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Waterskiing the Tsunami

By
January 20, 2005

January 20, 2005

Dear Joel,

I don’t know where to start. Thank you for taking the time to write. I am receiving about 100 emails a day from people all over the World and i have made myself the promise that I will reply to everyone. I have been touched by the tenderness of people and believe that at least some good is coming out of this tragedy.

I am ok, and I know that I will be better

It appears that my ‘experience’ is travelling the internet ether and has already been posted on a couple of websites – some with my approval and some without. I fundamentally don’t have a problem with this as the more people that read what happened, hopefully the more people will be encouraged to donate. From a selfish perspective it may also help me find the Japanese girl.

Just an obvious point – i live in England , so its not really a letter from Thailand ! I also am not sure why your editors need to alter it. It is what it is – what i felt. I’m not a professional writer, I’d prefer it left this way. Hope you understand.

Kind regards,

Luke Simmonds

“Joel Whitney”

10/01/2005 23:58

To luke.simmonds@**********

cc jwhitney@ @**********

Subject FW: Re: FW: Amazing Story You Have To Read…

Hi Luke, As you can see by the strange new name in your inbox, your email from Thailand has gotten around a bit.

I am writing to ask you if you’d be interested in having your letter printed on a website I co-edit—www.guernicamag.com—an online international art and politics journal. We have an ongoing series (well, this is only our second issue—a planned ongoing series then) of letters from abroad, and if possible we’d like to run your email as a letter from Thailand.

It was a gut-wrenching piece of writing and I thank you for writing it, regardless of whether you decide you’d like to print it or not.

If you decide you want to, we’ll just have our editors comb over it very lightly and send you the edited version for final approval and we’d launch it, as I may have mentioned above, on the 20th of January.

Best wishes to you, and thanks for your brave letter.

Sincerely,

Joel Whitney

>> >Dear All

>>

>> >

>>

>> >firstly, I should say thank you for your kind words. This whole

>>experience has been shocking but if anything good has come out of

>>it, is the knowledge that I have some of the best friends and

>>colleagues anyone could have. I truly appreciate all of the calls

>>and the messages – it does help.

>>

>> >

>>

>> >I am ok, my injuries are nothing, just some cuts and bruises.

>>Ironically, I received nearly all of these after the event, walking

>>or rather stumbling around the island. Unfortunately, many people

>>have not been so lucky. The pictures on TV give a clear picture of

>>the death and destruction, but I haven’t seen anything that comes

>>close to depicting the horror of the injuries.

>>

>> >

>>

>> >A number of people have suggested that I write down my experience

>>- I think this in part will help me, but also saves me repeating

>>the story too many times. I do not feel uncomfortable with sharing

>>this story, and in some respects I think it probably helps

>>recounting what happened. Please do not feel awkward if you want to

>>talk to me about this. Below, I will try to recount exactly what

>>happened to me, before during and after. At times, it will be

>>graphic so please be warned.

>>

>> >

>>

>> >I arrived in Thailand on the 20th and spent 3 days in Phuket on

>>Kata Beach with a Swedish girlfriend and her family. They had

>>planned their trip for months. I decided very last minute to join

>>them before going onto meet Danish friends in Koh Phi Phi, and

>>finally onto Bangkok with friends from Hong Kong for New Year. I

>>moved onto Phi Phi on the 24th and celebrated Christmas with 3 of

>>my Danish friends – Lars and his girlfriend Rine , and Jesper. On

>>the evening of the 25th , I was exhausted so didn’t join them for

>>dinner and went to bed at around 9pm. This is important as anyone

>>who knows me , will know that I tend to sleep late ! But given a

>>long nights rest , I was up early and had breakfast with Lars &

>>Rine.

>>

>> >

>>

>> >At about 10:30 we went to the beach. Lars and I planned to go

>>sailing , but there was no wind so we opted for water skiing. We

>>waited for the boat and noted the wind was picking up so we would

>>sail afterwards. First Lars skied and then it was my turn. At the

>>moment i got into the water the lagoon started to drain out – in

>>particular on the far right hand side of the bay ( as you look out

>>to sea). Within seconds it was too shallow to ski, so i climbed

>>back into the boat. Lars, I and the driver sat there just watching

>>the water drain away without any comprehension of what was to

>>happen next. At first we saw a couple on a Kayak struggling in the

>>current – they were being sucked out to sea. But then almost

>>immediately they were on the top of a small wave kayaking into the

>>beach at some speed. We were excited by the site and just imagined

>>they were having some fun. Of course we could not know of the huge

>>volume of water that was underneath them , that once it reached the

>>shallow water would simply rise up into a huge wave. That is

>>basically what happened next.

>>

>> >

>>

>> >We were in the ski boat facing towards the shore, when the water

>>passing underneath us began to pull the boat around and towards the

>>shore. Almost out of nowhere there was a huge wall of water, behind

>>us at the beach. We were at the bottom of a 10 meter wave that

>>stretched the entire length of the beach, maybe 1km. I said to Lars

>>that we were in trouble – at this moment it didn’t even dawn on me

>>that the wave would pass through the island causing the destruction

>>that it did. I screamed at the driver to get us out to sea, but

>>even at full power , the boat just got sucked to the bottom of the

>>wave. The wave collapsed on the top of the boat. I remember

>>covering my head and rolling into a ball. Underwater I just kept on

>>thinking ” please don’t get hit by something ”. I came to the

>>surface , breathed, and then was pulled under again. I like to

>>think that all of the diving I have done helped me – I knew not to

>>fight the current and to wait as long as I could before reacting.

>>The truth is , I was just lucky. I came to the surface , grabbed

>>some more air, and then saw a huge wave coming at me. I could see

>>that it wasn’t about to break where I was so i took a breath and

>>dived through it, coming up the other side. I grabbed some wood to

>>hang onto, but then saw a life jacket ( presumably from our boat )

>>floating 10 meters away. I swam like crazy for it – in my head I

>>knew it was the best thing to do. I got it on and instantly felt

>>safe – i was afloat in the sea and things didn’t look that bad for

>>me. I knew I was safe from drowning I just had to wait for help. I

>>looked for Lars, saw our driver first, and then Lars about 150

>>meters away, he looked unhurt, but even from that distance I could

>>see his face had taken on a different aspect. I have thought about

>>this since and have decided that it was survival.

>>

>> >

>>

>> >We were all then pushed inland , over what I now know was the

>>Cabana Hotel pool where so many people had been when the wave

>>struck. I saw the water flooding into open spaces and it was here

>>that I got very frightened. Water was rushing into fill any empty

>>voids and I could see that I was likely to go wherever the water

>>went. I smashed into the first floor balcony of the hotel and was

>>hanging on with my body being pulled under. It was too strong. I

>>took a breath and then was pulled under the hotel through the

>>ground floor pool side balconies. I am sure i survived due to the

>>life jacket , as it was always trying to get me to the surface. I

>>think I came up around the corner of the hotel and drifted a little

>>way to the back of the Hotel before swimming to a tree and climbing

>>up.

>>

>> >

>>

>> >About 3 or 4 minutes later the water subsided. I climbed down and

>>almost immediately saw Lars and the driver , they were both fine.

>>Then the screaming started. People calling for their loved ones. At

>>first a guy looking for his daughters , Fredericke and Isabella. I

>>asked him where they had been ( in the pool ) and then I explained

>>how far I had travelled and that we needed to spread out and walk

>>away from the Hotel. Everywhere was devastation. The small wooden

>>bungalows were ripped open. We called their names, we never found

>>them. Then 2 French girls stuck up a tree asked me to help them

>>down. I now know from Lars that he had a similar experience. Whilst

>>looking for Fredericke and Isabella he found 2 Thai girls stuck in

>>a basement room, filling up with water. He helped them out as the

>>water was rushing in to fill the space they occupied. On a lighter

>>side, I understand one of the girls didn’t want to come out as all

>>of her clothes had been pulled from her body – Lars didn’t give her

>>a choice !

>>

>> >

>>

>> >At the Cabana Hotel we started to make a hospital area. Some

>>people came on their own, others we heard screaming and we went to

>>them. Another English guy, called CC ( spelling ? ) was a

>>psychiatrist, and so we kind of appointed him in charge. The first

>>girl we collected from the rubble was an English girl called Sally.

>>She was covered in the most severe cuts i have ever seen. Imagine

>>those documentaries about liposuction, etc….. it was like that.

>>Gaping holes with grotesque cuts in the flesh, to the bone. She had

>>at least 7 lacerations over her legs and tummy. We saw wounds like

>>this throughout the day caused by the debris in the water. The

>>bungalows often had their roofs made of corrugated iron, which

>>travelling through the water at 40 KPH clearly just tore through

>>bodies. We kicked down a door to use as a stretcher and carried her

>>to the first floor. She was the first , and then they just kept

>>coming. A Japanese husband and wife. The wife had lost half of her

>>throat. We simply held her neck together. A Swedish women whose

>>head was cleaved open – we tied her head together. A Japanese girl

>>whose leg was so badly broken , we decided that we had to put it

>>straight. I held her hand, and kissed her, whilst crying with her,

>>as 3 guys pulled her leg straight. It took 3 or 4 minutes of the

>>most unbelievable pain for this girl. She was amazing. I am still

>>trying to find her. I know it was the stress of the situation but

>>somehow there was a very special connection between us. Afterwards

>>we all prayed for the rest of her group. She was missing 16 people

>>! I have since contacted some Japanese newspapers as I feel that I

>>will find it hard to put this behind me until I know what happened

>>to her. I would get on a flight to Japan in an instant if I knew

>>that I could see her again. Then there was an Israeli boy ,

>>travelling on his own, I think called Tommy. He had a major cut by

>>his armpit and was petrified that he would lose his arm. I cleaned

>>out his wound whilst trying to give reassurance. I’m pretty sure he

>>would be OK as he was able to move everything – It just looked so

>>horrible. Whilst we were helping someone , often you would hear , ”

>>Doctor , please come and help my friend.” I didn’t know whether to

>>explain that I wasn’t a Doctor or not. 9 times out of 10 , I said I

>>wasn’t, but still people were desperate for help.

>>

>> >

>>

>> >I think it was about 12:30 now and around this time the first

>>reports of more waves came. They never did, but the effect was to

>>cause even more panic. Around this time I met another amazing

>>person. Michelle walked over and asked if she could help. You need

>>to understand we had very little. We were sending people off to the

>>rooms ( if they were prepared to leave the relative shelter of high

>>ground ) to get water from the mini bars, cleans sheets , and the

>>sewing kits ( we thought we might have to sew up some of the

>>wounds… fortunately we did not ). I looked at Michelle and could

>>tell she was holding back. I said we needed help , but how was she

>>and who was she with ? Her husband was missing , he’d been

>>swimming. We cried , but then she just said, ” right, lets help

>>these people”…. unbelievable ! An hour later, her husband Marvin

>>walked in , unhurt !!!! I cannot describe to you that moment , it

>>was pure joy.

>>

>> >

>>

>> >At around 14:00 we heard that a boat was coming in. CC and I

>>spoke and where concerned that people would panic and rush for the

>>boat. He pointed out we would have to restrain people. I made an

>>announcement about what was happening and said that only the most

>>injured would be allowed to leave and that CC would decide who they

>>were…. i think we all knew who had to go. The boat came in and we

>>carried about 20 people down to the boat on doors, deck chairs,

>>etc. We took Sally, the 3 Japanese, a number of Swedish and Thai

>>people….. i think it was about 20 people in total that went on

>>that first boat.

>>

>> >

>>

>> >After that I tried to make it over to my Hotel to find my

>>friends. Lars and I had got separated and I hadn’t seen him since

>>the water first subsided. It was impossible to cross the island and

>>it was in this journey that I started to see how bad the

>>destruction was. In the 200 meters i travelled I saw at least 20

>>dead bodies. I gave up and went back to the Cabana Hotel. Time went

>>by and as more warnings of waves came in , people left to goto

>>higher ground … up the mountain. A number of people stayed and

>>were debating the risks. To get to the mountain was probably 30

>>minutes across flat ground of total destruction. If a wave came and

>>you were out there, you were dead. Simple as that. At about 4pm a

>>guy came in with a walkie talkie and confirmed that another bigger

>>wave was coming and that we were not high enough. This wave never

>>came, but again the damage was done. Those that could walk left. I

>>decided it was time i had to go too.

>>

>> >

>>

>> >As I was leaving a S.African family , mother, grandmother, aunt

>>and little girl were making their way very slowly. They all had

>>cuts to the legs. As I understand it, the little girl had drowned

>>but they had given CPR and brought her back to life , but she was

>>unresponsive. I said to the mother I would take her and go. I am

>>not sure if she really understood. She passed me the little girl,

>>and I went. I was very frightened. I did not look back. This has

>>given me some nightmares. I got to the mountain and it was

>>impossible to get up whilst holding a little unconscious 6 year

>>old. An English guy helped me ( his name may have been Adam and his

>>girlfriend Emma ) , and we only got up about 15 meters. I sat there

>>with her in my arms trying to feed her ‘sugar water’ for about 2

>>hours. Eventually I decided she would not make it unless she got to

>>a hospital. I climbed back down the mountain , which I could not

>>have done without the help of an American guy called Larry and

>>crossed the island ( unbelievably scary , fear of another wave ) ,

>>got to the beach where there was a boat with about 100 people

>>trying to board from 1 plank. The Thai’s saw me with this little

>>girl and just hoisted me aboard. Going out to sea was one of the

>>most bizarre moments. The harbour was full of debris and dead

>>bodies. Very silent. Everyone frightened of another wave.

>>

>> >

>>

>> >At sea , we boarded a bigger boat and waited for other boats to

>>join us. I still held the little girl in my arms. Her name I

>>thought was Shania ( she had whispered it in a moment of

>>consciousness ) , I later found out it was Chane. We arrived at

>>Phuket town at approx 22:30 and were the first into an ambulance ,

>>with 2 other English guys I met on the boat – Jimbo (21 ) and Mark

>>(32 ). We went to the Mission Hospital and got the little girl into

>>intensive Care – I had not put her down for 8 hours. I now have

>>some understanding of what it must mean to be a parent and I look

>>forward to that day for me. Later though, we had to move to the

>>Government hospital to get a brain scan. All ok, so back to Mission

>>hospital. Throughout the night I tried to find relatives of the

>>little girl. I called S.African embassy ( shut ) so left a message

>>of who i was, where i was , and who i had. Spoke to British embassy

>>and repeated the story. In intensive care there were 2 other

>>Europeans – Angelika from Austria, and Antonio from Portugal.

>>Antonio’s girlfriend Anna was there , unhurt, so we talked a lot.

>>She helped me. I felt very responsible for the little girl and was

>>suffering some guilt at taking her from the Mother. I kept on

>>thinking about how the Mother must be feeling, not knowing where

>>and how her little girl was.

>>

>> >

>>

>> >Later on I noticed the Austrian women ( who I would find out was

>>called Angelika Thomes ) looking in my direction. I went over to

>>speak to her. ” How are you , are you ok ?” She just burst into

>>tears – she had lost her husband and 15 year old son. I told her

>>that I would go and phone the Austrian embassy and give them her

>>details. The next day we heard that both her husband and son were

>>alive and well ! Such happiness. During the night I called

>>Angelika’s friend in Austria ( Karin ) and told her what was going

>>on, who I was and where we were. An hour later a call was passed to

>>me ” Doctor Luke , this is Angelika’s Doctor in Austria ” !!!!!!

>>This happened on a number of occasions, people mistaking you for a

>>Doctor. I must say this was quite surreal. Especially as I was

>>wearing a pair of ripped shorts from the day before. Her Doctor and

>>I spoke and he was just happy to be able to talk to someone

>>properly in English. I love the Thai people, they are simply one of

>>the , if not THE, kindest races out there, but in our hospital

>>language was a problem. In the intensive care unit not one of the

>>nurses spoke English. Often I would go down to the administration

>>department to talk to the staff there who were excellent and were

>>really trying to help, but it was chaos at the hospitals. Perhaps

>>worse was the lists – names were spelt wrong, nationalities

>>wrong,etc. All this made it more complicated to find people.

>>

>> >

>>

>> >I slept a few hours at the hospital and about 6am the little girl

>>Chane opened her eyes. We played a game of trying to spell out her

>>surname. I held up letters in front of her and she nodded or

>>pointed at them. Her surname was PANAINO. I ran ( hobbled )

>>downstairs to phone the embassy. I kind of broke down at this point

>>for a little while. I had been desperate to find her parents, but

>>with no name ,and her not talking it seemed an impossible task. Now

>>it seemed just a matter of time. At this point I still hadn’t

>>spoken to anyone from home or any of my friends. Losing your mobile

>>phone cuts you off from the world. How many numbers do you know ? I

>>didn’t know many and was too tired to concentrate. I was leaving

>>messages at home , my Brothers mobile, even tried the office. But

>>hadn’t spoken to anyone. I called my own mobile and heard messages

>>of people calling in. Most importantly I heard that Anneli ( my

>>Swedish girlfriend ) and her family were fine. However, the

>>desperation in her voice was clear. She wanted me to call her but

>>didn’t leave her number ! I tried to call her Hotel but the lines

>>were down, so no way to tell her I was ok. I then realised that if

>>i could get my messages I could re-record my own message. So I

>>called back and did this. Unfortunately it did not save the

>>message, so it wasn’t until i called back 6 hours later that I

>>realised this. I recorded a new message which I think many of you

>>heard.

>>

>> >

>>

>> >At about 9am I walked through the hospital reception and heard my

>>name shouted. Corny i know, but of all the hospitals in all the

>>towns, there was Lars and his girlfriend Rine !!! Both of them well

>>, cuts & bruises. No sign of Jesper and today as I write this

>>almost a week later we still have no news. I think we accept that

>>he has gone, but just hope he did not suffer and that we can find

>>his body. We left the Hospital to goto the Pearl Hotel where all

>>the Scandinavians were being moved to. I stayed with them a little

>>while but felt disconnected and isolated. I wanted to be around

>>British people and I wanted to go back to the Hospital to find out

>>how Chane was, so i > left.

>>

>> >

>>

>> >I have spoken to Lars about what happened to Jesper and this is

>>all we know : Jesper was on the beach with Rine when they saw the

>>wave coming. At first they gathered up some of our belongings and

>>then started to run through the Hotel bungalows that we had been

>>staying at – Phi Phi Charlie. Running in flip flops is hard. Jesper

>>fell over and Rine fell on top of him. They got up, left everything

>>and carried on running. They were separated. Rine was trying to get

>>up some stairs when the water came. She was hanging onto the top

>>step, with water up to her neck, when two Thai guys pulled her up

>>to safety. She did not see what happened to Jesper.

>>

>> >

>>

>> >Back at the hospital , at about 11am, a nurse came in holding a

>>mobile phone which she shoved next to the ear of Chane…. it was

>>Daddy !!! Chane could not talk, i took the phone. It was not her

>>Dad, but her Uncle Anton. I told him who I was and where we were.

>>He arrived 30 minutes later and collapsed into my arms. Actually I

>>collapsed into his too. We just cried and hugged. He had spoken to

>>the Auntie and knew who I was. The mother and Grand mother were all

>>fine just miles away. I explained the story and how guilty i felt

>>for taking her. He was brilliant and just thanked me for saving her

>>life and told me that the mother was so grateful. Since getting

>>back to the UK, I have called the hospital , the mother was there,

>>we spoke, it was great … nothing else to be said !

>>

>> >

>>

>> >I think around 14:00 i had this sense that it was time for me to

>>leave. There was no-one else left who I was connected with that

>>hadn’t met their family / friends, yet I was on my own and still

>>hadn’t spoken to anyone. I went to the City Hall to get papers but

>>gave up after an hour when someone said, just get upto Bangkok and

>>sort it out there – a Thai guy gave me the shoes he was wearing , a

>>t-shirt from someone else. I went to Phuket airport and waited 5

>>hours before getting on free flight from Thai Airways. At the

>>airport I met the 2 French girls I had got down from the tree 36

>>hours earlier !!! I became part of their extended family as they

>>had been ‘adopted’ by a French guy , Bernard , and his wife and

>>Kids. At Bangkok, within 30 minutes I had a piece of paper to admit

>>me to the UK, and within 1 hour I was on the BA flight that had

>>come from Sydney, First Class. I lost the plot here. For about an

>>hour I was in ‘shock’. I could not stop shaking and crying, I think

>>the plane represented home. The staff were great and I really must

>>contact BA to let them know that the crew on that flight helped me

>>significantly.

>>

>> >

>>

>> >Home, my Brother , the Press, guilt. I am safe , unhurt and I was

>>out so quickly. Every day I think about what happened and whether I

>>could have done more. I have a strong urge to go back, but think

>>that first I will have to goto Denmark to be with my friends there

>>to deal with the loss of Jesper. I sleep , but wake up very early.

>>I am glued to the TV. I have contacted the press, as some of you

>>will have seen. I want to know what happened to the people we

>>helped. Last night Sally’s Mum called. She is recovering in Bangkok

>>hospital. Another amazing call from a Mum who was frightened for

>>her daughter. She knows the extent of Sally’s injuries, but she is

>>alive and will recover. I hope to go and see them in Jersey when

>>they are ready.

>>

>> >

>>

>> >I am now just looking for the Japanese girl. I have sent an email

>>to some of the papers out there and hope that someone will pick up

>>on the story – I hope so.

>>

>> >

>>

>> >I lost everything out there. The only thing I came back with were

>>the shorts I was wearing and lots of paper with names , telephone

>>numbers, messages to give to family and friends. I know that I am

>>very lucky to be alive. We must do everything we can to help those

>>that have not been so lucky. I urge you to go and make a financial

>>donation – if you have done it already , do it again. I am trying

>>to get a passport so I can goto Denmark, but it seems that it may

>>take some days. I will come to the office and already I have read

>>all of your mails. Please forgive me If I have not written back

>>yet, I hope that this ‘story’ will answer your questions. I cannot

>>wait to see you all soon.

>>

>> >

>>

>> >All my love

>>

>> >

>>

>> >Luke

>>

>> >

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