Sunday, April 26, 2009

CHAPTER 20: Phi Phi Hotel Becomes a Sanctuary

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 20 – Phi Phi Hotel Becomes Sanctuary

After helping people across the roof I finally made my way to the Phi Phi Hotel balcony. My bare feet were now blistering thanks to the metal roof. And I desperately needed water. The apex of the roof was scorching hot in the late morning tropical sun and I was still only dressed in my underpants which I had been wearing when I jumped out of bed on hearing those first terrifying screams. Many a naked or semi-naked person had also been rudely awakened by this still incomprehensible event. Others, like the Thai lady I first helped, had merely had their clothes ripped from their bodies by the force of the water.

By the time I had hauled myself on to the solid concrete balcony of the Phi Phi Hotel I was 100% charged up with adrenalin. It was beginning to flow out of my ears. I had found my escape path in case of the second surge that people were still talking about. And I had now decided that I would go back down on to the street and look for my friends, Heinz and Oiy. There were many people on the balcony of the Phi Phi Hotel that I climbed into and as I made my way into the hotel I could clearly see that seemingly everyone on the island had been making their way across roof tops to the hotel and that many had run here when the initial wave had washed in. There were bodies everywhere. But, thankfully, they were all alive. A quick glance around told me that Heinz and Oiy and the kids were not here.

As I made way down the corridors of the second floor there were people everywhere administering first aid and using pieces of clothing to tie off wounds. I saw one guy sitting in a room with a mass of clothing tightly wrapped around his head covering a horrific injury. His face was swollen out of proportion and he was just staring into space. The wave had only just receded. But already somebody had rescued this guy and had dressed his horrific wounds as best they could. He was alive and clearly looked as if he would live now. He just sat and stared ahead. Incapable of doing anything. I wanted to say:

“You’re alive, you’re safe. Relax.”

But these words of comfort seemed fatuous. I left him to his own silent contemplation. What might he have seen and experienced? Was he on a honeymoon and seen his wife torn from his fingers? If so, then my words would not have helped. Would not have soothed. My words would have been like God twisting the knife. Thanks God.

But this man’s life had been saved by someone’s unacknowledged and selfless act. This was not the first I saw. It was not the last. And in all modesty I do believe that I did my small share. We all did. In the next few hours thousand of quietly unacknowledged and selfless acts of humanity were carried out.

As I turned left down another corridor I saw a group of Scandinavians attempting to knock down the doors on both sides of the corridor. They explained that there were people outside in the wash and we could possibly try and haul them out of the rubble soup and on to the balconies if we could get into the rooms. One of them picked up a small wooden table that was outside every third room door and smashed it against the door. But to no avail.

I was still heavily charged with adrenaline and what happened next is one of my most bizarre memories of that day. Dressed only in my underpants I took the table from the guy and for some reason I decided to aim my strike against the door lock. With over fifteen years of martial arts experience and enough adrenalin in my body to subdue an ox and his cart, I lifted the table high and swung it firmly into the lock with an almighty roar that would’ve made John Rambo go weak at the knees.

Three things happened in very quick succession. Firstly, the lock went flying into the room and hit the balcony window behind allowing the door to swing open. Secondly the table shattered in my hands and thirdly a group of Scandinavians and a Jersey boy dressed in his underpants all looked very surprised. In that instant I was no longer Banana Boat Man. I was no longer Roof Top Percher Man. I had become Doorlock Destroyer.

They rushed into the room and I proceeded to run down the corridor smashing every door with my newly discovered superhuman powers. I had the underpants. All that was missing was the cape. I suspect there is a group of Scandinavians out there who will vividly remember a half naked, shaven-headed madman running down the corridor smashing doors open with assorted decorative corridor tables.

When I reached the bottom of the corridor, we opened a door and a group of us ran into the room and opened a balcony that was facing in the direction of the local market. We could see that this was almost completely demolished and there were people on the roof of the opposite building in panic. There were also a group of about ten people who had been washed on to a ledge just below us and were desperately pleading for us to pull them on to the balcony. They wanted a share of our sanctuary also.

As I made my way through the hotel I met one young guy in his twenties who was a born leader and was starting to take control. Somebody needed to. We both instinctively climbed over the balcony on to a small ledge below. I leaned against the wall and he grabbed my hand and leant over the edge and managed to pull each terrified person up. The process took several minutes and I remember being impressed at the guy’s bravery and strength. The drop from the edge was high enough to kill him and many of the people he was pulling up were not making it easy for him.

I had been very lucky with the Thai woman. She had just flopped back and let me do the moving. Far worse is when people are panicked and fighting. Many were panicking and giving the poor guy a wriggling dead weight to pull up. However, he managed it. People can and will rally together to do extraordinary things. People in the room were now raiding the fridges and each person pulled over was immediately either given a bottle of water or someone was there to dress their wounds with torn bed linen. One of the few luxury hotels on Koh Phi Phi had now become a battle-field hospital.

Having rescued another clutch of people, I walked out of the room with this guy and we decided that we needed to coordinate a strategy to deal with the mass panic and hysteria that was now in full swing. We both agreed that everyone would be here for at least a night and that two major concerns would be fresh water for drinking and for first aid. As the wall of water had subsided dramatically at this stage we rounded up some volunteers to start bringing water into the hotel and to get as much medication and bandaging as we could from the various pharmacies dotted along the main street.

At the mention of pharmacies I suddenly remembered Mister Bum Boil. Of course, he had not gone away. But he had suddenly gone from being a huge pain in the…… posterior. To being an unimportant minor annoyance. Not even that really. I knew that there was a pharmacy and a 7-11 within a few feet of the main entrance to the Phi Phi Hotel. That is where I directed our medical search team.

As we walked down the stairs there were groups of people at each level. We explained we were getting water and medical supplies and asked for people to help. We also asked if anyone was looking after any badly wounded that might need specifics. People from all around shouted requests and it was apparent that we needed bandaging and iodine or anything to curb the infections which in the end was to plague thousands of people all over Asia for days and weeks and months to come. It was still only about an hour after the washing machine had sprung its leak.

Cuts were going to be left to fester for hours and sometimes days before they got the correct medication. As a lot of the cuts were due to rusty sheets of corrugated roofing slicing through the water and debris, wounds were deep and needed cleaning urgently.

As I walked out of the hotel we had around five guys to help us. I looked up at the hotel and there were literally hundreds of anxious faces leaning over the balconies staring at us. Some were shouting about the second tsunami. Many were just blank. The Second Wave Devotees must have thought we were mad. And must’ve thought this was the last that would be seen of us.


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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