, if she hadn't just had a 4-day break from diving. Jerry managed to do a decompression stop. He's an instructor & is far more experienced than Debbie & managed to prevent himself from being pushed so fast up to the surface. Some of the people they had taken diving ended up round the other side of the island – luckily alive.
They were hauled up on to the boat by the captain who was in a flat panic. But they didn't know what had happened, just thought the sea was having a bit of a full-moon funny! They tried to watch a little TV in the captain’s cabin but couldn’t understand most of what was being said as it was obviously in Thai, but suddenly they saw on the ticker-tape at the bottom of the screen, the word tsunami, but still didn’t fully know the significance. It was hours before they knew and then spent hours thinking we must all be dead.
We spent that (Monday 27th) night in 4 bungalows at Debbie’s & Jerry’s place – Jai Bungalows, set back from the road on the opposite side from the beach side. Three of them had been left open by the owner (Jai) so anyone who needed them could use them!! There were by this time 8 of us, us 5, Jerry & Lei & a fellow instructor, a German girl called Petra. In the middle of the night, we had another panic as I suddenly heard water, we quickly put clothes on & rushed to door, could hear very heavy surf pounding, which is not usual for this coastline. However, common sense set in with Chris who said that if it was a tidal wave it would not be doing a surf pounding thing.
We got up as soon as it was light, packed & discovered that Debbie had been woken in the middle of the night by a phone call (got signal back) from someone to say run run run, another wave!!! but by then she’d had enough and they decided to stay put. If the wave came again, they wouldn’t be able to outrun it). We had a family conference & spent most of the morning trying to find transport to get us out of Khao Lak, which by now was becoming extremely smelly in the heat with all those bodies, which had not yet been removed. In fact, there were four bodies in the bus stop shelter just across the road; they'd been there for 48 hours. Also, no electricity, no food, & water would soon run out, including running water (which amazingly we still had because it was in storage tanks but would soon dry out because it's pumped up electrically).
After a worrying four hours or so we got out in two vehicles, a German’s truck which took all our loads of luggage (for all eight of us), water, etc, in the back with Anthony & David lying on top, using sarong as turbans to protect them from the sun. The rest of us squeezed into a minivan.
We passed through the next village - Bang Ngang, which was lower down than Khao Lak and completely & utterly trashed. A naval gunboat which was moored off shore to give protection to the Royal Thai princess who was staying locally had been washed 1.5 km inland!! In fact, her son died.
We passed a large articulated lorry full of dead bodies, it was total destruction everywhere. Anthony & David had to put the sarong over their mouths & noses.
After 4 hours we reached Surat Thani, a town on opposite coast, on the Gulf of Thailand opposite Ko Samui, & spent 2 nights in a hotel, opposite...... Tesco !! Another unreal occurrence in an already unreal nightmare. In our rooms, we switched on the TV and saw for the first time the extent (then) of the whole disaster, totally unbelievable – we were glued to the TV for hours.
While there, we sorted out new airline tickets for all of us, then left for Khanom, further south, where we stayed for six nights. New Year’s Eve was spent at that hotel with a big party of Swedes, who had been on Koh Lanta during the tsunami but had all managed to escape unscathed. We stayed up until midnight with them (we were the only ones staying in the hotel by then) and that was very emotional.
By this time, we were all safe and rested and fed, but trying to come to terms with what had happened and why, amidst all the death & destruction, against all odds & in a series of circumstances, all our family had remained intact. It was so totally unbelievable that Chris should have changed his mind at the last minute & also that I didn't go to the beach.
We and the children went to Bangkok for four nights. Chris and I had to get replacement passports, and then Chris and I flew home (as originally planned) on 10 January. That was one of the most difficult and heartbreaking things I have ever had to do – say goodbye to our three children, who were staying on in Thailand, after all we had been through.
The next few weeks were terrible. We both slept badly and when we did sleep it was full of nightmares. I remember the overriding feeling was of unreality – as thought I wasn’t there, as thought none of it had happened. We both went back to work after a day or so, thinking it would be best to keep busy. It was, but the drive to and from work was like a dream and usually I had tears pouring down my face most of the way. I went to the doctor eventually and was told what I already knew, that I was suffering from post-traumatic stress. I was given a document to read and that was when I discovered that this unreality feeling was a major part of post-traumatic stress.
Another major part of it was the feeling of guilt – guilt that we had all survived, guilt that we had not been injured, guilt that most of our luggage had not been lost (how on earth could our “bungalow” have been the only one still intact? How on earth had we not been on the beach, when that was what we’d planned so definitely the day before? How? Why?). Guilt that we hadn’t somehow done more to help people.
We have heard several times from the Dutch couple, Jos & Anne Marie. Things happened very quickly for them after they left us in Khao Lak on Monday 27th. They were on an aeroplane back to Holland by 3 am. Jos said he bought a pack of cigarettes with the money we gave them and the rest they gave to a tsunami appeal fund. They found it extremely hard when they got back, and didn’t go back to work for a few months.
We both felt (and still feel) so desperate for those who lost loved ones in the tsunami. We still can’t believe that Debbie was returned to us.
I still get very tearful at the slightest thing, still have bad dreams – although not every night – and still feel bereft that all our children aren’t with us, wrapped in cotton wool! Debbie is diving in Majorca with Jerry, David is in Vietnam doing a TEFL course and Anthony is in China, working. We will hopefully see one or more of them at Christmas.
I have since read so many accounts from other people, and have come to realise that we all have similar feelings, thoughts and nightmares. I keep stumbling across other websites and have only just found this one. It certainly helps a little to read of other people’s experiences.
I pray for all those who lost loved ones – particularly for those whose loved ones were never found. Our three children lost many friends.