Eyewitness: Irish tsunami survivors recall day the wave hit

Bill Malone recalls that December 26th on Khao Lak started out as the ’perfect day’

Bill Malone, Controller RTE 2

At that time in 2004, I was really into scuba diving. We flew to Phuket and drove 200 kilometres up the coast to a place called Khao Lak. It's a low-rise landscape, with mostly Nordic and Scandinavians holidaying there.

December 26th was a stunningly beautiful day. The water was turquoise, like glass, and it was so calm and not a cloud in the sky.

It started out a perfect day. We were having breakfast, putting on sun lotion in our nature reserve that had wooden chalets on stilts. I heard some screams and thought it was unusual - the Thais are usually quiet and reserved.


We saw people running and there was a huge roar and I said to Elke, then my girlfriend, now my wife, we needed to get out of there. We were running down steps when the wave smashed into us.

Most people from the sea to two kilometres inland had little chance to escape. We were 100 metres from the sea. It is down to pure luck that my wife and I weren’t killed. 4,000 people died in the area we were in.

We were brought to hospital and the doctor who treated us gave us €100 worth of local money to help us get away and back to civilisation.

We saw a lot of bad stuff at the hospital, lots of horrific injuries and death. I was determined to go back and understand how we survived and say thanks to those who helped us, so I made a documentary entitled Return to Tsunami.

In terms of how it has changed us, Elke was fearful of waves and water for a number of years afterwards. Overall I would say having kids was a more defining moment in our life. I got lucky and would be confident in the water. I had done deep diving but the wave smashed us into a tree and we managed to get out of there.

Our daughter was born on the second anniversary of the Tsunami. We called her Maya and her surname is my wife’s, Storm, which is fitting.

On Stephen’s Day now we have a birthday to celebrate each year. We are in touch with several other survivors and the doctor who treated us.

We have a meal with him most years and we have been back several times.

The impact it has is that I don’t sweat the small stuff to any large degree now. It provides context and everything is clouded by the fact I am lucky to be here.

Michael Foott living in Dublin

I was 26-years-old at the time and was on a round the world trip. I flew in to Thailand in November and then decided to go to Phi Phi on the west coast for Christmas. I think we got there Christmas Eve and we had a bungalow 50 yards from the beach.

We still hadn’t left it on the morning it happened. The girl I was travelling with spotted people running past the window of our bungalow,

She saw them running past and screaming and had no idea what they were running from. Our window didn’t look straight out onto the beach. When she called me to the window I could see water coming after them.

Initially, it didn’t look too high but then it starting rising really quickly and our bungalow had a few steps to the door, and within no time it was spilling in under the door.

We had no idea what was happening. I had never even heard the word tsunami before then. We jumped up on the bed as it was rising a lot quicker. It felt like we were in the middle of a real angry river or sea and it was flowing fast.

The pressure on the wooden door cracked the door in half and the bottom half swung in and then the water gushed in and threw us around the place. This is all happening now in seconds rather than minutes.

From when we heard the screaming to when the door broke, it probably only took a minute.

I was able to grab on a curtain rail and kick in the window and climb out. We had a wooden deck with a roof and we were able to climb onto the fencing and latch onto a pole. Around this time the wave seemed to stop and slow down and then it turned in all different directions and slowly retreated back to the sea. The wave that hit our side was three and a half metres high.

At this point we went over to two people adjacent. It still hadn’t registered what was happening. A guy came running round the corner and he had lost his child and he was screaming and asking us had we seen his child?

The water was dark and black and there was carnage everywhere. We were helping him and then some people came running and were screaming at us to run that the wave was coming back.

We ran and there were hills behind the resort and we stopped there. I remember seeing a local couple just sitting there holding each other and you could tell they had lost someone too.

We were there on this hill and we saw a lot of stuff. There was a trolley with a girl in it and she was dead and she was being pushed up and left there to be found. We made it through with all these locals in our group at the top of the hill.

We were all in it together for the night - there was something special about that. The following day in the morning we were able to leave and find our way back home. A lot of those people we spent the night with didn’t have that option. That is the bit that sticks with you. It is guilt you feel for the ones that didn’t survive and the many more we saw who lost everything.

I went back eight months after it all happened. It looked like everything had been wiped out. I returned again four years later and it was like it had never happened. I was walking around trying to find where I had stayed and I was finding it hard to locate the places. It had all been developed so much. Things move on I guess, which is good to see.

Brian Ingle from Dublin

It has been 10 years since I was swept up, up and away by an Asian sea that came at me like a black wall from the horizon. The location was just north of the French Indian town of Pondicherry in Tamil Nadu state.

We had just taken a two-night train journey down from Rishikesh, the spiritual haven on the Ganges where The Beatles once crashed with the Maharishi. The weather had turned in north India, getting colder, so we were heading south, to the sun and beach for Christmas.

I rode into town from Chennai on my Enfield motorcycle, my girlfriend and an Art & Lutherie Canadian guitar which, I was soon to discover, had a self-healing capacity like no other musical instrument.

We managed to find a beach hut right by the sea. We had a great Christmas; I woke up early on the 26th and decided to surf as the waves were good. But something didn’t feel right. There was an army helicopter flying overhead which was so unusual as to be vaguely alarming. When I look back now I can see they must have known what was going on.

Why no warning was given is still a mystery to me. It took 10 hours for that tsunami to hit the east Indian coastline and yet not a word or a warning, just the buzzing helicopter observing everything overhead.

It came at us not as a wave but as a huge surge, as if the sea had burst its banks and swept away everything in its path including my girlfriend, my motorcycle and me.

All both of us could do was hang on for dear life to the leaves of the tall palm trees as the sea water surged through. Although it was a struggle, those of us who were strong swimmers could just about manage to get ourselves to safety by hanging in the treetops.

Dazed But the vast majority of Indians in this area just don't know how to swim. They don't use the sea in the recreational way Westerners do. This is why, in Tamil Nadu state, 8,000 people died that day.

I remember it as a day that brought out the best and worst of humanity. Crowds arrived to help; others came to loot and plunder.

We walked away without injury, shocked at what we had experienced and seen, and dazed that we had lived to tell the story. Later that day, I found my passport floating in the backwash and my money bag in a large cactus plant close by. Lucky doesn’t come close to covering it.

Ten years later – and by some miracle – my girlfriend, my Enfield and my guitar are still with me here in Pondicherry. The guitar plays better than it ever did, something that is still hard to fathom.

As I write, I am looking out at that same sea from my kitchen table where I now live most of the year. I often reflect on that day, and sometimes when I am on the rooftop of my four-storey building I look out at the sea, at that unthreatening horizon, asking myself, if it happened again would I or this apartment survive?

There are settlements here which we call “tsunami houses” where the fishing villagers have been relocated, small new tenements with brightly painted flats, given to the locals in the wake of the disaster. They also were given new fishing boats, and many of those who survived went on to prosper.

Yoga The sandy beaches here have lost a lot of their ground. I still run, swim, bodysurf and do yoga on that beach most evenings, no matter what the weather – sun, monsoon or cyclones.

I continue to take risks in the sea. I grew up by the sea in Sandymount in Dublin, and the tsunami hasn’t curtailed my love of swimming in all weathers. Once, in Pondicherry, the riptide prevented me from coming back to shore. As I struggled with the waves and was pulled further out to sea, my girlfriend looked on, signalling to me, trying to tell me to follow the direction of the riptide.

As she tried to help, an Indian man watching beside her asked: “What is the function of this activity, madam?” He was referring to my swimming in what might be considered dangerous conditions.

Challenging She had no real answer. She said it was for physical fitness, hoping I would get out breathing and put an end to these pursuits that she also did not understand.

The why I do what I do is simple. Even after surviving the tsunami, swimming in challenging and sometimes dangerous conditions makes me feel alive. It would not surprise me if you read my name again in this paper, except in an obituary. It would say I lived a short life but that the life I lived was full.

For years afterwards I had dramatic tsunami dreams, but not so much anymore. I think of the tsunami now as just another of those moments when my life could have ended, but it was just not my time to die.

Brian O'Connell

Brian O'Connell

Brian O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times