Tuesday, January 15, 2013


A survivor reacts to “The Impossible”

 By John Thompson

(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 spent that
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)
Parts that 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.

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At 3:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

John, very touching essay. Thankfully you made it through safely.

At 9:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, thank you for that.

At 8:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you that you told your story!
It's unbelievably moving!

At 5:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just finished the movie. I don't really handle emotional movies well, I was pretty much crying at the start of the mother and son trying to get to each other after the wave. I lost my mother about five years ago so watching the mother in the film hanging on to life and the reactions of the family as they wheeled her off for the second surgery really moved me. Every time I'm finished watching a movie that's based on true events I look up the information of the real people depicted in the movie, that's how I came across this site. Still crying..

John, I can't even imagine the hell you went through during those 72 hours after the wave hit. Thank you so much for sharing your story.



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