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Tsunami Scavengers Survivors Nuns And Corps

Tsunami Scavengers Survivors Nuns And Corps

By Richard S. Ehrlich

KHAO LAK BEACH, Thailand -- Scavengers, survivors, nuns and corporate logos have appeared along this mangled, death-pocked coast where vehicles jut from wet sand and bonfires consume five-star trash.

This worst-hit stretch of Thailand's west coast has been geographically reshaped by tsunamis which forced sand, coral, shells and fish onto land and left Phang Nga province with a subtly different beachfront for the Andaman Sea to now gently lick.

Waves smashed inland more than one mile in some sections, crushing hotels, homes, factories, markets and other structures before crashing over sleek Highway 4 and battering modest strip malls on the other side.

In Thailand, most of the 5,291 dead Thais and foreigners, and 4,500 still missing, were people in and around Khao Lak Beach in Takua Pa district, which includes five-star resorts, Thai workers' villages, plantations, and inland shrimp farms.

Ironically, this coast is dotted with tall, powerful, red-and-white telecommunications antennas -- visible for miles around and still functioning -- linked to Thailand's Post and Telegraph Department and other vital services.

But they were mute throughout the sunny morning of Dec. 26 when a 9.0 magnitude, underground earthquake off Indonesia sent giant tidal waves rolling across the sea.

At a damaged Buddhist temple, a stone's throw from the sea, a mother and daughter now sit on the steps of a small shrine, drying Buddhist prayer books in the sun after slapping their covers and shaking them to remove grit between the pages.

Up the coast, scavengers pick through jagged rubble at decimated resorts, stuffing cut pieces of turquoise-colored plastic drainage pipe, and anything else worth recycling, into large garbage bags tied to makeshift rusty sidecars welded onto the scavengers' motorcycles.

Behind them, bonfires burn wreckage, sending polluted, black-and-gray swirls of smoke skyward.

Household belongings, including a large radio, sea-stained CDs, pillows, twisted pink mattresses, a smashed TV and bent silverware litter the broken, blasted-out cement buildings.

Thais operating Caterpillar bulldozers flatten whatever sticks up from the sandy dirt, joined by Mitsubishi trucks and Sumitomo cranes, clearing resorts and other prime zones as quickly as possible.

At one obliterated resort, blue ceramic, squat-style toilets remain fixed in place in a sand-covered tile floor, but the bathroom's walls are gone.

Anyone using the floor-level bowl would be shaded by coconut trees and see effluent feeding the sea.

Further north along Highway 4, the entrance to a large Buddhist temple is partially blocked by stacks of plywood coffins, brought in by small trucks and freshly unloaded, ready to be stuffed with the tsunami's dead.

Inland, a camp for displaced people appears spiffy and well-stocked for the living.

About 130 boys and girls giggle and cheer while watching a Tarzan video, subtitled in Thai, even though the cartoon shows elephants and other animals stampeding through water sand threatening each other.

Sister Anna, a bespectacled 60-year-old nun originally from Italy but based in Thailand for the past 30 years, grins while eyeing the kids who sit on mats next to boxes of food.

"This camp is called Moo Ban Thai Mai, or 'Village of the New Thai People'," explains Ariane Grubauer, 20, who has come from Germany to teach English among the Salesian Sisters, a Roman Catholic congregation founded in Italy 160 years ago for missionary work.

"The people here have food and everything, but I think the problem is the future. Some refugees in another camp were fishermen, and they lost their boats and everything else because their village was directly on the sea," Ms. Grubauer says.

"Here, the children have seen so many terrible things, but still they laugh and play."

The Thai military is helping to build tents supported by triangles of plywood.

Dozens of precision-made tents in neat rows are efficiently linked by green electric wire, allowing people in the tents to enjoy fluorescent lighting and extension cords for other equipment.

They can sleep on raised, plywood platforms, and be seen playing with infants or biding their time amid personal belongings which include kerosene stoves, charcoal cookers, plastic bags containing stacks of freshly cut firewood, food, pots, pans, dishes and children's books.

Some park rescued motorcycles inside their tents for safekeeping.

A cartoon book with a drawing of Jesus on the cover, and titled, "Life of Christ -- Visualized", appears in most tents.

Though Thailand is 95 percent Buddhist and only about one percent Christian, the children's book was printed in the northern city of Chiang Mai, and originates from Standard Publishing Company in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the United States, which lists a Website address:

Tents also have a portrait of Thailand's revered king.

A "Samsung Medical Rescue Team" sign appears above a big tent staffed by people wearing T-shirts adorned with Samsung's logo, giving the Japanese maker of electronics and other items a high-profile image at the camp.

Survivors tell breath-taking, heart-breaking tales.

One Thai woman says she was working at a resort's kiosk, where tourists could ride elephants, when she heard people shout that the sea sucked itself in, and free fish could be picked up off the exposed sea floor.

Before she could get there, enormous churning, blackish waves hammered inland and almost drowned her.

Her husband, working at the resort's restaurant closer to the beach, fled in a truck with others. But the tsunami swept a bridge while the vehicle was escaping across it, and he died.

Most foreigners who perished in Thailand were at resorts and backpackers' beach sites, while most Thais who died were workers servicing those tourists, or working and living among Thais in nearby villages.

Dec. 26 was a Sunday, and Thais who were blocked by resorts from easily accessing many of Khao Lak's best beaches went further north to Bangsak Beach which also offered hotels, restaurants, and a shady, romantic road along the sand.

An upside-down car is now embedded in the rubble of buildings flattened along Bangsak Beach.

North from Bangsak Beach, fun-in-the-sun places stop, and marshy inlets create isolated spots where the biggest magnet for Thais is a sprawling, inland, commercial shrimp farm and processing factory.

The shrimp farm, a short walk from a rocky beach, is now a heap of crumpled warehouses and silent workers' dormitories where the word "Slipknot" appears on a wall as big, red, graffiti apparently spray-painted by a fan of the grossly costumed rock group which earlier played a concert in Bangkok.

Large, black, shrimp-breeding vats are half-filled with stinking, fly-infested goo, and peppered with broken machine parts, disemboweled asbestos lining, and tangled, nylon fishing nets.

Thai clean-up crews, including one sporting a Sid Vicious T-shirt, grimace at their task while their truck's radio plays, "Tsunami" -- a new, cloying, slow song by Thailand's business-minded, Santana-wannabe singer, Ad Carabao.

Two men then go to see if they can yank new tires off a bent motorcycle sticking up from wet sand on the beach.


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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