Tuesday, July 26, 2016

On A Boat during the Tsunami

Editor Note: This is a transcript sent to me by Karsten Aichholz, a expat and entrepreneur living in Bangkok. Karsten has a website and podcast about living in Bangkok. Karsten interviewed Daniel Kvarnemo, a then boat excursion guide in Thailand. Today, Daniel is a Social Studies and Swedish teacher in Bangkok.

This transcript is an excerpt of an audio interview with Daniel Kvarnemo who at the time of the tsunami was a guide on a snorkeling excursion boat for tourists in Krabi.

You can listen to the audio version of the interview on the Surviving a Tsunami episode of the Brewed in Bangkok podcast. The interview was conducted by Karsten Aichholz

Podcast featuring Daniel Kvarnemo on being on a boat during a tsunami

Karsten: Where were you at the time?

Daniel: I was working at this company where we were taking people out on a boat and I was one of the two staff in the water. I and a few of the guests were in the water. And then my captain, he starts honking the horn on the ship. I was wondering: Okay what's going on now? But they had mentioned that there might be a bit of current in the water, so I thought okay maybe there's too much current in this part of the sea and we're going to go somewhere else. So I gather up all the tourists and everybody gets up on the boat and they were kind of not too pleased about not being allowed to be in the water but we said oh we're going to go somewhere else.

Karsten: What do you mean they were not too pleased?

Daniel: They were like "well we paid for this and we want to be here". We still didn't know what was going on.

Karsten: So the tourist were like "We paid for this, we want to be in the water?"

Daniel: Yeah, but at this time nobody knew anything of what was happening. So we get on the boat, the captain said we need to go quickly because boats are sinking in Phuket. I'm thinking: That's hours from here, that has nothing to do with us. But he was experienced and wise. We were between Krabi and Phi Phi Island next to an island called Bamboo Island and started going full speed ahead towards Phi Phi.

Karsten: So you were out in the open water basically and you just heard there were like boats sinking...

Daniel: Yeah he heard it on the radio

Karsten: How far were you away from the island?

Daniel: From Bamboo island?

Karsten: Yeah the next closest island, you were seeking shelter there right?

Karsten: Well no we're moving away from Bamboo Island because it's a small flat island and we were swimming distance from Bamboo which is maybe a few kilometers from Phi Phi Islands. We still didn't realize what was going on. At this time I would say the word tsunami didn't mean too much to me and I guess a quite big part of the population. So when we are like between these 2 island Bamboo and Phi Phi, I remember looking to my right and as far as I can see, the whole horizon is just like a white wall. I'm thinking huh, what the F is that?

Karsten: What do you mean - white wall, like...?

Daniel: Yeah as far as the eye can see the horizon is no longer flat and blue with a line between the sky and the sea, instead it looks like a white wall and it's coming towards us.

Karsten: Is it like in the movies where you...?

Daniel: It wasn't fast moving like that you can see, but you look at it and then you realize oh shit it's a big wave coming. So we told everybody put on your life jackets. We didn't have life jackets for everybody, me being a good staff member had to give up my life jacket. Instead put on 2 wet suits gives you buoyancy like floating if you had the wet suits on.

Karsten: How did you feel about that?

Daniel: Well didn't feel too great about it, I'm thinking like oh shit this could be bad.

Karsten: Were you thinking there was a threat to your life?

Daniel: Definitely thinking it's very likely that we're going to get hit by this massive wave coming our way and better be prepared for being in the water.

Karsten: So were you thinking this wave was going to turn over the boat?

Daniel: Definitely thinking it was going to hit the boat and probably toss us over the side yeah.

Karsten: Was that the moment where you're like reflecting on life or...

Daniel: No it didn't go that far, because it was still quite far in the distance and now many years later it's kind of weird to think about it, but I remember everybody put on the life jackets. We stood at the edge of the boat and we brought up cameras and we were filming it, my friend still has the file he says he's going to send it to me. I met him a few days ago and we sort of reminisced about this and we could see when the waves came in, they broke over the reefs, the waves went over the trees at Bamboo Island so definitely if we had stayed there we would have been screwed. But our captain then since he knew what was going on he got us to safety and we were hiding behind Phi Phi sort of sheltered from the swells of the wave.

Karsten: Phi Phi Island which is...?

Daniel: One of the two Phi Phi Islands, Phi Phi Don the big one we were behind a very famous tourist destination which kind of shaped like an hour glass, so there are 2 high peaks and in between there is low ground where you have the beach where most people were staying and most hotels were located. So when the wave struck Phi Phi basically washed away the low lying buildings in the middle.

Karsten: Did you see that?

Daniel: We could not see it from where we were but we heard on the radio people calling for help and assistance, boats sinking and so on. But when that happened we saw the waves crashing over the other islands where we had been and then we waited around, we heard on the radio people asking for help didn't know what was going on really bloody hot December in Thailand sun shining. Then came the tourists not realizing what would happen and they were getting upset when we say like everybody needs to stay on the boat we don't know what's going on, they said oh but we want to go swimming.

Karsten: This was after the wave hit

Daniel: This was after the wave. I can also that I didn't know really it was a tsunami so we saw the wave, I texted my family: "Big F wave. I'm okay.".

Karsten: You texted it after the wave?

Daniel: Yeah and after that connection died. My brother told me afterwards that he was like "Oh what's this?" then turned off his phone. A few hours later it's on TV all over the world basically. But at least then they knew that I was safe. Another weird thing that happened when we were waiting behind the island was that we get like a back draft or a second swell. I guess the water go up on the land and then was going back and when it came back then it kind of rocked the boat again. We waited around there with other boats for many hours, nobody knew what are we going to do. This happened in the morning first in the afternoon we decide okay lets go up to open water again and go back to Krabi main land. So maybe 10 boats or something went around the same time headed to main land and then we could see when we're getting closer to shore we could see broken boats, they were lifting up bodies on the piers.

Karsten: At this point you just knew there was wave, you hadn't seen any impact you just thought: Okay that was a big wave. You had no idea that this wave...

Daniel: Not how bad it had been to an extent no, we could see and heard people crying for help we seen wrecked boats coming in. We saw dead people, like they're lifting dead people up on the pier.

Karsten: Was there a moment when you, it took you to realize those were people or you were like...

Daniel: I don't really have a clear picture of it. It was after sunset when we came in and it was like sort of a little bit in the peripheral field that more like dark shadows lifted up piled up. And then for the next 2 days I volunteered at the hospital. It was obviously unorganized, injured people separated from their families. For me it was okay. I didn't have to deal with identifying bodies like some of my friends who helped out shocked people finding their family members; people have been bloated in the water which was sort of horrible for them. I was just walking around in the hospital asking people for their identification and collecting names and info.

Karsten: You mentioned when this wave first hit, you heard cries for help on the radio, were these in English? Were there in there in Thai? Did you hear like chatter, how did you...?

Daniel: I wasn't in the cabin it was retold to me I think it might have been in Thai and then I was told this is what happened they call in for help and so on. But nobody really dared to go across to the other side, we didn't know what was happening.

Karsten: So the tourists were obviously oblivious to what was going on

Daniel: At least in the beginning yeah

Karsten: And the captain kind of had a hunch, how did the crew react?

Daniel: There were 2 Thai crews and the very experienced Thai captain and his deck hand. And we maybe were like 5 westerners working for this company and then let's say maybe 20 tourists. I think the staff - Thai and western - we more understood there was something serious that had happened and many of the tourists were annoyed about sitting around. They were really hot and sweaty. And after a few hours we started to run out of food and water...

Karsten: Was there like a change in the mood when you started to come back in the harbor and you could see okay this is actually serious, did you see the tourists kind of caught up to the reality?

Daniel: I don't know if I can really remember other people change, but I'm sure that... we did talk to people later we met up days after and later in the evening we all met at the meeting point. And then it sort of dawned on people that it was serious: So serious that it went across to Africa and hundreds and thousands of people died. Because in Ao Nang I think like 2 people died.

Karsten: Ao Nang is...

Daniel: Is in mainland Krabi where you have one of the most famous tourist resort areas.

Karsten: Okay, so once you... how did that feel, you arrived at the harbor and the moment you set back foot on land, what went through your head?

Daniel: Obviously it's a very big sigh of relief, being on mainland you feel safe on land and you can start relax about not being on a ship on the ocean I guess

Karsten: Isn't that a bit ironic, given that the reason you were safe is because you were on a ship?

Daniel: I wouldn't go as far as saying that's why you're safe, some people are safe at the open sea but they're only safe on the open sea if it's deep enough so that the wave doesn't build up.

Karsten: At the time how many days a week were you working?

Daniel: 6 days a week for this company and when I was off I went diving

Karsten: Okay could there have been any constelation where you had been on land like...

Daniel: In Ao Nang it wouldn't have been a problem really. There's a big sea wall down by the beach that took like the biggest hit. And I think it's different angles as well so like some of the beach front shop places were kind of a bit messed up. Long tail boats got destroyed, 2 people died who were out on the next Island but nothing compared to like Phi Phi and Khao Lak and Phuket which were much worse hit.

Karsten: And that's just a distance of like 30-40 km?

Daniel: Might be something like that, it's like a short distance drive.

Karsten: So did that change you, I mean you apparently have been a very active diver at the time, did that change you relationship with the sea did you get afraid of going out again?

Daniel: No I wasn't affected by that I guess it's such a small and unusual event it's nothing that I thought about that it would happen again.

Karsten: So you spent 2 days volunteering at this hospital, taking down details of people and was then there a point where you said I had enough I can't take this anymore or...?

Daniel: No for me that wasn't the point but after like 2 days the government started to get more organized and proper so the help organizations got involved. But the first 2 days many of the victims of this situation they were asking "who are you?", "why are you doing this?" and "it's really got that you do but why isn't the government here, why don't they do anything". The Swedish government actually got a lot of critic about having a delayed response considering how many Swedes are down in Thailand.

Karsten: Did that event change your outlook on some things in life?

Daniel: I don't really think so but of course you're lucky and you appreciate that you had that luck and you realize if you hadn't had this experienced captain I could have been dead basically.

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