Tsunami: A first-hand account of an environmental catastrophe

Issue: BCMJ, vol. 47, No. 3, April 2005, Page 148 Council on Health Promotion

In place of the regular article by the Environmental Health Committee, I have asked my friend and colleague, Dr Nelson Ames, to write about his experiences in Thailand during the disastrous tsunami of 26 December 2004. His story is a vivid reminder that environmental catastrophes can happen anywhere at any time. Will we be ready if one happens here?

—W.G. Meekison, MD
Chair, Environmental Health Committee

Paradise. That was how my wife, Gail, and I felt about Thailand’s Phi Phi Island when we awoke there on Boxing Day morning. Having left our daughter Amanda and her boyfriend Emanuel to make their own plans, we rented a 15-foot catamaran and set sail on a calm, clear, turquoise sea.

After one perfect hour, a large wave rolled by—the wake from a freighter? Moments later a 15-metre wash of white water pounded an adjacent rock cliff. Suddenly sailboats were bobbing like corks and a massive wall of sea foam obscured our view of the beach. Thus began a two-hour struggle to navigate powerful whirlpools and huge waves to get to shore and try to find Amanda and Emanuel.

Now the scene on Phi Phi was surreal: It looked as if a giant bulldozer had pushed trees, buildings, and boats 200 metres inland. Our cabins had been leveled. Eight-metre piles of debris made the beach almost impassable. Even the tile had been scoured off floors, leaving only cement pads where buildings once stood. In the eerie silence, choking back the stench of sewage, we picked our way barefooted through broken glass, twisted metal, and muck.

There were many bodies. There were injured people, some with life-threatening wounds. Human behavior ran the gamut from heroic acts to looting valuables. Some people were dazed, a few hysterical. Some had witnessed death and others like us didn’t know the fate of their loved ones.

After a fruitless search for our family, we could no longer ignore the injured. We helped rescue two people trapped in the rubble, including Oman, who was conscious but only able to move one hand. Rescuers removed debris by hand, cut through wood and a waterlogged mattress with a dull knife and a blunt saw, and shouted words of comfort. After 12 long hours, Oman was free.

As night fell, there was still no sign of outside help (at that point we had no idea of the geographical scope of the devastation). A Swedish management consultant helped establish a triage centre and brought some order to the chaos by organizing volunteers, setting priorities, facilitating decisions, and settling disagreements. People of all nationalities and vocations worked together with whatever was at hand. I connected with a psychiatrist from the UK who was in charge of medical triage. Having lost my glasses, I was paired with an assistant who could see and later I was loaned a pair of reading glasses. Tension was high with constant rumors of another wave.

About 10 hours after the tsunami hit, the first helicopter arrived with much-needed flashlights, first-aid supplies, and drinking water. We assigned evacuation priority based on a rudimentary assessment of injuries, and that evening 40 to 50 of the most severely wounded were air lifted out. With each helicopter landing and departure came stinging blasts of sand and debris, leaving us filthy and gritty.

After the last helicopter left that night, Gail joined a group of volunteers to hike into the hills in search of more survivors while I remained at my post.

The helicopters resumed their missions at first light. With each trip, the Thai emergency response seemed to gain momentum, bringing more assistance and supplies. It was amazing to see smiling Thai nurses in impeccable white uniforms, picking their way through the debris in heeled shoes and kneeling in the muck to minister to the injured.

Then—elation. Amidst the deafening noise and flying sand, I heard Amanda’s voice and saw her waving to me. For the first time, I was overwhelmed by emotion. We hugged and cried for several minutes. At a place up in the hills, Gail had connected with Amanda and Emanuel while waiting to use the only available toilet.

We all continued to help, but as the relief of being reunited with my family swept over me, fatigue from the effort of the last 30 hours also set in. Now there were enough Thai personnel to take over and we took a ferry from Phi Phi to Phuket, where we were able to get temporary travel documents and a flight back to Bangkok. We had lost everything except our bathing suits and T-shirts, but we had each other. And, unlike tens of thousands of victims of the tsunami, we had a home and full lives waiting for us in Canada.

Now that we’re back, critical incident stress debriefing has been vital in readjusting to daily routines. We expect to help with disaster relief again in the future, but we plan to get training and preparation for the next life-shaping experience.

—Nelson Ames, MD
Medical Health Officer, Kootenays

Nelson Ames, MD. Tsunami: A first-hand account of an environmental catastrophe. BCMJ, Vol. 47, No. 3, April, 2005, Page(s) 148 - Council on Health Promotion.

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