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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Monday, January 07, 2013

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 weekend.

As I 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.”

This 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.”

This 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.

One of 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.

For us 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.”

 Over the 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.

But this movie “shows” the details.

One of 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.

The director 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.

There was 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.

I 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.

As I 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.

With 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.

We also 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.

There 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.

Another 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.


 For the 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.

After the 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 very different.

Each of 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 killed.

It is 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.

Thanks to 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)

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Saturday, January 05, 2013

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).

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Thursday, January 03, 2013

"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:

Emotional Deluge (The Economist)

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