Sunday, April 26, 2009

CHAPTER 18: Hey Ma, I'm on top of the World


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 18 - Hey Ma, I’m on top of the World

I could see that if I ran across the apex of the roof I would arrive at one of the Phi Phi Hotel balconies which with one small jump I could climb over and on to. I now had my path of further escape clearly mapped out. However, instead of taking this, I simply sat there mesmerized by what had happened. I still could not, or would not, comprehend it.

From my new vantage point I could see into the living area of Heinz’s former apartment above Moskito. And I could see the new manager Christophe looking out of the window at the carnage. I shouted to him to see if Heinz and the family were with him. He shrugged his shoulders in a Gaelic sort of way and shook his head and lifted his hands up in desperation.

My heart sank. They were not with him and yet I had seen Heinz run with the girls back into the shop. He had pulled down the shutters. Surely he would then have made for the stairs and climbed upward and away from the water. I felt a sudden sickening of the stomach but reassured myself that if anyone was going to survive this thing, it would be Heinz. And he would have the girls with him. And what of Oiy and Little Dino? I had not seen them at all. Just Heinz and the girls. Where were they?

This was the first time in my life that I had heard terror. Sheer terror expressed en masse in so many different languages. And all at once. And a few seconds before I had made my modest little contribution as I ran up and down the corridor screaming at a couple who were holding on to each other with all the love in the World they had for each other that we, meaning certainly me and them, were going to die.

As I sat on the roof my ears grew accustomed to the awful and terrifying wailing noises. What was most disturbing were the screams of people from all directions, shouts for help and just screams of undecipherable words in many languages (Thai, English, Swedish, German, Danish, Japanese, Kohrean – you name it, they screamed it) of sheer panic and desperation. As I scanned over the roof tops I saw semi-naked and naked bodies scrambling on to other roof tops. I saw people hanging on to telephone poles. I saw people hanging on to signage. Anything that was available as the current rushed passed them. Some people were holding on to the hands of others less fortunate who were struggling against the waters. It seemed to have no intention of stopping. A relentlessly rises mass of the stuff. Some people were just lying on the roof tops with obvious injuries made apparent by the strange way their limbs were placed.

After a few more seconds, I saw JP’s head as he leaned out of one of his windows on the top floor of Fatty’s. This made the corner of the street on to the local market area. We both looked at each other. There was no need for words. We were both quite simply just happy to see each other. He was alive. I was alive. Thank God, or the Gods, for that. Looking down the street I also saw Angelo with his daughter who had been visiting him from France. He had a group of his staff on the balcony next to what now remained of his restaurant. They were alive. I was alive. Thank God, or the Gods, for that. And then I thought of Heinz. And I thought of Oiy. And I thought of Tina. And I thought of Anna. And I thought of Little Dino.

I was on Phi Phi because of these five people. Sure, it was great to see JP, Angelo, and other friends I had made over the years. But I had come to Phi Phi primarily to see Heinz and to help him and his family move to Phuket. To start a new life. The end of eighteen year on Phi Phi and the start of a whole new adventure.

As I looked at his wrecked dive shop I found myself thinking how he and his family had moved from their upstairs apartment to downstairs so that Christophe and his girlfriend could get established. I thought about how Oiy had argued about going upstairs to use the bathroom. How I remember a million years ago seeing Heinz with Anna and Tina down in the street below me. Where the fuck were they now? They had not gone upstairs and joined Christophe. Why not?

By this stage, the water was starting to recede. It must have been only a few minutes that the water level stayed as high as it did. But it still took a long long time for ten or fifteen feet of water to drain away. Water now seemed to be rushing in the opposite direction as it drained down the street just as quick as it had rushed up it.

I jumped down from my roof-top perch on to the balcony that I had run across and tried to peer into Moskito dive shop. The metal shutter that I saw Heinz pull down was completely ripped off and I could see directly into the carnage that had been his pride and joy. The water at this stage was about head height in the street and there was the faintest hint of a voice mumbling, trying to cry out but failing miserably, within the carnage inside. My first thought was that this was Oiy or one of the daughters as the voice was quite clearly female.

I walked along the balcony and started climbing down the external staircase. I stopped half way where the water line was and once again peered in to Moskito where I could make out the shape of a woman pinned under the wooden partition that had once separated the main shop from the retail shop next door. The partition had collapsed and one of the wooden struts had fallen across the woman and had trapped her. I could see she was alive but she was having trouble breathing as the level of the water rushing back passed her was just below her jaw line. She was choking on water that was splashing in to her mouth. She could not move because of the wreckage pinning her in place. I had no idea who she was. She looked Thai and I could only assume that she was Oiy.

I would be lying if I wrote about how I dived in to the torrent of water and swam across the street to save her. I couldn’t. I was still too shocked at what had happened and what was still happening around me. I hesitated. I just stared at the woman. I knew that I wanted to do something. But I was afraid of the water which was now racing down the lane while slowly reducing its depth. And I was afraid of the hidden sharp, jagged bits of rubble that were being swept along with in it.

I walked slowly further down the stairs until my feet were immersed in the flow of water. There was a washing machine which had been lodged against the staircase with a very long rubber hose. It was being swirled around in the current of debris. I pulled the hose and wrapped it around my wrist and slowly lowered myself into the water. By this stage the water was only waist high and as my feet touched the ground I could feel the force of the water pulling me off-balance. It was strong but I was confident I could reach across the narrow street to Moskito. After all, on an island with no cars the widest of streets are little more than narrow lanes.

I stood there for maybe a minute or so. After all, I was safe. I was still uncertain as to going over. The woman was struggling but she was keeping her head above the water, which was now receding at last. My heart was thumping and her increasingly feeble moans for help were making me anxious. As I looked around I remember seeing a group of people on the roofs and on the balcony of the hotel. They all looked like they were under a spell. They just stared all around themselves. Some were half dressed in tattered clothes. Others were just kneeling and hugging their bodies. Staring blankly, almost catatonic.

I made the plunge. I started wading across the street and instantly knew I was doing the right thing. It didn’t take long to reach the front of the shop. I don’t know how, but when I reached the shop the water level was different and I found myself swimming rather forcibly into Moskito. The woman seemed completely unresponsive at my sudden appearance. She was bleeding from her forehead and apart from a few stands of clothing she was naked. Her clothes had been torn from her body by the force of the water. Seeing where she was pinned I was really amazed she was still alive.

I could make out that she was not Oiy. Oiy was a slender woman while this was another large-framed lady who I could not recognize. I learned later that she was a friend of the owner of the Thai restaurant opposite Moskito who had been washed into the shop as the water retreated.

As I swam in I became very concerned at the noises still coming from all directions. It was a groaning of wooden beams and I could clearly see that most of the internal walls of Moskito had collapsed. I was acutely aware that the whole ceiling could come tumbling down on top of me at any moment. As I looked up at the ceiling I saw drops of water forming and splashing down all around me. I have a vivid memory of treading water for a few seconds as if I was in cave and being momentarily hypnotized by the strange environment I was in. To see the familiar dive shop swirling with rubble, fax machines and computers and an almost naked Thai lady who was barely able to speak trapped under rubble was unsettling. This was not Thailand.

I reached the woman and could clearly see she was badly injured as well as suffering from shock. The wood came away quite easily but my problem was with her. It was at this stage I first heard a phrase that would be repeated many times over the next hour or more.

“The second wave.”

“There’s another surge.”

This echoed into the shop from outside. I was starting to panic once again. When I look back I think I have panicked once or twice in some thirty years or more. I had now panicked several times in as many minutes. My immediate thought was:

“Now come on God. Give me a break will you. This really isn’t playing the game you know.”

I had to really breathe deep to stay in there with her and help her out. My first instinct was to get the hell out the shop and back to the safety of the external staircase opposite. Sanctuary. However, I managed to pull, rather ungracefully, the woman from the rubble so she was now in my arms as I was treading water. She didn’t struggle or try and hit me, as I had been taught may happen on various diving rescue courses. She was just incapable of helping herself. She was not hysterical, just frozen with fear and unable to move. Like so many others, she was in a state of catatonia.

“Chuay eng.”

I pleaded with her.

“Chuay eng.”

I repeated, the Thai phrase for ‘help yourself’.

She finally started to move and it wasn’t long before we had reached the entrance to the shop and managed to wade across the street. By this time there were two Thais standing on the staircase of what had been my Guesthouse and they reached out and grabbed a hand each and pulled her out of the water and on to the staircase. I pulled myself up and seeing she was apparently safe I returned my attention to looking after Number One. I ran back on to the roof apex (my sanctuary from the first wave) in front of the hotel and gingerly walked across the apex to the balcony. I was to repeat this walk many times over the next hour or so.

I could see once again that Angelo was standing on the balcony down the street and he could clearly see my path to the Phi Phi Hotel. The water was still running down the street, but was by this stage only knee height. People were still shouting about the second wave and Angelo indicated to me that he wanted to get his daughter and staff to the relative safety of the more solid, concrete Phi Phi Hotel. But he was now obviously concerned with the references to more waves. After a few seconds of screaming to each other across the roof-tops we threw caution to the wind and met in the street. We started evacuating people from his restaurant up the stairs of my former guesthouse, to the balcony across, and up on to the apex of the roof.

This became the only route to the hotel for people trapped in this area and we assisted around thirty people to the hotel this way. JP and his family also appeared at this time. JP and I gave each other a hug but said nothing. The main problems with this route was that the climb from the balcony to the apex was just a little too high for most so I sat on the end of the roof and physically pulled people up. As I had walked across the roof several times already I had come to realize that you had to walk directly on the apex or on the nails that connected the corrugated roofing to the struts of the roof structure. Anywhere else and you would simply risk falling through. How nobody fell through I will never know. That roof bent and flexed under the weight of many people that morning and I had my stomach in my mouth on more than one occasion. But it held.


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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