TSUNAMI - A SURVIVOR'S STORY
By Chris Burke
December 31, 2004
I have been thinking lately that I'm the luckiest guy on the planet. In 1999 I had to deal with the chilling threat of cancer; in 2001 I was in Manhattan for the tragic terrorist attack on the World Trade Center; I negotiated 10 foot swells on the open ocean in a sea kayak in Palau in November 2004 and had to be rescued; and I survived a tsunami in Southeast Asia in December of 2004. But at least I can say that my life isn't boring.
My sister-in-law told me that I should use a bit of humor in telling my recent story of survival, so I'll give it a shot.
December 26 started as a great dayI woke up with a slight hangover from Christmas night celebrations which sucked because the sun was really bright. I was leaving the island of Ko Phi Phi, Thailand, the following day so I had a few details to take care of, such as paying bills, having laundry done, etc. Not very exciting stuff, especially with a hangover. But the weather was beautiful and I knew it was going to be a productive day of working on the tan before I was in dreary London.
So after making those arrangements, I was packing my daypack for a day at the beachover the last 3 months I was only able to sustain a somewhat dark tan, so I had some work to do. I looked at my bigger pack and thought of packing, hindsight later tells us it wouldn't have mattered anyway, and thought, hell no. It's too big of a mess now to deal with. You see, as I basically have been dicking around avoiding responsibility since June, my organizational skills have slipped a bit. But I'm on holiday so that's my justification for being lazy.
The time was about 10:15 AM and I was outside my bungalow and heard people screaming to my right and saw them running towards me with a rush of water about 1.5 meters high coming after them. For an instant I thought this looks just like a part of a movie I've seen (now, the name of that movie is unknown to me at this time, but I know it was a good one). I was then thinking, OK, this sucks and I should get to higher ground. So I and two other travelers found a balcony about 2 meters off the ground and we ran up there. We were asking ourselves if it was high enough, and I'm thinking, yeah, no problemwe're golden. But then I heard more screams coming from my left; I looked that direction and said "oh, fuck" as a response to a 5-7 meter wave (~ 20 feet) rushing towards us. "Maybe this balcony will hold us", I thought. Looking back towards the wave I was everything and his brother (literally) in itfrom people, to homes, to roofs, to chairs. You name it, if it was on the island it was caught in the wave. Then it hit with the force of a Mack truck, not that I would know what a Mack truck feels like, but it was powerful. The force of the water pinned me and the two others sharing the same balcony between the railing of the balcony and under the metal awning that was covering it. We were pinned under the water for about 20 seconds, where I had a thought that I had better do something or I might not be around for much longer. I reached up and grabbed an exposed edge of the metal awning and pulled as hard as I could, and it actually started to break free of the house to which it was attached. We all got our heads above the water line and breathed the much needed oxygen in the air. As we're still pinned, I ripped the awning with every ounce of energy I had and it broke free. Keep in mind the time frame from when I first saw people screaming to this point was maybe 35 seconds.
So the three of us were being swept out to sea. But the other two people were wearing their large travel packs, I assume because they were going to catch a ferry off the island. I think the weight of their packs pulled the girl under the water, and he went after her. I then looked to see what else was in our paths and a big palm tree with debris collected at its base was calling our names. I looked back and the two people were gone. I'm not sure if they were swept in a different direction than I, but I think they drowned. But I still had to worry about my new friend, the palm tree. I was almost pinned by the debris it collected, but was able to negotiate my way around it and ended up about 150 meters out to sea. Sort of in shock at this point, I still wasn't home free. I had to get on a boat, and fortunately there was one nearby. I yelled at it and started swimming towards the boat and after they threw me a rope, I was pulled on board. At that point I was experiencing a bit of disbelief and shock over what just happened and I thought of my family. This was the beginning of a long day, I thought. There were several other people on the boat, including a Thai couple who were missing a child and a Japanese gentleman who was missing his wife. I noticed another survivor had a bad laceration on his calf, and I then noticed I also had a bad laceration on my right medial malleolus. We were able to find a few first aid supplies and I treated us both. Meanwhile, I told the captain that I have medical training and wanted to get back on land to begin treating patients, as I knew there were going to be a lot of them.
It was safe to say that throughout the next 2 hours, and for the rest of the day for that matter, my emotions were like a roller coaster at Magic Mountain. My thoughts would rotate to my family and loved ones, to all the dead people I knew were on the island, and to what I could do to help. I felt a bit helpless just sitting there, but I knew the water was too dangerous to get back on land at this point. We were all scanning the debris on the water for survivors and bodies. I knew it was only a matter of time before we found one.
After the water settled down enough, I asked the captain to bring me back to the pier, which he reluctantly did. I then went to work. I went to the Ko Phi Phi hotel, which was one of 2 buildings still standing, and started evaluating patients and rounding up supplies. But at the time I was like the character played by Tom Hanks in the movie Cast Away, in that I had no shoes or shirt, except I wasn't as skinny or had as long of a beard, and I wasn't on a deserted island, so now that I think about it, I really wasn't much like him at all. I just needed to find shoes so I wouldn't cut my feet on the broken glass, jagged metal, exposed nails or any other hazard there. And that's a hard thing to do because its not like shoes are organized and I have size 12 feet.
At the hotel there were dead bodies all over the place, people screaming, sobbing and crying, people were laid out with crush injuries, huge lacerations with bone exposed, people who had lost large amounts of blood, fractures, head injuries, people in shock and many other injuries that are associated with such a disaster. As bad as this scene was, no one knew the enormity of the situation, and we wouldn't until days later. I had recruited a few people to help me gather supplies and asked others to find out who was injured and to lead me to them. I was working at the hotel for several hours and throughout that time we heard helicopters coming and going. I decided to navigate my way through what was left of buildings to try and catch the chopper and see what they were doing or if we had any supplies to work with. They were evacuating patients, but hadn't sent any help, so it was basically up to us to move patients down to the helicopter landing site.
At this point, there was a rumor of another wave coming so I decided to head for the hills, instead of the hotel as I feared it was at risk of collapse. In the hills I found a group of 30-40 others, some injured, but most were not. There were two badly injured people ~ one guy with a tibia-fibula fracture, and the more serious patient with a broken back, head injury and possible paralysis in his legs. I splinted the broken leg but couldn't do anything for the other guy. The decision to move him was a big quandary because he needed to be evacuated, but we weren't sure if the helicopter was returning and the uncertainty of another wave contributed to us keeping him there for the time being. In talking to people I was just astounded by the loss. People with lost family members, those who actually felt the earthquake at 7 AM that morning and just coping with them as best we could. It was starting to get dark so we decided to gather fire wood and make a fire. At that point, I decided that we needed to move these patients and organized a group of guys and we carried him on his makeshift stretcher to the helicopter site. This was no easy task; it was about 500 meters away and we had to negotiate lots of debris and slippery ground while not moving him too much. It took nine of us to carry him.
Upon arrival at the helicopter site, I realized that there was a triage center set up by other volunteers. I told them of my medical background and started to go to work. The others went back to get the other patient waiting in the hills. We didn't have many supplies but we did what we could. It was basically a situation where we evaluated and assigned a triage status, dressed wounds and moved them in preparation for the helicopter transport. I was working with a psychiatry resident from London named Cici Romain. A Swede named Erik Liungman was organizing the logistics of our efforts, while Cici, myself, a former nurse/EMT named Ricardo were doing the majority of the evaluation and treatment. Later a Canadian physician, Nelson, would come and assist. I was shaken to learn his 21 year old daughter and her boyfriend were missing and he presumed they were dead. We later received medical supplies from the helicopter as well as two Thai physicians, who brought morphine and their skills. Our supplies at this point consisted of IV fluids, morphine and sterile dressings. We also received food and water throughout the night.
The injuries people sustained were very bad and in some cases life threatening, but it's very difficult to describe the look on the faces of everyone. By looking at someone for 5 seconds you can see the amount of physical and emotional pain they are experiencing but there's only so much you can do. I know that just holding their hand can make the biggest difference to them. There are a few patients who stick out right now. One was a guy named Nick, who I saw earlier in the day at the hotel. He was obviously scared for his life because he was having difficulty breathing as a result of fractured ribs and a punctured lung or two. I held his hand and we both started crying; didn't even have to say a word. He was flown out and I hope he made it. Another was a guy who basically had his left shoulder, arm and chest sliced open and was hypotensive and in shock as a result of massive blood loss. I packed his wounds and we started an IV and gave him morphine. You could see in his eyes that he thought he was going to die but at least we made his helicopter flight a bit more comfortable with the morphine. Hopefully we helped save him. There were people screaming in pain all over the place. It's pretty amazing how the human psyche works. People who sustained massive injuries were just crying in relief that they were alive. These were life threatening injuries and I'm sure some of the people we treated were going to die, but for that moment they were relieved to be alive, no matter how much pain they were in.
My reactions to the disaster at this point were not emotional because I was too focused on helping treat other injuries. I didn't have time to be upset. As a makeshift MASH unit with very limited capabilities, we were just running around like chickens with our heads cut off doing what we could with what we had. But towards the end of the day, we had a pretty organized system. The Thai doctors became the primary evaluators assigning a triage status to patients, Cici and I were treating the injuries and dressing wounds, Erik was continuing to do a hell of a job organizing logistics and search party teams, and the many other capable people were helping carry people, organize supplies and do whatever else we asked of them. Basically it was a team effort where everyone comes together regardless of their training or prior experience and does what is necessary to help get the job done.
As the night wore on, critical patients kept arriving: it seemed like the stream would never end. We were so overwhelmed, but we just kept working and doing the best we could. My friends and family give me a bad time because I like to use the motto of "Just Get It Done" but that's exactly what we were doing. We had a decent system in place and we evacuated as many patients as we could as quickly as possible, but the limiting factor seemed to be the helicopter. It was also attention-grabbing that when the helicopter arrived many people who were not injured tried to get a ride out of there. We had to establish a basic security system to not allow non-triaged patients on board. I almost felt guilty because most of these people were of Thai origin, but we simply had more important people in terms of injuries to worry about. I don't think they really understood that, but in their defense how could they? They probably haven't even had basic healthcare throughout their lives, not that many Americans have either, so it's unrealistic to expect them to understand a triage system in a mass casualty disaster. And add the language barrier, which made it difficult to communicate our reasons for having a triage system and not letting them on the helicopter. Fortunately one of our team members was Thai and had the ability to translate, but I'm not sure how well it was communicated. But at the time that was down on our priority listwe just didn't let them on the chopper unless they were seen and triaged.
On the later inbound flights we unloaded a plethora (or so we thought) of supplies that included the afore mentioned medical supplies, water and food. When that's all you get it provides a perspective of what is really important. It doesn't (at least for the uninjured) matter if you're clean or smelly (my lack of a smeller was probably a huge advantage in this case) as long as you have the basics which enable you to survive. We're also fortunate it didn't rain, because that would have made everything that much worse. We did have the IV fluids, but we didn't get the needles and catheters until a later flight. But we eventually got what we needed and we did some good with them.
I've also never been around or on a helicopter before. This one was a Thai military Huey, like the type that was used in Vietnam and I think still continue to be used by many military organizations around the globe. When it lands and takes off, there is a tremendous amount of dust and debris that is spit into the air. We had to double check that we had covered all the patients when this happened not only because many of them couldn't do it for themselves, but because the last thing you want is more dirt in their wounds. And we also had to protect ourselves. A helicopter landed around 11:00 PM that night and at the time all critical patients had already been evacuated. People who came to our triage site had informed us of 2 separate patients who were trapped under rubble and were being dug out at the time. We asked the pilot if he could wait until we knew more about the patients. Previously to this, Erik had dispatched two separate search and rescue teams to help dig them out and hopefully carry them back. The rest of us were then focused on minor injuries such as mine and reorganizing our supplies. We had all supplies moved to the 2nd floor of the nearby hotel because if another tsunami did indeed hit, at least we'd have supplies to work with. The volunteers created a big supply line from the supply origin to the 2nd floor destination and passed the boxes on to each person, which turned out to be a very efficient way of doing it. At that time it was discovered how bad my foot laceration was, and Cici made the decision that I would go on the helicopter if there was room. Part of me was relieved to hear this, but part of me really wanted to stay and continue to help. I knew there would be more people coming that would need help. It was bittersweet because I knew my foot needed treatment quickly so as to try and prevent the infection that was surely started, but I was relatively OK and still able to help. The various doctors were pretty shocked (not that they weren't already) that I did what I did with such a bad laceration, but I basically told them that I didn't really think about it ~ I just worked.
During this time (about an hour) I talked a lot with Nelson, who was a retired GP physician helping for many hours. We talked about his family, and his daughter and her boyfriend were missing and he presumed they were dead. It must have been pretty horrific for him, but you would never know it by the look on his face. We talked about his current work, which dealt with consulting on public health projects ranging from the community level to larger organizations. His wife is a nurse and his daughter was studying in Thailand with an exchange program from her home university, the University of Victoria, Canada. As a physician he knew the ramifications of this disaster and was better prepared for the potential loss of his daughter than someone who hadn't had medical training. Still, how can you really cope with your child and her boyfriend most likely being dead? I can't even fathom that. But on the outside he was as calm as could be, but I'm sure his stomach was in knots and his mind moving a mile a minute. I think it helped him that we were talking about medicine, both his and my experiences. He gave me his email address so I'm looking forward to seeing if his daughter and her boyfriend are alive, and secondarily how they are all doing. Its experiences like these that really bond people.
After about an hour the first trapped patient arrived. He had a closed head injury and both of his legs were fractured (I'm not sure if it was his femur or tibia that was injured) and he was in bad shape. But we still waited for information about the other trapped patient. He soon arrived but I don't recall what injuries he sustained. We had to rearrange the seating in the helicopter as the first guy's stretcher was too long to be in the position we wanted him. I felt so bad for them both because when they were being moved they were just wailing in agony. But it had to be done. After that was done, I was given the final approval for a seat on the helicopter.
Out helicopter lifted off about 1230 hours en route to Krabi. The flight took about 35 minutes, but unfortunately I didn't get any frequent flier miles on Thai Military Air. I was pretty bummed about that. My thoughts at this time were mainly of my family and how badly I needed to hear their voices. I knew it would be a while though, so I just gazed out of the window and thought of what I just went through. It seemed so surreal; still does. But I also knew that my efforts probably helped to save at least a few lives. Needless to say, that ride was in itself a very intense time.
When we landed I was actually pretty amazed how efficient the triage system they had set up was on the landing pad in Krabi and the hospital. There were receiving teams ready to go and ambulances running. I was put in one with a Chinese gentleman who appeared to have fractured a leg. I'm not sure where he came from because he wasn't on our helicopter. That period was pretty much a blur. The ride to the hospital took about 5 minutes and upon arrival there were people everywhere. Mostly they were spectators, and it looked like many of those people were looking to see if it was anyone they knew in the arriving ambulances. I just can't even imagine their thought process not knowing where their loved ones were or even if they were still alive. And to have the hope that their loved ones were on each ambulance that arrived must have been hell. I was triaged to a minor care area set up in the lobby and there were people everywhere. Next to me was a German woman I had seen earlier in the day ~ she had sustained back and shoulder injuries, but they weren't serious. I also saw a dive guide I met on Christmas Eve named Markand I didn't even want to ask him if his colleagues, who I had also met, were alive. He looked terrible ~ just like the rest of us. But I was glad to see a familiar face. He told me about a hotel in town that was putting people up for free and I was encouraged about that. I didn't have to worry about finding somewhere to sleep, not that the effort of sleeping was successful.
I was seen quickly and the nurses went to work debrieding my ankle. I asked for a lot of zylocaine (numbing medicine) because I knew it was going to hurt like hell, and indeed it did. They were working on my ankle for about 15 minutes and ended up closing it with a suture, which was a bad thing to do. I didn't know it at the time though. A girl named Heidi came up to me and told me she was helping out and offered to call my parentsupon hearing this I began to cry just knowing that they would soon find out that I was OK. But after about an hour from arrival I was discharged with a few prescriptions and I went in search of this hotel. A Thai girl came up to me and she spoke a bit of English. I told her where I was trying to go and that I didn't have any money for a taxi, and she volunteered to take me there. I'm glad she did because it was about 2 km away and to walk it would have sucked royally. I thanked her profusely with hugs and she then left.
The hotel staff was waiting up for people and they sorted me out. In the lobby there was a husband and wife who had looks of hurt and disbelief on their faces. I overhead that they were snorkeling at the time of the tsunami and lost their 10 year old son. But I was able to make a very emotional call to my parents and it was so good to hear their voices. Throughout the day I had thoughts of what I needed to do to get out of the country, so after I could talk we started getting organized. I had scanned my passport before I left (and now I felt like the smartest guy in the world for doing so) and asked them to email this to me. I knew getting another passport would be the biggest hurdle. The call lasted about 10-15 minutes, after which I took a long shower, changed clothes, re-bandaged my foot and ate some food. I tried to sleep but, yeah, not so much.
The time was about 3am and I went out to the lobby to do I don't know what. But I found the wife I saw on my arrival sobbing into her hands. I went up to her and started talking. Her name is Greta (from Denmark) and she told me her story. I made us some tea and we talked for about an hour. It's very hard to describe what I was feeling at that time because this woman just lost her son and I tried to console her, but of course she was inconsolable. His body was found and she did identify him in the hospital, so at least they have some closure. But she was going through feelings of guilt ~ why wasn't it her who died and he could still be alive? That question was one she repeated over and over againwhy me? When one sits there and listens to that, what can be said? All you can do is let them cry on your shoulder while you cry with them. Later her daughter came out to join us. She is 15 and was also in a state of mental shock. I would talk to Greta throughout the next day until I left for the airport about noon the next day. At about 4 we both tried to get a bit of sleep, and I woke up about 7 AM.
I wished I had time to rest, decompress and process the previous day, but things had to get done. My first priority was getting online and printing my scanned passport. It was a logistical hurdle because the hotel staff was so busy dealing with the hordes of people who had arrived throughout the day that they didn't have much time to worry about printing an image from my email. But eventually I was able to print it. During this time I also sent an email to my friends and family that I was alive, but didn't have much time to provide details. I figured there would be a few people out there who were worried about me, so it was very good that I could let them know I wasn't one of the rapidly rising body count.
At this point people from the Thai Military and Krabi Police had arrived, and there were supposed to be various Embassy staff arriving, but it was unknown when that would happen. I was sort of in a quandary because I had a place to stay there, but knew I would have better and faster luck obtaining a passport and leaving the country if I could get to Bangkok as soon as possible. I was told that Thai Air was flying victims for free to Bangkok, so I went to the airport. It was a chaotic mess there, with everyone basically crowding the counter and trying to get out. They had a disorganized waiting list and I put my name there. After a few hours of waiting, I made more of an effort to get information, and to make a long story short (even though I haven't done that thus far) I bought a ticket and got on a 5 pm plane to Bangkok. Previously that day, I had spoken with my cousin, Chris, and had received emails from family regarding help in Bangkok in the form of a hotel owner named Chittimas who provided a place to stay and provided me with money. While waiting for a taxi at the Bangkok airport I talked with the US Embassy staff and made a plan for the following day. I eventually arrived at the hotel, but I was very sick at this point primarily because my foot was infected. I was not in good shape and I could see that Chittimas was very worried about me. I ordered room service, took a shower and tried unsuccessfully to sleep.
The next morning I had my own driver, Phasit, and car, for which I felt very importantlike a CEO of some corporation. But the fact that I looked and felt like shit and I wasn't wearing a suit pretty much negated that feeling. We went to the embassy and within a few hours I had a new passport. So many people at the embassy saw that I was in bad shape and they were so willing to help me with whatever I needed. I sat in a corner that was secluded a bit because I just didn't want to talk to too many people and I needed to elevate my foot. But a guy named Jon Karson, who I saw the previous night at the airport talking to the US Embassy staff, made an effort to chat with me. I was pretty grateful for that and in hindsight it was nice to talk to him. He went out and bought me lunch and was just a very nice guy. I also talked with one of the embassy staff at length about the devastation on Ko Phi Phi, as they didn't know much about the island. I was also a bit upset that so many people were bugging the staff about their passportsI mean they were working as fast as they could and people just needed to simmer down and wait. In that situation, bitching wasn't going to make it go any faster; it was only going to slow the process down. But in all, I felt lucky because I wasn't doing this on my own. I had a hotel and money, and a lot of people didn't. There were people who like me, lost everything. I gave people money for their passport photographs, which otherwise would have been difficult to obtain.
After I obtained the passport I went shopping for shoes that fit and some clothes. At this point I was so relieved that I was going to be going home the next day. It is hard to explain that feeling and was also hard to keep my emotions under control. I would find myself on the verge of tears most of the morning, which was another reason why I wanted to be secluded in the embassy.
The hardest part of shopping was finding shoes that fit. I'm not a small person and most people in Asia are, so size 12 shoes aren't exactly everywhere. But I eventually found a cheap pair of flip flops that worked and got out of there. The next stop that day was the hospital. I woke up that morning, looked at my foot and realized that it needed further debriedment. The ER doctor showed me the wound and it looked terrible. I was glad I made the decision to go there instead of waiting until I was back in Portland. I was pleased that I didn't have to wait in the ER very long, and I was out in about an hour. I also asked the doctor to prescribe some sleeping pills which he did, and I was out of there and back to the hotel ordering room service and watching movies. I just didn't feel like doing anything else, and it was nice to have time to relax. But I couldn't sleep, and Chittimas invited me to a party that night. I didn't have the energy to go for a great deal of time, but I went down to meet her family and express my gratitude for everything she did. But its difficult to say how much you appreciate everything someone does in that situationthere was no way I could have done what I did as quickly as I did it without her help. I know she was worried about me, and rightfully so. I was a mess, but I felt better that day than I did the previous night.
The bottom line is that she made my life about 10 times easier with her efforts. But that's what I've found in this experience. So many people band together and pool efforts for the greater good no matter what their circumstances or backgrounds. The character of people really shows in situations like this; there are those that do whatever they can to help and those who do nothing and only take care of themselves. It's easy to write how helpful many people were, but to understand the impact of that in the situation we were in is very difficult for people who weren't there. I saw many of both types, but I can rest knowing that I was in the former group and my efforts helped to save lives. I don't know how many but I was able to make a positive impact in the horrible situation that was this disaster. Many people did. I'm just so damn lucky that I'm alive to write this story; there are a lot of people who aren't and this is something I will never forget. Now to throw a cliché in at the end:
Carpe Diem. Seize the day and live your life to the fullest. Be passionate about what you do because you never know when it's going to end.
Pass this on to someone else, if you'd like. There is NO LUCK attached.
If you delete this, it's okay: Nobody's luck is dependent On E-Mail.