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Detective Paul Kench’s reflection on Phuket

July 14, 2005

Detective inspector Paul Kench’s reflection on Phuket

New Zealand police detective inspector Paul Kench recently carried out a tour of duty in Thailand, in the aftermath of the terrible Boxing Day 2004 tsunami that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives worldwide. Detective Kench was one of several police who has observed in the disaster’s victim identification task known as Operation Phuket. Today the crime services manager of the Canterbury CIB tells his story.

Everyone has seen the images on television. However in the instant society we live in and tv highlight packages, most people here could not comprehend the magnitude of a massive recovery and identification effort that has continued since the tsunami struck on Boxing Day 2004.

During May 2005 I had the humbling experience of twice visiting Phuket Island in Southern Thailand to observe first hand the aftermath and ravages caused by December 26’s tsunami.

To most New Zealanders thinking of Phuket, they conjure up visions of an idyllic holiday destination and rest, relaxation and great weather.

That’s pretty much the general feeling you still get when you first arrive in Phuket, however under the surface there remains a massive international operation in place.

I was there in my capacity as the relieving New Zealand police liaison officer based in Bangkok in the role of meeting, greeting and where appropriate farewelling one of the three separate rotations of NZ police officers and forensic assistants that had either been deployed or who were about to be deployed on Operation Phuket.

For me on day one, I was very much the observer. I was struck immediately by the devastation that had occurred to the land as we drove towards Khao Lak and the area that had become known as Site 1.

Even after having seen so many televisions shots of Phuket I had difficulty comprehending the enormity of what had occurred, although it was obvious that the miles of devastation was being rebuilt.

On the drive back I was taken into a fishing village where over 2000 people had perished. Basically everyone in the village that Sunday morning were taken by the wave that engulfed their land, their homes and their lives.

It was a sobering experience to watch and speak very briefly as the people were going about their business rebuilding their lives – with a smile on their faces.

I vividly remember passing one sign which pointed to: ‘Shopping Mall’ but there was absolutely nothing there. Further up the road I saw a shopping mall – it was that contrasting as some areas were totally unaffected.

Site 2 in Tha Cha Chai is where the mortuary was established and I was able to observe New Zealand, Australian, English and French forensic teams in operation. I was struck by the great camaraderie between these teams going about their business in extremely trying circumstances.

Then into Phuket town ship itself and the Information Management Centre – a hive of activity as law enforcement officers from around the globe try to piece together and marry up any little bit of information that may formally identify people killed in the tsunami.

My diary covering those visits made several references to the word “unbelievable” to describe what I had seen.

Some lasting memories include

The heat and working conditions – particularly at site 2, the morgue.

The Thai people, especially in the fishing village, rebuilding their lives with on smile on their faces.

The massive international effort still taking place

The camaraderie of the NZ teams

The high regard and esteem that the NZ police officers were held in by other law enforcement agencies because of their efficiency and professionalism.

Reflecting on the beach on my last night in Phuket, it was comforting to realise that people were caring enough for others that they had never met to be part of a massive international law enforcement and forensic effort to try and do something tangible for those left behind after such a catastrophe.

This was a disaster caused by nature but after events in London in recent days it must be cold comfort for those that create disasters to know that people from around the world will rally around and support others when these tragedies occur.

Note: The rotation of police personnel to Thailand on Operation Phuket will carry on throughout most of the year.


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