THE Boxing Day tsunami that killed 226,000 people in 14 countries on December 26, 2004 was the result of one of the biggest earthquakes ever recorded, an upheaval beneath the Indian Ocean that measured 9.1 on the Richter scale. Thailand suffered the fourth largest number of casualties.
With its epicentre 150 kilometres off the west coast of northern Sumatra, the quake unleashed giant waves more than 500 kilometres away on Thailand’s Andaman coast.
The distance did nothing to mitigate the unimaginable power of the wall of water that struck countless Thai beachside resorts on a beautiful Sunday morning, causing the destruction of biblical proportions. No warning of the impending catastrophe was sounded for the thousands of Thai and foreign tourists, resort staff and residents of low-lying areas in harm’s way.
In addition, hundreds of thousands of people lost their means of making a living, at least temporarily. Nearly 400 fishing villages along the Andaman coast were seriously affected, the waves laying fishing boats to waste by the thousands. Approximately 120,000 people saw their incomes vanish along with the tourists who stayed away from the most affected areas, partly out of fear of another tsunami and partly out of respect for all those in mourning.
The recovery and reconstruction efforts began immediately, and many Thais and foreigners were quick to volunteer their help. Aside from the Royal Thai Police boat Buretpadungkit, which sits in a little meadow above Khao Lak town after being carried almost two kilometres inland by the waves, there are few visible reminders of the tsunami today. It’s not likely, however, that anyone who witnessed nature’s savage display of power on December 26, 2004, will ever forget it. The following is a collection of first-hand reports from survivors interviewed in May 2005, when those memories were still fresh.
“We know that disasters like fires, storms or earthquakes can occur here, but we never expected that a tsunami would reach us and destroy our lives,” said Mustafa, a long-tail boat driver from Phi Phi island in Krabi province, one of the most heavily devastated areas.
Frenchman Angelo Rasamimanana was the owner of the Ma Ma restaurant on Phi Phi island for 19 years until it was swept away on that fateful day. In January 2005, he collaborated with three of his countrymen to establish a relief organisation called Phi Phi Releve Toi. “We are based in Krabi and are helping people from Phi Phi island who are now on the mainland,” he said in May 2005. “Most of them are Thai Muslims, who make up the biggest part of the population there.
“We are dedicated to not only providing short-term assistance to Thai victims of the tsunami but also creating sustainable development for a long-term solution. We are involved in the construction of schools, houses and temporary shelters, and also helping to fund the education of orphans, organising sporting events and so on.” Angelo said that financial contributions were coming from sources all over the world.
Wassana Ditracha from Ban Namkhem village, one of the reportedly 150 Thai tsunami victims in the area who converted from Buddhism to Christianity, explained why she changed her faith: “I was running away from the approaching wave, which hurled me 10 metres above the ground, right on top of a large tree. I was safe, but I had lost everything. I was in shock, and I didn’t know what to do.” It was then that she met some people from the Hope of Takuapa Christian Church, who helped her and many others to overcome the trauma.
Another new devotee to Christianity said: “People from Hope of Takuapa Church have helped many people in Ban Namkhem village. We were impressed by their generosity and decided to join the church and become Christians. Since the tsunami struck, they have opened three new churches in Phang Nga province.”
Ban Namkhem village was totally devastated by the tsunami, and also received help from many other individuals, organisations and businesses. In May 2005, Wassana and her husband and other local families had already moved into nice houses built with support from Thai television channel iTV.
The Nong Kok refugee camp was built as a temporary shelter in January 2005. In May of that year, it consisted of 60 houses where 300 people from 70 families lived. The majority were Muslims from Phi Phi island who had lost everything. Ninety percent of the men were long-tail boat operators. The camp’s facilities were constructed and maintained with assistance from the central Thai government, the local administration in Krabi, the local Muslim community, Phi Phi Releve Toi and other foundations. The United Nations Children’s Fund built a playground for children.
Janthawan Yimyin was a leader at the refugee camp. Before the tsunami, she had lived for 19 years on Phi Phi island. She owned a travel agency and a bookshop. Both businesses were wiped out. “Fifteen thousand books, mostly brand-new, are gone,” she said in May 2005. “I lost around two million baht, not counting the cost of the building.” Despite her troubles, Janthawan dedicated herself to relief efforts. For example, she arranged the donation of school uniforms for children.
Janthawan said the reconstruction of Phi Phi island was going full-speed ahead, with more people arriving to help daily. She was certain that the island would be ready to welcome tourists when the next season began in November 2005. She was right. On the whole, Phi Phi and other tourist locations frequented mostly by foreigners bounced back more quickly than spots that were favoured by Thais.
Teerawut Chaochang, a long-tail driver who lost everything, also lived in the refugee camp. After the catastrophe, he produced batik to make ends meet. Many of those who lost the boats they had used to transport tourists were sitting idly all day in the camp, hoping to find a way to buy a new vessel. One of them said: “Of course, we don’t live here in luxury, but everyone has shelter, clothing and food. It is better than nothing, but everyone wants to go back to Phi Phi.” He had heard that foreigners had donated lots of money for tsunami victims but said he’d seen none of it. “Where has all the money gone?” he asked.
• The word “Tsunami” originates from Japanese word meaning “harbour wave.” It is a large wave also caused by an earthquake or, volcanic explosion. Tsunamis can be anything from small waves which can be hard to see up to giant waves that can cause tremendous devastation.
• The country most affected were Indonesia, where the earthquake originated at 00:58 UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) 07:58 local (Indonesia) time causing 15-30 metres high waves.
• According to the USGS (United States Geological Survey), the earthquake was registered at magnitude 9.1 on the Richter scale. The depth of the earthquake was about 30 kilometres.
• The earthquake released energy equivalent to 23.2 megatonnes of TNT.
• The tsunami killed approximately 226,000 people in 14 countries. Listed in order of the number of deaths, these countries are: Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, Maldives, Somalia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Tanzania, Seychelles, South Africa, Bangladesh, Yemen and Kenya.
• The tsunami killed 5,395 people in Thailand both locals and foreigners. Around 8,450 people were reportedly treated for injuries sustained during the tsunami.
• All six Andaman provinces – Ranong, Phang Nga, Phuket, Krabi, Trang and Satun – suffered the loss of life and property.
• Thousands of Thai and foreign volunteers left their jobs and took extended holidays to search for bodies. A number of international forensic teams flew to into identify bodies
By Maxmilian Wechsler
THIS story was written in July 2005 following a visit to the Thai Tsunami Victims Identification Information Management Centre (TTVI-IMC) in Phuket. The centre was the staging area for the forensic identification of Thai and foreign tsunami victims.
The final chapter on the Boxing Day tsunami is being written in a three-storey building in the Telephone Organisation of Thailand (TOT) compound, about 10 kilometres from downtown Phuket. The modern building set against a background of low hills houses the TTVI-IMC, which is entrusted with the monumental task of identifying the victims of the tsunami. The TTVI-IMC is under the command of the Royal Thai Police and is headed by Deputy Commissioner-General Nopadol Somboonsub. The centre closely coordinates with the Thai Health, Interior and Justice ministries.
Pol Gen Nopadol explained that the identification was at first done at the Muang Phuket police station, but after many disaster victim identification (DVI) teams dispatched by more than 20 foreign governments arrived to help, a bigger facility was needed. The coordinated international effort significantly speeds up victim identification and recovery, which enables families to begin the healing process.
At one time there was around 600 DVI personnel. At present, there the TTVI-IMC is staffed with 70 Thai police officers, 10 Health Ministry officials and 150 foreign DVI professionals, who include police scene of crime investigators, forensic pathologists, forensic dentists, fingerprinting and DNA experts and photographers. Interpol has been instrumental in providing assistance in setting up the overall identification procedure. But even with all these skilled professionals on hand, the sheer scale of the disaster means a lengthy process in collecting, analysing and matching all the data.
“These methods of identification might be easy to do with a few bodies, but with thousands of very badly decomposed bodies, it is very difficult. For example, if we want to extract a tooth, we have to clean the instrument every time, and if we want to take a sample of bone we have to throw away the saw each time, as it could contaminate other samples,” Pol Gen Nopadol said.
He also mentioned that fresh tissue must first be dried and then placed in a paper bag. It must be paper, not plastic because plastic increases humidity and allows bacteria to grow which will destroy the sample.
Pol Gen Nopadol said some DNA had been mistakenly placed in plastic and the samples were lost. There were also mistakes made because of numbering, as a “7” in Thai writing might be confused with “1” written in the Arabic style used by Europeans, he explained.
According to the Ministry of Interior’s Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation, the number of bodies recovered in Thailand as a result of the tsunami is 5,395, including 2,280 foreign nationals from 37 countries. There are thousands more listed as missing. As of July 27, a total of 2,010 victims have been identified. >>
DNA samples were sent to officials in many countries, to compare with DNA from missing persons, taken from personal items, pre-existing blood samples, etc., or DNA from close relatives.
The TTVI-IMC is split into various sections to process both ante and post-mortem information, which is then entered into a specially created database. Once a potential match has been made, data on that individual is sent to the reconciliation team for verification. If the team believes that the match is positive, the file is then sent to the Identification Board, which gives official approval to the victim identification and also authorises the body to be released for repatriation where necessary.
All Thai and foreign personnel are focused on identifying victims as rapidly and accurately as possible. This is reflected in the sombre atmosphere at the TTVI-IMC offices. During my visit to the TTVI-IMC on Saturday, July 16, everyone was hard at work. A foreign policeman praised Pol Gen Nopadol and his staff for their efficiency.
“Around 1,000 bodies ‒ all most probably Burmese workers ‒ can’t be identified because we have nothing to go on. We may have to ask the Myanmar government to assist us in this matter,” Pol Gen Nopadol said, adding that it was essential for relatives of missing Burmese to contact the TTVI-IMC.
He said that the TTVI-IMC had completed all the autopsies with the help of about 60 Thai pathologists from Chulalongkorn, Siriraj, Police and other hospitals in Bangkok, as well as hospitals in Chiang Mai, Khon Kaen and Hat Yai.
A Thai police source said that unclaimed bodies would be kept at least seven years before it is decided what should be done in the way of a proper burial. This period is an exact requirement under British law in such cases, and it was decided that it would be followed by many of the victims were British. Unclaimed corpses will be kept in refrigerated containers for now and likely buried later with the use of the Global Positioning System so that they can be retrieved later if identified.
According to Pol Gen Nopadol, the operational costs of running the TTVI-IMC run into the millions of baht a day, but this is almost entirely financed by foreign governments. The General expressed his deep appreciation to the Australian government and Federal Police for their contributions not only in monetary terms but also for their expertise in victim identification.
Norway has also been particularly helpful and recently donated four small office buildings to place at the TOT compound. These greatly increase the working space and efficiency of the centre. The Norwegians also provided funding for three hospitals for performing autopsies and an X-ray machine and set up the site at Mao Kao, which has refrigerated containers for the bodies.
Pol Gen Nopadol requested that this message is relayed to the families of victims: The reason the identification process is slow is that the TTVI-IMC wants to be 100 percent positive that the identification is correct. He said that there have been cases where criminal suspects had sent their relatives to pick up bodies, in an attempt to place themselves beyond the reach of the law. The schemes failed because of the care is taken in the identification process.
“Even if the dental records and fingerprints match, we will still check further, like on the physical description. If you want us to release a body fast, you should give us something that we can use to positively identify the victim by scientific methods,” said Pol Gen Nopadol.