Dive Aid

What happened to me on the 26th

Last Updated: 13-Jan-2005, Matthew Norman

The morning was beautiful, lovely clear sky that promised another hot, hot day in Khao Lak. Steffi (my girlfriend) and me had our usual morning chat about where to have breakfast, and as usual it was to be Breakfast Point on the main road. As Steffi was not feeling 100% I offered to go and get her breakfast in bed.

I took the Sonic (motorbike) as it needed petrol, and drove north to fill up. When I got to the station there was no electricity, so the only thing left to do was to go and get some breakfast and then get back into bed.

I drove south and passed our place in Baan Niaang, and as I was driving I could see a huge crowd of people on foot coming from the south, on bikes and in cars, all coming towards me screaming and sounding their horns similar to the sound you hear at a football match. People were waving their hands towards the way I came. I stopped the bike on the junction to the Chong Fa Waterfall and tried to call Steffi on her mobile, after all the Princess of Thailand was here, perhaps she was out on a visit? It was not the Princess that was causing the crowds to run it was water.

I’m not sure what went through my mind, but as soon as I saw the water I instantly knew that it was a Tsunami. The water was flowing rather than a wave, but it kept on coming and coming. I decided that this was not the best place to be so I needed to move. I couldn’t go up the road to Chong Fa, there were too many people blocking the road, so on the left (east) there was a house with a sort of a courtyard in front which was empty, to the right there was a garage which a floor that sloped upwards about 3 feet, and I could see daylight and a way to exit, and I could climb higher, if I needed to.

I drove carefully along side the car that was parked, the water chasing me. Bizarre things happened, I calmly parked the bike, took my sunglasses and then my helmet off, then put my sunglasses back on, I was sure that the water couldn’t get any higher. As the water was now up to my ankles i felt annoyed that I had to leave the bike as we had just brought it over from Koh Tao the previous week, but I thought ‘Oh well, I’ll get it later’. I looked to the right and the only place I could go was up a wall, it was about 6 feet high and didn’t look to be very strong, but the water was getting higher and my heart was pounding.

I climbed the wall quite easily, and found myself sitting on top not really understanding the extent of what was happening, the water got higher and faster. The wall started to collapse, and in front of me I saw a water tower sitting on a sort of scaffolding, there were people on there already and it looked quite solid so I jumped for it, I had no choice. I managed to grab onto the scaffolding with my right arm and one of my feet, still with my crash helmet in my hands (after all I would need it when I pick up my bike, I thought to myself). The water was swirling around the base of the tower and I looked back at the wall to see a woman and her baby, sitting on a column of bricks, all that was left of the wall (fortunately she was safe there until the water subsided). I wondered to myself why I still had my crash helmet, as my bike was now some 2 meters underwater, still thinking that the bike would be fine (after all, it was only a bit of water), I gently lobbed my helmet onto the tin roof of the garage for later.

I though of Steffi, I knew that if she remained in the apartment she would be safe, looking over, in the distance I could see that the apartment looked fine, thank god. I wanted to speak to her, to tell her how much I loved her and that I would be ok, so I unclipped my phone from my shorts and tried to call on my mobile, but there wasn’t any reception. I decided that it would be a good idea to keep the phone dry, because I would need it if I manage to get out of this, so I put it in my dry bag.

The water then started to rise and get faster and faster (this was the 2nd wave), I remember thinking ‘Great!’ so I climbed higher, and higher. It was difficult as the scaffolding was at 45 degrees to each other, my feet kept on slipping, and fortunately I still had my sandals on. I looked down and offered a hand to a girl who managed to climb out of the water which was round her waist, the person next to her was less fortunate and was swept away, I couldn’t watch and held onto the tower even tighter. I could feel the tower moving slightly with the water, it vibrated and you could feel things banging into the lower part. I started to feel annoyed or angry, this was not to be my time, I have a life to live with my girlfriend, I wanted the chance to see how we developed, do we get married? Do we have children? Everything else was unimportant.

Looking round I noticed that the water was not the clear water which I imagined it to be, it was dark brown and looked strong and deadly, full of debris, wood, cars, motorbikes, anything that was on the ground was taken. The sound was frightening, and something that I would never forget, a sound of rushing water and breaking waves, but very loud and coming from everywhere.

For a moment the water slowed and then stopped, I thanked god that the water was not going to get any higher, and as the water went it seemed to have just as much power as when it came, this made me worried as the tower might have been weakened by the incoming wave, but the tower was solid, I remained safe. At this time a looked at the tower and the 5 or so people were all looking at each other in disbelief, and even managed a smile as we had escaped unscathed, that smile went as soon as the water went.

I was happy to be alive and didn’t want to climb down, I was safe there, but I needed to find Steffi. The mud on the floor was thick, I was trying to climb on top of branches, the last thing I wanted was to loose my footing and get injured doing something silly. A few of us helped each other onto where the road was (to the north of the Chong Fa fork in the road). I still didn’t understand the extent of the damage, and what it had done. Standing by a tree was a little girl, she was in a peach stripey shirt, covered in mud and her hair looked like it was dreadlocked, but she was too young for that, but the was about 12 and had lost all of her family. I asked her for her name and started to do a fast ‘top to toe’ assessment, she was battered but apart from that ok. I took her to the pillar and flowerbed at the junction and asked her to stay there. I found an older woman and helped her to the same place, and told her to look after the girl. The girl asked me if I could look for her family (this was to be something I was asked throughout the day), I said that I would try. I couldn’t believe that this was happening, it felt like a dream.

I heard a car a trying to start it’s engine, it was a pick up truck, and the cabin was full of wood, it was as if someone had stuffed as much wood as is possible into the cabin, then had put more in. I tried to get some of the wood out to see if there was someone alive in there trying to get help, but after a while I realised that it was the water causing the car ignition to turn on. All around I could hear car horns being sounded, the noise went on for hours, it was eiree like something out of a film.

I looked around a there were bodies everywhere, some dead and dying, some in great pain, one of them was standing and looked familiar, it was Paul (Coral Grand Instructor). We shook hands and gave each other a hug, I told Paul what had happened and he told me that he had been swept in from the beach some 500m away. He was a bit bruised, but fine apart from that. He told me that he didn’t know where his girlfriend, Karen, was. I thought about Steffi again. We decided that the waterfall, at Chong Fa, would be the best place to get everyone together, it was high up and the water didn’t make it that far. So we set about getting as many people up there as possible. I noticed prawns everywhere on the floor, everywhere, I then also noticed a few Thai’s walking around and picking them up and putting them into their hats, even picking them from around injured people, not giving them a second glance, others were walking around with bottles of wine and looking to see what they could salvage from the debris, that made me sick.

I cannot remember all of the people we helped, but I’ll try to write down the ones I remember more clearly. I remember two women at the Wat, Paul asked me to go over, one was a diabetic with a broken ankle, and the other was a big woman lying half naked and both in shock. I tried to look after them the best I could, and the woman with the broken ankle asked if she could hold my hand for a moment, and when I went, she asked me not to leave her. I was looking around in the mud and debris for something that would make a stretcher, but everything that could be used was stuck fast amongst all of the debris, I felt useless, and that wasn’t to be the only time that day.

I wandered around trying to find something and found myself at the junction again. I managed to find a door, it was fairly heavy but solid and so I started to carry it back. Suddenly there was panic and everyone seemed to be running towards the waterfall, I didn’t need to ask what was happening so I also ran. Near the top, where the water had stopped before I asked a Policeman (or someone that looked vaguely official with a radio) what was happening, he told me that there was to be another wave in about 2 hours and as it turned out this warning was a false alarm. Unsure of whom to believe, I made my way back to the Wat, but by that time the two women were already making their way up towards the waterfall. On the way down, I saw a couple of children stumbling around, I told them to go to the waterfall, and they asked me if I had seen their parents. I needed to move and told them that I’m sure that they are ok and what they needed to do was to stick together, even if they found one of their parents. They made their way to Chong Fa.

Paul and I passed each other several times walking up and down, waling carefully through debris, and trying not to cut our feet. I still had my sandals on, but Paul was barefoot. I remember having a knife and some clothing and gave them to Paul so he could cut bandages. I don’t remember where the knife came from.

A short while later Paul was in the muddy area of ground to the East, and we saw a woman with her leg at an odd angle. The flesh was twisted and stretched out of proportion and looked as though it was made of rubber. We both looked for a stretcher and managed to find a long piece of material that would have been used as a beach mat, we unrolled it and then doubled it over to make the right size. We told the woman that this was going to hurt, a lot, and to prepare herself. When we lifted her onto the ‘stretcher’, she screamed, and when we could only drag her to a path she screamed again. After getting her there, a group of Thai’s were just looking at her, pointing. We were trying to tell them to get her out of the sun, and to use one of the vehicles we saw to get her up to the waterfall. After the usual ‘No have’ and ‘Uh?’ conversation we moved her ourselves, then it was time for me to find Steffi. I apologised to Paul, who then told me to go, and we both walked down to what remained of the road. Walking towards the main road on the left was some buildings, and we heard people shouting for help. We asked them if they were ok, they were on the roof, Paul told me to go and he would deal with them.

The only way to the main road was back past the junction where I had left the first girl. Walking past there, I noticed something from the left of my eye, virtually unnoticed, but as I looked, it was the body of a little girl, maybe no more than 6. She was face up, mouth open, eyes open, and everyone was walking past her. My heart started to pound and I thought of my Nephew back in the UK, I started to cry. Even in this situation, how could people leave this little girl? Next to her was someone who looked as though she was dying, and another person who needed serious help. I managed to get a guy, in just his boxer shorts, to help her. I was being selfish, I could not deal with this now, and I needed to get home.

I made my way to the main road junction and their was a road digger trying it’s best to clear some of the road, however, it seemed that this was taking time and I had to carefully make my way around or this thing was going to kill me. After a few attempts of running back and forward, I managed to get round it. The road as I knew it had disappeared, all that remained was a layer of mud, and an unbelievable amount of debris everywhere. There were concrete pillars, cars, motorbikes, trees and wood and lots of bodies sticking out all over the place. Power lines were everywhere and I was walking very carefully.

I could see our place and it looked remarkably good, I picked my way through and came to the front. I looked up and saw that our window was open, I called out for Steffi, but there was no answer. On the second floor was a family and they told me that they had seen a girl looking for her boyfriend in the debris and described her to me. Blonde hair and blue shorts.

The whole bottom floor of the apartment block had gone, thw wave had been about 6-7m high. I entered the shell of the building, made my way to the stairs, and over a snake (great, I thought, a bloody snake – all I need now!) I was at our door. I called again and banged on the door. I went onto the balcony and looked in, and no one was there. I threw my dry bag in through the window, I thought that if she came back, she would know that I had been here and was ok.

I made my way back down the stairs, absolutely heartbroken, but I was not going to give up. Steffi was safe, she had to be, and I would find her. I thought that she would have made her way to ‘Breakfast Point’ and then onto ‘Coral Grand’, so that’s what I would do. I managed to get as far as ‘Breakfast Point’, it was not there any more, I looked for a few minutes, but no one was there. There was another panic, so I took off my sandals and ran back to the waterfall, severely pissed off. I knew that this was a false alarm, but I had no way of being sure, and I was not going to get caught out. I just hoped that Steffi would keep safe.

After walking back down from the waterfall road, helping people when I could I could see that the little girl was still there. I had enough, I could not deal with this now, I made my way back to the apartment, and saw someone in our room. Our door had been kicked in and the laptop was on the bed, a teenager then walked in saying that he had found a laptop. I gave him several very good reasons to leave and not to come back, then hid the computer in a drawer, moved the cameras to another drawer (just so that they were not in direct view), put both of our passports in my pocket, credit cards in the other. I thought, ‘Once I find Steffi, we have passports, and a means of paying for a flight to anywhere’. I was going to hold her by the hand and then just go.

I looked out of the window for a second, to see if she was outside, making her way back to the apartment, I couldn’t see her. From the 3rd floor I could see quite far, and the devastation was amazing. For a few minutes, that was it. I closed the door and the window, sat on our bed, smelt steffi’s pillow and just wanted it to end. I was going to stay here. After all, the room was how we left it, the shower worked....

This wasn’t right, I could help. I snapped out of it (only just) and put dettol, water, Swiss army knife, sun cream (no good to anyone if I was sunburnt) into my dry bag, and left a note: ‘Steffi, I am fine and am going to the waterfall. There will be another wave in about 1 ½ hours please stay safe. Love you. Matt.xxx 13:50’

I hoped that she would get it. Making my way back to the waterfall, the now familiar sights were there, but as I got nearer to where we had left everyone, there was now no-one there, no-one! I walked around for a bit, and then for some reason I decided to go back to the apartment. I think that I was thinking about the next wave and if it hit then I may be safer there, and Steffi might be there.

I came back to the apartment block a guy was outside asking for help, there was a woman who needed to get an ambulance and she wasn’t able to get down the stairs. He led me up and I found this woman lying on the floor in lots of pain. She had a dislocated right shoulder and a broken foot, or leg, she had also received a lot of impact injuries to the chest. I said that we needed to move her immediately, and the woman did not like the sound of this. All of my patience was leaving me, and I told her that she had to go in case another wave came, and the building may not hold. It was time to go, so we had to make our way down the stairs, and over some mattresses, which were at the base of the stairwell. The other guy was no help and I ended up carrying her down the stairs over my shoulder holding onto her dislocated shoulder. It took time, but managed to get down in one piece, and out into the road. I sent the guy off to try to get one of the pick up trucks to stop. After a while of standing by the newly formed road (or what could be best described as a road) someone stopped and took the woman to Taquapa Hospital. The people were trying to convince me to go as well, but I needed to get home to see if there was any sign of Steffi and continue my search.

I made my way next door to the apartment and made my way up the right-hand stairs, as this was an easier way up. At the top of the stairs there was a huge German guy, as far as I could see, he had broken his pelvis and smashed his foot. He also has distended stomach and was complaining about the pain. I told him that I could speak a little German and to hold on. I got back to the room and found some Paracetamol; it was the only painkiller I could find. I made a weak dettol solution for the cuts on his foot and went back to him armed with my German books. I gave him the paracetamol, and cleaned his wounds. I told him that I was going to find help, and came back with 5 Thai’s, who after poking him and not doing much, I aggressively got them to help carry him down the stairs to the back of a pick up truck. I then decided to go with him, and before I left I made another note, I cannot remember what I said.

We were now making our way as carefully as possible though the rubble on the road, this was not to be a smooth ride. We turned left towards the beach and I spotted a child in a field. We stopped and I got her on board. She was badly injured, a massive trauma to her left leg, all of her thigh muscles were exposed and covered in mud and grass and twigs. Her left foot was broken and her right shin had a puncture about 2 inches in diameter. She had lost a lot of blood, there was no blood coming from the wounds, she was cold and pale and I could not feel any radial pulse. She was in shock. On the taxi I started to talk to the girl, she was from Finland and was brave, one of the bravest people I have ever met. She told me her name and that she was 13 years old. She wanted to sleep, and I wouldn’t let her. All the way to Taquapa I kept on talking to her squeezing her hand and telling her to wake up. I knew that this would hurt me, knowing so much about her, but what could I do.

The pick up stopped for the Thai’s to have a chat, and this sent me over the edge. I explained in as politely as I could that this girl and the guy were dying, and it would be their fault if we didn’t get a move on. They seemed to understand this, and we made it to the hospital, the road was very bumpy but I was glad to see normal shops, cars, roads, and started to feel relieved. When we got to the Hospital the German guy was taken away, I don’t know where and I stayed with the little girl.

She was beautiful even though she was filthy, she had blonde hair, bright blue eyes, and she would be a heartbreaker. The hospital staff managed to get her on a drip and to clean her wounds, she kept on asking me for water but I could not give it to her a she would go directly into surgery. I looked at her and started to cry again, I looked round the A&E department, and the place was full, there was blood everywhere. All the beds were full, people were on makeshift stretchers, on the floor and were pilling up in the entrance as well. I looked round the hospital to see if I could see anyone I knew. I didn’t see anyone.

I went back to the girl and managed to get her details and the girl next to her. I was not going to let them become lost. A dying teenager occupied the bed on the other side of her, the nurses were trying to revive him and there was this horrible gurgling sound. The girl asked me what the noise was, and I wiped the tears from my eyes and put on a brave face, I told her that someone was being silly making silly noises, and not to pay attention. People were looking round in disbelief, unable to come to terms with what had happened. In that time, I never wanted to change places with someone so much, we talked a little longer, she even told me off for the mispronunciation of her name, but I had to go. I found out that she was being transferred to Suratthani Hospital and I watched her go. She was so brave. I would not see her again.

I had to get back to Khao Lak, and jumped into the back of a police pickup that had just dropped off a casualty and begged for a lift. On the way back, we had yet another wave warning and we stopped up a hill. The police had some food so they gave me some and commented on the Buddha round my neck and told me how lucky it was for me. They gave me another tray of food and I put that in my dry bag for later and put water there as well. When they were convinced it was safe we set off and were diverted towards the beach, and it was getting dark. As we made our way down we saw survivors, still walking and told them to make their way to the main road.

As we came to the end, the north side of the lagoon I think, we picked up a girl from the Czech republic, she also had a broken pelvis and was in a lot of pain. Other people got on the back and we were off to Taquapa again, the girl needed to have her legs kept still, to prevent further damage. I told her to be brave and the journey wont take long, I told her about the little girl and how brave she was, and cried again. There was a shout as one of the passengers lost her luggage and demanded that we stop to pick it up. I went mental, and told her that if she did that again, she would go off the back of the truck with it. The others were useless, and I had to kneel on the back near the edge holding this girl’s knees in place. I felt a hand on my thigh, and it was the Czech girls, she was crying and asked if it was alright to hold me, I told her it was fine, but I had a girlfriend, so no funny stuff. Thank god it was dark as I cried the whole way to the Hospital, we had to stop several times to build up the road so that we could get over obstacles, it seemed to take for ever. Then we were at Taquapa again. I tried my hardest to get back, but no one would go, it was dark, and people were scared. I was frustrated and exhausted.

I decided to look round the hospital again, but still I didn’t recognise anyone. I even asked people who were wearing dive shirts from other schools if they knew anything, but they were just wearing them and knew as much as I did.

I heard my phone beep, I had a text from a friend Sarah on Koh Tao, I replied and phoned home. I spoke to my Father, and basically said ‘I’m fine, I’m safe, don’t worry. I don’t know where Steffi. I have to go as my charge and credit is low’. My Father was obviously relieved but I had to go. I walked around the hospital several times, looking but not looking, hoping not to see anyone injured. I managed to get hold of a blanket and then stumbled around again in a of a daze trying to come to terms with where I was and what had happened.

I felt a tug on my arm and it was Kai (the equipment guy) from Coral Grand, he looked in shock but he managed to tell me that Both Jim and Andrea were ok and there were others there, but didn’t know about Steffi. We went to sit down and started to chat about the day. He said that he had not eaten, and I remembered the food I had in my dry bag. I gave it to him, and he shared it with his friend, I also gave him the water. As he ate I looked up to the sky and noticed that it was a full moon on a clear night, beautiful under any other circumstances.

I felt restless. I don’t smoke, but that night I kept myself busy by smoking and walking around. I went with Kai to see his brother and try to give a bit of support. He had a broken arm and had a knock to the face, but was ok. There was another wave warning, in Taquapa! People were panicking and we made our way to the top floor and sat there, my heart was pounding, I could not believe it, I didn’t feel safe even in the hospital!

I chatted to a guy lying on a stretcher outside the ward in the open, his name was ‘K’ or something like that (he told me his name, but said that everyone called him ‘k’ as no-one could pronounce his name). He had been an instructor in Khao Lak and had spent some time in Koh Tao for Big Blue. We had a chat, and he was concerned about infection, and I fetched the nurse to check his temperature, and to get him painkillers on a few occasions. His legs were in a bad way, but he was shocked like everyone, but would be ok. I remember him being very apologetic about asking for help, and very polite to everyone he spoke to, despite being in a lot of pain. I tried to phone Belgium for ‘K’ but I could not get through, I wished I could have helped him more.

Some other people recognised me and asked if I had found my girlfriend, it was the people from my apartment block. I showed them a picture of her (which I took from the apartment), and they were sure that this was the person they had seen earlier on in the day, this was fantastic news, and I felt a huge amount of relief. I knew that she was alive.

I had a restless night, not much sleep and I lay on a concrete bench thinking about what had happened and trying to call Steffi and Jim (manager of Coral Grand). I watched it get light and I was on a mission to get back to Khao Lak. I gave K my blanket and said goodbye and wished him luck. I stood for a while with Kai, he offered to drive me back to Khao Lak (he has Andrea’s motorbike), but he was still waiting for news of his family, so I decided to try to get there on my own.

I met a couple of guys (forgot names, sorry) and managed to hitch a ride. However, on the way the driver got scared by people coming the other way and after a few miles they turned off the road and took us back to Taquapa. We were dropped off at the evacuation centre, and the organisation there was a nightmare. We signed all of the paperwork, and they wanted to send us to Phuket. We were advised not to go back to Khao Lak and we were told that was no one allowed to go there. We thought otherwise, and decided to go to the hospital to get a lift. But first we all needed to email and let people know that we were ok, I also needed a charger and credit for my phone. I sent an e-mail to Steffi and my parents and got credit and charged the phone, but there still was no coverage.

We made our way back to the hospital, had another look around and then tried again to get a lift back to Khao Lak. We hitched a ride, but they would only take us part of the way then they dropped us off. We waited in the road for 10 minutes or so until we managed to hitch another ride. The people we hitched with had a sick sense of humour as they stopped the car and told us that there was another wave in about 10min, but they would go anyway. They were smiling when they said this, but it was no time for jokes, I was on my way back, and I was not going to take any chances, we thanked them for the lift and decided to wait for 20min to see what happened. Of course nothing happened, so we caught the next car going to Khao Lak.

The smell In Khao Lak was staggering, I have never smelt anything like that before, and hope never to again, it smelt of death, unbelievable. There were traffic jams everywhere, but I was getting close, this would be it, is Steffi ok or not? I kept my concentration going, and we drove past our apartment, and the window was open. I shouted ‘Steffi’ as loud as I could, just in case she was there, but there was no response and my heart sank, I looked at the two guys I was with, then at the floor. At the same time I heard ‘Matt!’ I looked behind me and it was Klaus, I could not believe it, he said that he had been looking for me everywhere. I asked where Steffi was and he told me that she was at ‘The Happy Snapper’ and was fine, everyone else was there also, I was overjoyed. I was so happy, I smiled for the first time.

The car stopped outside the Snapper and I jumped over the side, thanked the people for the lift and walked towards the bar. And there she was walking towards me, she looked beautiful, we hugged and kissed, she smelt wonderful. Nothing else in the world mattered, nothing. Everything that had happened to me was no longer important, we were together.

The only person left unaccounted for was Harry, and he turned up later that day. Marcel and Andy took him to Phuket because of his injuries. We saw Harry and Tina in Bangkok a few days later, and Klaus was there also.

There is still lots more to put into this story, and I shall add to it in time. This was what happened to me, I have tried to put down everything I felt and thought.

The little girl was sent to Suratthani, lived for 2 more days then died in intensive care. I was devastated, and I still think about her often. I think about her family and her being alone. I shall remember her always. I hope that the people that I helped made it, but I’ll never know.

Whoever survived this disaster can thank all of the Dive Professionals in the Khao Lak area, when everything was turning to chaos, these were the guys that stepped in, and did what needed to be done.

Steffi has her own story, I am very proud of her and what she did those days. Jim, Andrea, Paul, Klaus, Andy, Marcel, Fillip, Tina, the guys from Liquid, and others I haven’t mentioned. You are all hero’s.

I cannot believe what we all went through, I couldn’t believe that we all made it, and I cannot shake the guilty feeling that I didn’t do enough to help.

Matthew Norman

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