I SAW MYSELF IN EVERY SCENE
I SAW MYSELF IN EVERY SCENE
A survivor reacts to “The Impossible”
(Editor's Note: John Thompson was in Khoa Lak during the 2004
Tsunami. Recently, he attended a showing of “The Impossible.” This is a note
from John Thompson, describing his experience from seeing the film, and his
subsequent reflections). You can read John's original story here.
It's not very often a movie is made about an event that
received worldwide attention in which you can picture yourself in every scene.
The opening moments in The Impossible, of a family enjoying Christmas day
at the Khao Lak Orchid hotel were especially meaningful to me, since I also
same day at the same hotel. Christmas evening I also spent at
a beach front restaurant watching lanterns being released into the sky.
The morning of December 26 I ate breakfast on an outdoor patio at my
bungalow hotel, watching a British family with two young boys playing in the
surf (the boys survived, but their
parents would end up dying later that morning)." Despite
the extraordinary special effects that went into recreating the
tsunami, I didn't find that part especially frightening. I supposed when
you have lived through the real thing, it just isn't possible to re-live it in
a movie. Maybe it is because my experience was slightly different.
I saw the wave coming, didn't recognize what it was, watching on the
beach until it was almost too late. Then I started running away from the
wave, with a group of people, on a street leading up from the beach.
About a block up the street I saw there was no way I could outrun the
wave, and darted into a strong looking hotel building. That split-second
decision likely saved my life, and I wish I had called out to the other people
running on the street to do the same, but almost no one did; they all kept
running up the street.
The Impossible did bring back many memories of those
moments. The fleeing of the birds, the rush of air, the total inundation
with water after the initial crashing wave passed through.
(Original Photo from John Thompson taken on December 26, 2004 in Khao Lak)
weren't quite the same were the screams from people in the water that I can
still distinctly hear, the raging muddy water, and the irony of such a
devastating event happening on a beautiful morning with a bright blue
sky. After the initial wave rushed through, I and the few people
remaining in the hotel, climbed to the highest point in the hotel, similar to
how the mother and son in the movie climbed into a tree fearing another wave.
There we waited for several hours, watching and listening to the water
slowly drain back into the sea. Other than the sound of the draining
water, it was quiet. There were few people left. Finally when the
water receded enough so that our refuge was no longer an artificial
island, but once again connected to land, the small group of us on the roof
climbed down and began picking our way through the mud, down power lines,
overturn vehicles, and other debris, making our way to higher ground and
safety. Like in the movie, we salvaged water and drinks from the hotel,
and made tourniquets out of hotel towels for a few
badly injured people.
That night, I and many other survivors camped out in the
jungle on a hill top, hopefully above the reach of any further waves, although
I do remember talking with people about the possibility of another wave could
even reach our height. By morning, helicopters were buzzing our camp,
although no relief help seemed to be in site on the ground, so I and another
survivor started hiking up the highway towards the next village. We soon
were given a ride to a bus station where we caught an overnight bus to Bangkok.
A few days later, after getting a new passport, buying new clothes and
other essentials, I flew back to Krabi on an American Air Force C-130, where I
and a friend volunteered at a hospital. Later we rented a jeep and drove
back to Khao Lak, where the devastation was still very fresh.
Similar to the movie, we saw bodies piled in trucks, lined up on the side
of the road, and stacks of coffins. The smell of decaying, rotting,
bloated, water-logged flesh was overpowering, and not possible to convey in a
movie. We looked at postings on bulletin boards of photos of
bodies and lists of missing people.
The movie really captured the horrific time that survivors
went through trying to locate family members with whom they had just hours
before been enjoying an idyllic Christmas holiday. The
randomness of why people survived versus those that didn't is hard to
comprehend. Out of couples and families, it was unusual that all members
of the family made it through alive. As for me, I am forever thankful
that I ended up on the side of randomness of those that lived. Survivors
of the tsunami share a special connection, knowing what it is like to come so
close to losing everything. For those that were lucky enough not to have
had to live through it, The Impossible does a very credible job of providing a
glimpse into the chaos and suffering caused by the 2004 tsunami.
Labels: John Thompson, Khao Lak, The Impossible, tsunami survivor
Survivors applaud "The Impossible."
It is Sunday evening in
California. This weekend, the movie “The Impossible” (Director Juan Antonio Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G.Sanchez) and starring Ewan McGregor, Naomi Watts and TomHolland premier in wide screen at over 500 screens across the USA. As I
mentioned in last weeks blog post, I saw the movie about a week ago, knowing I
wanted – needed – to see this movie before friends and family saw it this
anticipated, the weekend has been filled with mixed emotion. A number of family
members, friends, and even strangers attended the movie. And following the
movie, felt compelled to call me or send me emails. Most of their reaction was,
“Rick, I had no idea that is what you went through.”
reaction, along with the reaction of movie critics and film goers confirms what
I also believe. The movie is that good. Or better said, “that real.”
afternoon, I spent about 45 minutes talking on the phone with another tsunami
survivor. He was also on Khoa Lak, the same beach that Henry (Erique) and Maria
and their three boys were on as dipicted in the film. This is about 15 miles
north of Patong where I and others experienced the same tsunami in Phuket. We
had not talked in three years. But we both knew, as the anticipation of the
release of this film, that we would eventually find a way to call and talk with
each other when this film came out.
the things that both Peter and I agreed on was the small details of the film.
In fact, there were items that we both agreed were so real that we had even
forgotten them from our actual experiences.
both, the film was emotional to watch. Not because we were necessarily thrown
back into the reality of those 72 hours beginning at 9:30 am on December 26,
2004. But because for the first time, we both said, “Now people can actually
understand and feel what it felt like to be in the middle of the tsunami.”
last 8 years, I have been asked many times to explain “how did it feel to be in
the middle of the tsunami?” Well meaning reporters and friend urge us to
describe the details.
movie “shows” the details.
the best example of how this movie gets it right is in the “swirling debis ofwater.” For so long, I have tried to explain to people how dangerous the water
was. Huge shards of glass from broken out hotel plate glass windows, pieces of
tuk-tuks and huge chunks of pieces of building filled the water. Once a person
asked, “Couldn’t you just swim” in the water. But as this movie so well
describes, it was like being in a washing machine of deadly debris.
and writer also accurately depicted the sense of desperation as mothers,
fathers, brothers and sisters walked around looking for missing loved ones.
Because most people had their personal belongings swept away, they didn’t even
have pictures. And so they were walking around desperately trying to describe
their children or mothers or fathers. And because there were visitors from
around the world, and many were in shock, people would walk right up to you and
start to speak in Swedish or German or Spanish – not even realizing or
understanding that you didn’t understand.
another interesting moment and a poignant moment for me, when Henry Belon (Ewen
McGregor) is shown in the movie calling his wife’s parents. McGregor struggles
to explain that he has lost his wife and two of the children. On the other end
of the line, you hear a father trying to comprehend what he is being told. That
moment in the scene struck me also as very real.
remember calling my parents back in Kansas, and trying to explain to them to “not
be worried, but eventually they would see something on the television about a
wave in Thailand, but that I had survived.” I remember her reaction was calm,
almost unbelieving. Like many people in the world, true word and news of the devastation
did not reach mainstream media until 4-6 hours after the first wave had hit.
And even then, news stations like CNN reported that “…25 people had been killed…”
No one knew the level of destruction until days later. The phone call was meant
to tell someone that I was ok. But later, as I reflected on it, it was also a
way to report to the outside world that I had lived. That I was ok.
talked about in my in my initial journal entries, I had a cell phone that
lasted for hours that morning. Over 200 people used the phone to call home to
places all around the world, mostly to say, “I am ok. I am alive.” For days
afterwards, I continued to get return phone calls, asking to talk to people who
had originally used the phone. I had no idea of how to find them or what to
even say. But I would take down a phone number and description just in case.
About 24 hours after the original calls, I started to get phone calls from
individuals who had heard about my phone number from others who had heard from
their loved ones. The cell phones that worked that day were important moments
of comfort for many people that fateful day.
other survivors this weekend, we talked about memories of things we had
forgotten. We talked about the splitting of families, and the struggle on
whether to move on to a hospital, or stay were you were to look for missing people.
The movie accurately showed an element that has been a little embarrassing to
discuss up until now. The speed and turbulence of the water as so strong, that
it did remove clothes. IN the movie, Maria Belon is shown with ripped clothes.
But it has been reported that she, like many others, had their clothes
completed stripped away. Standing on the cliff, many survivors came to us
completely naked, and bleeding badly.
talked about the “post 24 hour false tsunami warnings.” The next day, after the
tsunami had struck, there would be moments in which you would be working to
help clear debris, and suddenly, locals around you would start to run. At least
5-10 times, false warnings would be spread via cell phones to other cell
phones. And people would just start running.
were other details that the film didn’t show. The amount of dead bodies strewn
about were tough. You see in the movie the rows of them at hospitals or make
shift morgues. Most of that happened after about 24 hours. But before that,
there were bodies jammed into debris everywhere.
item that even some of us as survivor disagreed on, were the number of waves.
From my perspective, the waves, at least in Phuket started at about 10:00 am –
and continued with swells that washed into the streets until 4:00 that
afternoon. The first wave was small, but it was the second wave that was the
tallest and most devastating. The wave you see in the movie made it look like
it was the first wave of destruction. But most of us agree, that the size of
that wave was actually the second. But I did read the real Maria Belon did
agree that the six hours of relentless waves had been consolidated in order to
get on with the movie. Fair enough. But as survivors, we just wanted everyone
to know that water and waves were an issue for the first six hours. And not
only did people lose their lives in those first waves, but they also tried to
make a run for it afterwards, and were also struck and swept away in waves
three, four and five.
last 10 days, I have been reading some reviewers who need to point out what
they didn’t like about the film. Most need to point out that the movie skips
over or ignores the emotions of the locals. I don’t think that this is an “and/or”
discussion. This movie was about 5 people and what happened to them. There
could and should be another movie about the amazing local people that were also
impacted by the tsunami. They also felt pain. They also lost loved ones. They
were crying and hurt and scared just like people around us.
tsunami struck, many of the locals left the resort I was staying in. If they
had survived, many had homes inland and left to go be with family. But not
without grief. Most locals had an aunt or uncle or cousin who they knew were
killed that day on the beach. But the process of finding and navigating and
dealing with the process of finding / mourning and deciding what to do next was
the survivors I have connected with over the last days applaud this movie. We
have a sense that others are really understanding what we went through. We also
hope future movies can be made of what the locals also went through – not only
in Thailand, but also in the other countries where 220,000 more people were
likely that many of will have nightmares again for a few days. But the
difference is this time, when we wake up, we can talk to people who have seen
the film, and have a little better idea what we experienced.
the actors Ewan McGregor, Naomi Watts, Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast for bringing the characters to life.
Thanks to Director Juan Antonio Bayona and
screenwriter Sergio G. Sanchez for trying to make it real. Thanks to Maria
Belon for sharing her survivor story with the world.
Because of this, a few of us are a little more healed.
(I invite other survivors to comment on their reaction to the movie. Or others to ask us questions. - Rick Von Feldt)
Labels: Ewan MacGregor, Henry Belon, Juan Antonio Bayona, Khao Lak, Lucas Belon, Naomi Watts, Orchid Beach Resort, survivor Maria Belon, The Impossible, Thomas Holland, tsunami, tsunami survivor, von feldt
How the mobile phone saved my life
A new Discovery Channel Series is beginning to air this
month in Asia and Europe – and will soon be airing in the US. It is called,
“How We Invented The World.” It is a four-part series that examines the four
inventions that define the modern world – mobile phones, cars, planes and
skyscrapers. The series not only talks about the invention, but also “The
People and connections that made them possible.”
The first episode features the mobile phone. For the
episode, the producers learned of the impact the mobile phone had on me during
the 2004 Asian Tsunami (my mobile phone story here). They came to San Francisco
and interviewed me for the episode. And the in the first show, recreated the
moments around the mobile phone and how it saved my life that day. If it had not been for the cousin of my taxi driver, and the mobile phone connection between the two, I might not be living today.
If you are in Asia, the episode airs this week. It has
already aired in the UK, but you can find repeats. I have not seen the release
date yet for the series in the US. I am impressed with the effort and research
that went into each episode.
In the meantime, here is an excerpt about how the mobile
phone helped save my life that day in Phuket, Thailand. (See video here).
Labels: citizen journalists, Ewan MacGregor, How we invented the world, mobile phone, phuket, tsunami survivor
"The Impossible" painfully shows the reality of a tsunami
Three days ago, I had the chance to sit in a theatre in San Francisco
to see the limited release of "The Impossible
." I am still trying to pick the best words to describe my reaction to the movie.
But I think that I can speak for tsunami survivors from around the world. This is the first time a movie has captured the chaos, pain and horror of the 2004 SE Asia tsunami
There are many stories from the tsunami, many of which are captured on this website. This story is just one. For tourists who experienced the tsunami and survived, the movie shows many accurate emotions and realities of what happened. The best may be the feeling of what it was like to be in the swirling "washing machine like" swell of waves and water. And secondly, the sense of grief and frustration by so many people who wandered around for the 72 hours following the first wave, looking for missing family members.
It is not an easy movie to watch - neither for survivors or for movie goers. But it is real. Honest. And worth seeing.
I will post more reactions to the movies over the next several days, and so please check back. And if you were a survivor, and saw the movie, please also share your thoughts and reactions.
I have responded to a few online reviews and articles about the movies including these:
Labels: Ewan MacGregor, Henry Belon, Juan Antonio Bayona, Khao Lak, Lucas Belon, Naomi Watts, Orchid Beach Resort, Sergio Sanchez, survivor Maria Belon, The Impossible, Thomas Holland, tsunami, von feldt, vonfeldt