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Richard S. Ehrlich: Thailand's Earthquake Survivor

Thailand's Earthquake Survivors

by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Foreign tourists rescued from a tiny island off the coast of Phuket said they thought a terrorist was shooting people, a dam had burst or a hurricane hit moments before they saw huge waves sweep helpless victims into the Andaman Sea.

"I thought it was a terrorist attack because I could hear 'bang, bang, bang' and all these people were screaming and I couldn't see no water," said Rita Smith, a 54-year-old jeweler from England.

"People turned white, everyone, with fear and horror on their faces. And it sounded like gun shots. So I thought someone was on the beach shooting people. I started running with the crowd and my first instinct was to hide," Ms. Smith said.

Traumatized survivors, some bandaged and wide-eyed, described their experiences in recorded interviews on Wednesday (Dec. 29) after being rescued from tiny Phi Phi island, located about 24 miles (40 kilometers) southeast from larger Phuket island which was also devastated by Sunday's (Dec. 26) underwater earthquake and tsunami waves.

More than 1,500 people, most of them foreigners, perished on Thailand's southwest coast and islands, but officials said the toll could climb because hundreds of people were still missing.

Groups of tourists from Phi Phi, Phuket and other stricken zones were brought to Bangkok where medical staff, diplomats and volunteers sheltered and aided them on Wednesday (Dec. 29) in the comfort of university campus buildings near the international airport.

"Me and my boyfriend, we were both in bed when it happened," said Laura Lynch, a 21-year-old office assistant from Wiltshire, England.

"We were asleep. The fan stopped working and all the electricity went out, and we heard screaming.

"My boyfriend, Mark, he went out to see what was happening and all the electricity cables were shaking. At first, I actually thought it was a hurricane or something like that. Then people were screaming at us to run.

"We looked around us and people were being swept away in the water. Loads and loads of people," Ms. Lynch said.

"When the first wave was over, people were going down and trying to help people out of the rubble. And then as the second wave came in, a lot of people were swept away again, people who were trying to help. It was terrible.

"There was a lot of dead people," she said. "We saw them getting swept past."

Ms. Lynch and her boyfriend were "lucky" because their rented bungalow was on a hill on Phi Phi island.

"I at least saw four people being swept down a road," said Mark.

"Initially, I heard all this screaming. The roar was like thunder. I ran out of the room and I saw at least one body go past.

"Then the guy we rented our room from just said, 'run, run,' so I grabbed Laura and we started to run around the back of our guest house. We were on a mountainside. From there, we watched at least three people get washed down," he said.

"There was somebody screaming on the other side of the road. So we went to get this girl. She was all shredded up. She was in a real bad way," Mark, 26, added.

"She had been taken out of her room by the first wave that came down, and she had just been shredded by all the galvanized steel that they use for the roofs and she was a mess. She was English. I can't remember her name. What was her name? Becky. I don't know her surname. But good luck to her."

"I think she got airlifted out," Ms. Lynch said.

"At first, I thought there was a dam on the island that had broken because the electricity went out when we were in our room, and then there was just all the, like, thunder of the water that had come down," Mark said.

Some tourists on boats, or scuba diving underwater, fared much better.

"We were doing a scuba dive when suddenly a very strong current caught us," said Petra Stegenier, 44, from Germany.

"We had to struggle against it. It took us down and upwards and down and upwards. We finished the dive, surfaced, and we were picked up by the boat and then we were warned that a big wave -- they said a five-meter-high wave -- just swept away half of Phi Phi island," she said.

"At the end of the dive we thought, 'Oh it was a funny thing, like a roller coaster'," Ms. Stegenier said.

"Even you could see a leopard shark also had to struggle against the current. We were not afraid because we are very experienced divers.

"During the trip back to the island, we saw masses of chairs and dead people and injured people. You could see it was a mess of destroyed things already in the water. And when we arrived, we saw that yes, the middle of the island was completely swept away," she said.

"We lived in the Phi Phi Princess [hotel] which was completely destroyed. We had no shoes, we lost everything. We tried to find some shoes because you couldn't walk, it was all damaged."

Ms. Stegenier said she saw "many, many injured people, many dead people" before climbing one of the hills on Phi Phi island where she huddled with other terrified survivors through the night and emerged in the morning to be rescued by boats.

Pascal Riem, 19, from Switzerland appeared at the emergency center in Bangkok with several scab-covered lacerations on his legs, arms and face.

"The wave pulled me out of my bungalow and I hanged on a palm tree," he said.

"If I did not hold onto the palm tree, I would be dead now," Mr. Riem said.

Others also suffered a horrorshow of pain and panic.

"I saw this huge amount of water coming down the hill and it was about as high as a palm tree, I would say, and it was knocking over every single house, building, the little restaurant, everything that was in front of the wave," said Daniel Aiguelles, a 25-year-old stock broker from Columbia.

"I saw people being washed away by the wave and then crushed by the bungalows that were being knocked over," the Latin American trader said.

"The people that survived were the people that could manage to climb up the hills. There are three or four different peaks on Phi Phi island, so people just started running toward the mountains and climbed as high as possible.

"The first thing I thought was, 'Is this a river on Phi Phi island?' I just didn't know what was going on at the time. But in a matter of 10 seconds, you realize it is coming towards you," Mr. Aiguelles said.

Phi Phi appears as if it is two, jungle-covered islands built from craggy, hills and united by a narrow, flat, umbilical strip of hotel-packed land.

Phi Phi's charm is that it offers tropical beaches on both sides of the narrow strip -- only a few hundred meters apart -- where most tourists stayed in scores of inexpensive hotels.

"Phi Phi island is really narrow, so the island was hit at the same time from both sides," Mr. Aiguelles said. "There were actually two waves coming onto the island.

"People who were running away from one of them, ended up facing the other wave. So there was really nowhere to go. So a lot of people didn't make it.

"I saw a little girl who was pretty much hit by the water and she was crushed against the wall that was holding some buildings and some bungalows. She was a Thai girl on a bicycle," Mr. Aiguelles said.

"Then the bodies just started floating."

****** -ENDS-******

Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 26 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is

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