Tsunami survivors

Andrea Pfeiffer (Anthropology ’04) and her boyfriend, Mike Doveton, took a year-end holiday in Thailand. They arrived in Bangkok on Dec. 23 and flew south the next day. When the tsunami hit, chance, booked-up resorts and luck kept them safe and able to help with the horrific aftermath.

By Andrea Pfieffer (Anthropology ’04)
Doveton and Pfeiffer overlooking Kantiaga Bay on the Thai island of Ko Lanta the day before the tsunami.

Doveton and Pfeiffer overlooking Kantiaga Bay on the Thai island of Ko Lanta the day before the tsunami.
Photo courtesy of Andrea Pfeiffer.

Last week, while cleaning up my apartment in South Korea, I opened one of my notebooks and read the words “Ko Phi Phi.” My stomach sank. As I scanned down the list of resorts and activities found at this popular island resort, I began to reminisce about my vacation in Thailand. I remembered my boyfriend and me sitting in our living room, deliberating over which island to stay at first — Ko Phi Phi or nearby Ko Lanta.

The night before our flight to Thailand, we chose Ko Lanta and planned to island hop over to Ko Phi Phi on December 27th. In retrospect this decision was life changing. The Tsunami ravaged the hour-glass-shaped island of Ko Phi Phi, but Ko Lanta, by comparison, was spared.

Upon arrival at Ko Lanta, I was awestruck by the sheer beauty of this island. The tall cliffs jutting out of the calm blue waters, fine sand and vibrant green rain forest made this the perfect vacation spot. My boyfriend, Mike, and I reserved two spots on a snorkeling tour for the morning of December 26th. After a wonderful two days of relaxing at the beach, we were ready to explore the waters.

The next morning, we boarded a wooden long-tail boat with eight European tourists and two Thai guides, headed for four small rocky islands southwest of Ko Lanta. At our first stop, Mike and I plunged in the water, floating calmly while watching the colorful fish and white coral. Suddenly I looked up from my underwater trance and realized that we both were pretty far away from our boat and the rest of the snorkelers. We began paddling toward our boat — paddling and paddling some more. We knew we were in no danger of drowning, but it was becoming nerve-wracking that we were making no progress to the boat. After a few long minutes of swimming, we grabbed a rope the crew threw out to us and pulled ourselves in.  To be honest, no one on our boat made much of the forceful waters at the time. Mike and I blew it off, concluding it was just a random undercurrent.

At our second stop, Emerald Cave, we were about to dive into the water when we heard a yell from a neighboring boat. A Thai man was steering his long-tail boat toward our group. Smiling, he explained that there was something wrong with the water and that it wasn’t safe there. I noticed that the entrance to Emerald Cave was only a few feet tall. As we turned our boat around and watched water spray up from the hole, a Thai guide claimed that there were snorkelers stuck in the cave. He said it with such a blasé tone that we were unsure if there was any truth to it. Later we learned that there were about 40 snorkelers trapped inside Emerald Cave and that two had died.

We spent more than an hour on the boat, riding through waters that seemed difficult to maneuver. I occasionally turned to watch the two Thai guides shift all their weight onto one side of the boat and pull on the wooden steering rod. Their smiles and lighthearted attitudes reassured me. We pulled into a rocky shoreline, unaware of our location or purpose there. Walking through the flooded village, we saw villagers carrying out their belongings and placing them on the muddy road. We finally realized that something was wrong.

The Thai snorkel guides packed all of the tourists onto the back of a pickup truck headed back to our resort. On the ride, we learned that a huge wave had struck Ko Lanta while we were snorkeling and that most of the bungalows had been destroyed. The truck pulled into Kantiaga Bay Resort, and we immediately saw the damage: The new bar had collapsed, bungalows were flipped over, and the beach was filled with debris. We walked to our bungalow and were about to grab our belongings when a man frantically screamed, “Save yourselves, another wave is coming!” We managed to get our bags and sprint up to high ground.

The next few days we absorbed the reality of the situation. Our initial image of a localized wave crumbled as we watched horrifying TV images of a monstrous tsunami that affected multiple nations. With little credible information and rumors about food and water contamination, tourists were trying to evacuate the disaster area as soon as possible. We bought bus tickets to Phuket International Airport, where we were guaranteed an immediate flight out to Bangkok, in northern Thailand.

Once we arrived at the airport our travel plans quickly changed.

Entering the Phuket airport was like walking around New York City’s financial district immediately after 9/11. The walls were completely covered with fliers and photos of missing persons — smiling or enjoying a passing moment while caught on camera — posted by friends and family members frantically searching for their loved ones. It was nearly impossible to hold back tears as I scanned the photos. The smiling faces of all those children in the photos so peaceful, happy and blissfully unaware of the impending future were almost too much to bear. Even more moving was reading the captions under the photos: “Missing my 7 year old son — light blond hair — blue eyes — missing front tooth — I love him very much please help.” Familiar names of islands, beaches and resorts reappeared over and over on the fliers. My mind raced back to memories of researching and attempting to make reservations at those same resorts, to no avail, just weeks before. After staring at literally thousands of fliers for an hour in complete silence, we knew we had to stay.

We hitchhiked a ride with a busload of traditionally clad Muslim nurses to the Phuket Tsunami Relief Center. Since the disaster had just occurred and there were so many different organizations contributing to the effort, there was minimal organization for individual volunteers. A middle-aged Canadian woman slapped two “Volunteer” stickers onto our shirts and instructed us to seek out family members who might need consolation or information. We spent two days at the center, speaking with European family members who were missing their loved ones and using body language to express our sympathy.

One of the most haunting memories I have of Thailand was constantly walking past the hospital bulletin boards. Located immediately in front of the Relief Center, and impossible to miss, were photos of unidentified and unidentifiable deceased victims. Without going into detail, I will just reiterate the point that the condition of these corpses took them past the point of identification.

We had heard that in the surrounding areas of Phuket volunteers were desperately needed to haul in corpses floating ashore. We were given a plastic bag filled with a pair of calf-high black rubber boots, two pairs of thick rubber gloves, several mouth guards and a variety of peppermint nasal inhalers. Armed with our bags, we jumped in a minivan with an eclectic team of volunteers from Thailand and Europe and sped off for Khao Lak, probably the hardest-hit area in all of Thailand. Conversations in the van began to fade and silence overtook our team as we motored through the annihilated beach town.

The van stopped at an outdoor Buddhist temple called Wat Yan Yao. It was complete and utter chaos. It looked as if no one was in charge, so we decided to take the initiative and make ourselves useful. We stumbled upon one of the Muslim nurses from the bus ride, and she outfitted us up in makeshift biohazard suits made of garbage bags. She then directed us toward the morgue, located in the back of the outdoor temple. Dressed in our boots, gloves, masks and trash sacks, we turned the corner and froze. Nothing could have ever prepared us for the sights and smells we witnessed from that moment. Corpses were stacked everywhere; the details of the bodies are too difficult for me to describe. The volunteers were doing everything they could to keep the stench at a minimum by resting blocks of dry ice on the bodies, but the heat was unrelenting. The images on the airport fliers kept rushing back into my head, but we both knew that we had to disconnect our emotions from the task at hand. We worked with a Dutch forensics team placing corpses into body bags, lifting the bags into wheelbarrows and transporting them into climate-controlled trailers. The only way not to think about the situation was to work even harder, to just keep going. Clothed in trash bags, thick rubber gloves and boots, and hairnets, we spent hours lifting 50- to 200-pound bodies; the Thai sun began to take its toll.

At nightfall we headed back to Phuket to spend a somber New Year’s Eve, thankful to be alive.