business

The Day the Waves Struck

First came the confusion, then came the unavoidable scenes of death and destruction -- and the knowledge that I was just lucky

By Ian Rowley

I overslept on Sunday morning -- and it may have saved my life. My family and I had gone to the Thai resort of Ao Nang for a vacation, and we celebrated Christmas Day at a rooftop restaurant overlooking the tranquil bay. The celebration, though, lasted late into the night, and I couldn't drag myself out of bed in time for an excursion I had planned to nearby Railey Island.

Good thing. Shortly after 10 a.m. Sunday, when the tidal wave swept into Ao Nang, I was still asleep in my room, 500 meters from the beach.

When I awoke a short time later, though, it didn't take long to figure out that something was terribly wrong. I went out for a stroll, and immediately saw an Italian man barking into a mobile phone. A bit closer to the beach a Scandinavian woman was sobbing by the side of the road. And a steady stream of motorbikes, taxis, and tuk-tuks (motorized rickshaws) headed away from the beach. "Big wave come," said one taxi driver. "Go back to your hotel."

"MUM IS NOT HAPPY."

  Slightly confused, I took his advice and began walking back up the hill to my hotel. I tried to turn on the TV to check the news, but the power was out.

My concern started to mount when I received a flurry of text messages to my cell phone from my younger sister. "We're on a boat in the middle of nowhere, and I don't know what's happening -- Mum is not happy," my sister wrote in her first message. A few minutes later she added: "We've been transferred to a bigger boat. Many injured and some dead bodies. This is horrible."

Slowly, from the text messages and talking with other holidaymakers, I worked out what was happening. Like so many other tourists, my two sisters and parents, who had arrived from England a few days earlier, had taken an excursion to one of the numerous nearby islands by one of the dozens of wooden boats that line Ao Nang beach.

"I SAW IT COMING."

  Having gotten within 200 meters of their destination, Poda Island, the boat's skipper had suddenly stopped. The boat was soon joined by half a dozen others, which lined up together to ride the huge waves that tore into Poda. A bit later on, a larger boat picked them up and took them to safety.

The injured my sister described -- bleeding and broken, some silent with shock, some sobbing -- included tourists who had set off from Ao Nang just an hour or two before. That was early enough to get settled in on the beach just as the full force of the wave slammed into the shores. "It was like a disaster movie," recalls 24-year-old Dan Hardisty. At larger Phi Phi island, a few miles further into the Andaman Sea, a local police sergeant told me 400 people had been killed.

By the afternoon, I was able to make my way down to the beachfront. Smashed up boats lined the bay, and remnants of tuk-tuks could be seen floating in the water. The coastal road was covered with debris. "We were on the beach when I saw it coming," recalls Maureen Jones, a British vactioner. "At first my husband tried to take a picture, but then we just ran away from the shore as fast as we could."

"STILL MISSING."

  Nevertheless, compared to many surrounding islands, Ao Nang got off lightly. Three years ago, a three-meter high beach wall was constructed along the sea front, which protected many of the shops and restaurants. "When it was built everybody complained, but now we're glad it's there," says Andreas Kutschka, managing director of the Aqua Vision Dive Center on the beachfront at Ao Nang.

By the evening, almost everywhere tales of injuries and missing friends and relatives filled the air. At my hotel, a Swedish couple were said to have had lost their 11-month-old baby to the waves. Just down the road, Ashu Arora, a British national who divides his year between Britain and Ao Nang, described how he was playing volleyball on neighboring Noppara Thara beach when the tsunami hit. Unlike Ao Nang, at Noppara Thara beach the waves washed away everything in sight, wiping out a row of bars and restaurants some 100 meters from the shore.

"When the first wave struck we just laughed, but within minutes we saw a huge, huge wave -- maybe 10 meters in height -- heading toward us," Arora recalled. "We just ran as fast we could, but one of my friends is stilling missing."

LIFE GOES ON.

  In the days following, the atmosphere remained tense. On Tuesday, a false rumor that another large wave was on its way led to a near stampede. In a matter of seconds, restaurants within sight of the sea were left empty with uneaten food on the tables and broken glass on the floor. The site of hundreds of tourists running from an imaginary wave would have been funny if the tsunami of two days before hadn't been so deadly.

Indeed, fearing more waves, many holidaymakers who had opted to complete their vacation rather than head home early, made it clear they wouldn't be going to the beach again.

Nevertheless, in the Krabi area the situation is quickly returning to normal. With the cleanup well under way, most shops and restaurants in Ao Nang have reopened for business -- even if crowds still gather at the seafront to watch as military divers speed out to nearby islands, periodically returning with covered bodies. Likewise, the long-tail boats, which ferry tourists to and from the numerous islands, have begun reappearing, and hotels have begun advertising their New Year party plans.

And today at Krabi airport -- some 25 kilometers away from the seafront -- you could almost forget the horror. Tourists, albeit more quietly than usual, waited patiently for planes to Bangkok and beyond, but not in the numbers of previous days. More tellingly, signs of injury were few and far between, and the nurse at an emergency medical center that had been set up in the airport lobby had no patients to attend. Still, for me and my family, this is a holiday that we won't soon forget.

Rowley is a BusinessWeek contributing correspondent based in Tokyo

Edited by David Rocks

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