Sunday, April 26, 2009

CHAPTER 16: A Washing Machine Springs a Leak

A Washing Machine Springs a Leak

This is an excerpt from Tsunami survivor Aaron Le Boutillier in his book “And Then One Morning.” For anyone caught up in the tsunami, however, it was all over in a matter of minutes. They were either alive or dead. Over a quarter of a million people lost their lives while millions who survived had to deal with the tragedy in countless ways. Aaron continues to live and work in Southeast Asia. The proceeds of his book continue to make a difference in Thailand. Read more about Aaron and his book here:

Aaron Le Boutillier

Chapter 16 - A Washing Machine Springs a Leak

At about ten the next morning I was in that comfortable slumber zone that is somewhere between being fully awake and fully asleep. Neither here nor there. I was vaguely aware of what was happening around me. I could recall that it had been a normal evening last night and I had no reason to leap out of bed. I turned over and listened to the sounds of the village. After last night I was a long way from being fully awake.

Suddenly my brain started informing me that there was a lot of commotion outside in the form of children screaming. I woke briefly and started thinking that someone was playing a joke and scaring the kids. Idiots. In my morning haze I made out that the sounds were similar to that of children playing and screaming. As I turned over, something in my mind alerted me to the fact that the screaming children sounded genuine almost making me scared to listen to them. At least my brain told me these were children. After all, why would adults be screaming like that? My memory drifted back to the bizarre worry I had last night about a fire. I could not smell any burning. But the screaming continued and now I could hear it was mixed with another noise that was building. A crunching, grinding and increasingly roaring noise. Half awake and half asleep I suddenly became very much awake. It would be almost another two days before I would sleep again.

As I finally awoke I heard in Thai, screams of wing wing which means ‘run, run’ and total confusion and panic. Mixed in with the screams was the sound of feet pounding on the sand street outside my window. I jumped out of bed and pushed open my wooden window. I looked down on to the street. Straight away I saw Heinz with Anna under his arms and Tina holding on to his hand. I shouted down to him and Heinz looked at me for a brief second with eyes that will haunt me till the day I die.

They were the eyes of pure animal fear, eyes of pure animal panic and eyes of utter human disbelief. My throat instantly dried up and I found myself with a tear in the corner of my eye as I stared at the total panic and uncertainty that had gripped the so-certain Heinz as he stood staring at what I was about to see. At first I saw a small rivulet of water trickling down the street and started thinking: someone’s washing machine had flooded.

Heinz turned with his two daughters and ran into his shop. He pulled down the metal shutters to the shop behind him. I looked down the street and could only see people, children, tourists, Thais running, “wing wing run run” they screamed. In Thai, in English, in Swedish, in German, in Danish, in Hebrew, in Russian. I turned from the window to run out of my bedroom and on to the open staircase leading down to the street. I felt trapped but already I knew that going down those stairs was not an option. My first thought was that there was a mad man with a gun or a knife running down the street and randomly hitting out to anyone that got in his way. But I had not heard any gunshots, yet. I ran on to the staircase expecting to see a group of mad psychotic terrorists. I had not heard an explosion, yet. Just a thousand or more screams in tens of different languages. A United Nations of fear and panic.

I got half way down the stairs when I could clearly see the reason for panic. It had nothing do with Mister Osama and his compatriots. The trickle of water from the leaky washing machine had now risen slightly in the past few seconds from first opening my bedroom window. It was now hurtling down the street at an alarming speed. It was literally being pumped towards me, or so it seemed, by some unseen power behind. As I looked down towards Mama Restaurant and the main street I could see two walls of water surging around Angelo’s restaurant where we had enjoyed a magical Christmas Day evening the night before. The two walls of water converged on the corner shop.

The travel agent on the opposite side of the main street imploded and exploded all in one go as it seemed to be morphing into a lump of contorted wood and corrugated iron interspersed with the shattering sound of glass. In that split second I turned my head to the side and watched for maybe one second as another wall of water and the imploded/exploded remains of the building came surging towards me. The sound of the power of water, the crunching and folding of buildings and the screams of desperation, the panic of people being overtaken by this wall mesmerized me as I stood there. I was like a rabbit sat looking at the headlights.

The wall of water and mixed up rubble and mixed up people hit my flimsy staircase within a second or two. I instinctively ran back up the stairs towards my room. Really, there was nowhere else to run. The sound was deafening and the shrills and panic of fear were all around me. It was the sound of solid buildings being crushed and wooden pillars groaning under the immense force, the power, of the water that were most unusual and new to me. As I got to the top of the staircase I saw the couple in the room next to me standing outside their door completely frozen and embracing each other.

I ran straight down the narrow corridor and started panicking, heavily. There was nowhere to go. I looked back and knew that if the wall of water chose to come up the wooden staircase, the route I had just come along, then it was goodbye Aaron. That was a quick life.

The water was rushing through the narrow opening to the street and being funnelled at great force into the stair well as it rushed down faster than any human could run. I started jumping up and banging on the ceiling and the walls in a desperate attempt to find an escape route that would at least take me further up than this level which was now perilously close to the rising wall of water. It was becoming a futile attempt. I started screaming at the couple who continued to stand and hold each other.

“Fuck. We’re going to die. Fuck.”

I repeated what was already seemingly obvious.

I must have run up and down the narrow corridor for a few seconds before giving up the futile search and going back to the open staircase. The water was now surging around my thighs and I pushed both my hands against the side of the narrow wooden corridor and looked at the incredible but terrifying sight in front of me. The level of the water was now just below my line of sight. The current out in the street was incredible and the sound of buildings collapsing around me was deafening. The screams were now impossible to hear over the thunderous roar of the water and in that brief moment I knew this was it.

I was going to die. For the first time in my life I had resigned myself to dying. No more tomorrows, no more dreams, no more anything. It was goodbye Banana Boat Man. Goodbye to his close friend Mister Bum Boil. Goodbye Mum, goodbye Dad. Whoosh, that was Aaron Le Boutillier. Remember him? He had some grand plans for making a mint before he retired at forty. And then one day a leaking washing machine drowned him. What a way to go.

I stood in the corridor, tensioned against the walls and prepared myself that any second the current would finally sweep my legs from me and I would join the torrent of mangled wood, concrete, glass and corrugated roofing and thrashing, panic-driven humans that was still rushing passed me and on to wherever it was next headed.

My immediate thought in those brief seconds were of my Mum. I apologized to her in my mind for not being quick or smart enough to outwit this disaster and also for the pain I would put her in over the next few weeks. I closed my eyes and could feel my position and stability weakening as the water surged more.

The inherent ability a human, any animal really, has to survive is incredible. We’ve all read about animals that are stuck in traps or snares that will chew their way through a leg to release themselves. A few years ago I recall reading about a rock-climber who had an accident where he ended up with his arm trapped under a huge boulder on a lonely mountain far from anybody. After about the third day when he realised he was not going to be found and that he was also not going to live too much longer he got a small knife and slowly but surely he amputated his arm and freed himself. He lived to tell the tale.

Well anybody who has read this far will now know that I lived to tell the tale! However, I have no recollection of what happened in those next few seconds. I did not slowly and methodically amputate an arm. Or any other appendage for that matter. One second I was braced between the two corridor walls and feeling my grip sliding away as the waters continued to claw at my body. The next second I was on a balcony. The distance between where I had been standing and next door was minimal but I must have just leaped across. I then found myself running across the balcony towards the roof of the post office which was directly in front of the Phi Phi Hotel. From the balcony there was a small rise in height to the next roof top which I clambered up on. Within a few seconds I had gone from accepting death to being perched on the apex of a corrugated roof two buildings down from my original position.

As I sat perched on the roof as nonchalantly as if this was an everyday happening for Aaron the Roof Percher, I was overcome with an enormous explosion of relief.

“ I’m alive. I am alive. I do not believe it.”

For now. I had no clue what had happened and at that particular moment as I was perched on my corrugated iron roof I was not really trying to analyse what had gone on and what might yet go on. I was alive. Well alive. For now.


Read more from Aaron Le Boutillier’ s book, “And Then One Morning” here:

Chapter 16 - A Washing Machine Springs a Leak
(what happened in those initial minutes when the first wave hit).

Chapter 17 - Rumbles down below
(in a brief second – how do you process what is happening to you?)

Chapter 18 - Hey Ma, I’m on top of the World
(Saving people!)

Chapter 19 – On the Edge of the Ring of Fire
(How could this happen?)

Chapter 20 – Phi Phi Hotel Becomes Sanctuary

Read more survivor stories at: TSUNAMI SURVIVOR SITE



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