Was it a wave or a swell?
Some of the videos we have seen on TV
show a clear wave. We saw the wave as it was coming into shore and
it broke on the beach but much higher than a normal wave - around the
top of the beach. From that point onwards it was more like a
rapidly rising tide; there were waves after the initial onslaught of the
water, but it was like the tide coming in – really
We have learned since that there is no universal truth
in waves and their size, which is borne out by so many different accounts
of events around the region. Unlike a surface wave, a tsunami wave
travels all the way from the
ocean floor to the surface and the size of the resulting wave, when it
breaks on shore, depends on the incline of the sand approaching the shore;
a shallow beach has a small wave and a
steeply angled beach
large wave. At Karon we had a shallow beach so the water rose
rapidly but we didn’t have big waves; conversely, the water had a lot of
horizontal power and moved very fast laterally.
How Big Was It?
It's hard to say how big the wave (or
the swell) was. We estimate that for the sea to get from its normal
high tide to the point it would break the bank of the beach was about 5-6
feet; to get into the restaurant would be another 1-1½ feet and the photo
shows that the initial water rose to 3 feet in the restaurant within about
15 seconds of breaching the steps. We have photos of the destroyed
ground floor hotel rooms taken the following day that have debris marks
around 5 feet off the floor (see photo gallery below). So adding
these together we estimate that the water rose about 10-12 feet.
As it turned out, we were lucky. Karon
beach backs onto a high hill; next to the hotel is a man-made lake and
behind the hotel there are two storm water drains (one to feed the lake,
the other a true storm water drain). Patong beach is flat for long
distances, which is why the destruction there was much worse. In Patong
the water had no natural barrier to prevent it spreading, so the water
just spread inland, bringing destruction with it. People who went into
Patong two days later said that it looked like a war zone, that there was
massive damage to shops and offices; and worse, we know there were
many bodies taken off the beach. In Karon beach, as scary as the
experience was for us, we enjoyed a significant amount of good fortune
from the contour of the land.
We now know that the tsunami was caused
by an earthquake off the coast of Aceh (northern tip of Sumatra) at 0800
hrs Indonesia and Thailand time. In Phuket some people reported that
they felt the tremors and some didn't. Certainly no-one in the
Gamble family felt a tremor. We have heard since that some people in
Bangkok reported seeing water agitate in their bath or fishpond at 0800 hrs
and that they thought it was unusual.
Initial reports said that the earthquake
was an isolated event and happened without warning. With hindsight,
completely subscribe to that theory. When we returned to Bangkok friends in Australia told us of
earthquake measuring 8.1 on the Richter scale off the coasts of Tasmania
and New Zealand early on Christmas Eve. That is unusual
because Australia rarely has earthquakes. Some more research showed
us that the fault line for the
is the same tectonic
plate as the December 26 quake off Sumatra. So Mother Nature did
warn us, but the science of earthquakes is such that locations, times and
strength can't be predicted.
Water Receding Prior to the Tsunami
We also heard that water receded prior
to the tsunami – that this is, in fact, a feature of a tsunami. We
understand this happened at 0930 hrs. Even though we were getting to
the restaurant for breakfast around that time we didn't notice anything
about the water level. It would be fair to say that we weren't
exactly looking, either. Neil saw a home video from a Swedish group
in the evening that demonstrated the receding of the water. They had
taken a boat tour to a nearby island and the water simply disappeared from
under their boat. The video shows the boatmen and visitors outside
of the boat with the boatmen scratching their heads – they had simply
never seen anything like it. There were fish flapping on the open
sand. Then the tsunami came. The Swedish group had a harrowing day,
getting to the Phuket coast and hiking through the jungle to safety, but
fortunately everyone was OK.
The gent who made the video – Peter
Strőmvall – said he would make a copy and send it to us on a CD.
It'll sure make interesting viewing.
The First Retrieval Foray
On the hill there were all kind of crazy
rumors; the best one was that another wave was coming that was 100' high.
This giant wave was supposed to hit at 1200 hrs; then it was going to be
at 1400hrs; then at 1600 hrs; then it was to be that night. Hhhmmmm … if a 9.0 earthquake produced a 10-12' wave
on our beach, then a 100' wave
would be caused by a – 12.5 earthquake? Oh well, people believe what
Not believing the stories, Neil ventured
down to the hotel at around 1300 hrs to see what could be
recovered. The picture was one of total devastation - the ground
were trashed. We (the Gambles) had two things that were in decent
shape. One Delsey suitcase was closed (but not locked) and the contents of
that bag were in pretty good shape. Neil's briefcase was on a high shelf –
higher than the water mark and its contents were untouched.
Fortunately the briefcase was only half unpacked, so the PDA was OK, but the
laptop that was out on a table was trashed. Passports for all
the boys (that includes Neil) were in the briefcase so they were safe; but
for the most part all of our electronics were either 1) washed away; 2)
rendered useless by the sea water; or 3) stolen by looters later in the
day. (Apparently looters value electronics that have been rendered
useless by sea water.)
Neil managed to get these bags back to
the hillside with the help of a kind fellow named Ray who owns the Irish
Pub in the main Karon Road. These bags were not easy to deal with –
they were full of waterlogged clothes and very heavy. Anyone who
reads this and visits Karon Beach would do well to go to that pub and have
a drink – karmic repayment to Ray for his kindness that day.
The Second Retrieval Foray
Later again Neil went back to get a
suitcase that had been open and was washed by the water into the
bathroom. Every piece of clothing in this bag had been inundated with
water, sand and debris. He also found another smaller bag we used as a
carry on for the airline and stuffed that full of clothes that had been on
hangers, but had fallen on the ground. These two bags weighed a ton!
Getting them out of the hotel, through the debris and around the lake was
extremely difficult. It was movement by baby steps. And no Ray to help
After returning from the hospital Trevor went straight
to the hotel to search for possessions. Amazingly, he came out with
2 suitcases and a smaller bag packed full of clothes. One suitcase -
a Samsonite Oyster - was closed and all the contents came out unscathed -
not a drop of water on them. [That's right folks, we found that the
Samsonite Oyster & the Delsey equivalent sealed suitcases are tsunami-proof.]
But, like the Gambles, most other clothing was unpacked & badly affected
by sea water, sand & debris. He put everything he could find into
the suitcases and brought them - unassisted - across to our safe haven.
He said it was a lot of effort and a lot of baby steps, but he managed.
On one of the trips down the hillside
road Neil went to a hotel and asked about getting a room. They said
there were lots of people expected to arrive that day who obviously
couldn't make it, so, yes, they had rooms available. One problem
Later than night, after dinner and
getting Roger and Rex to bed, Usa decided she had to do something about
the clothes we salvaged or they would be damaged beyond repair. So she
took each piece of clothing and first rinsed, then washed each piece, all done
in the hotel bathroom sink and then gave them one by one to Neil to put out on the
balcony to dry. This exercise started at 2230 hrs and finished at
0330 hrs with clothes piled four deep on the balcony. It was
exhausting, but you probably realize that Usa is a very determined person.
Going back to the Gambles' 2004 annual letter we
were wondering whether or not Santa would find us in Phuket. We
should never have doubted him because he came through in style. He
delivered original Region 1 DVDs from the US to all of us (even Usa and
Neil). Roger received Harry Potter 3 and Aladdin. Rex received Bionicle 2 and Shrek 2. Amazingly, for the most part, these survived
the tsunami. They were placed in a confined shelf so it was
difficult for the water to sweep them away, but the DVD cases and
packaging were badly affected by sand and sea water. The DVDs
themselves seem fine. Unfortunately, we were in the middle of watching
one disc the night before
the tsunami and it was still inside the DVD player that was swept away. So that one is
gone and will need to be replaced.
The Following Days
The Gambles Leaving Phuket
The Gambles left Phuket in the afternoon
of December 28 – using our original airline reservations. In the
intervening days we managed to get the clothes we found into good enough
shape to pack and travel (dry and without significant odor). We went
back to the hotel several times to retrieve as much as we could.
Each time Usa asked Neil to check for her handbag, which she threw into
the restaurant bar area, but there really as no hope of getting it.
If the water could move cars and refrigerators, what hope could there be
for a lady's handbag? Still, every trip brought the same request –
"Look for my handbag, it has to be there". With everything inside –
Thai national id card, drivers license, ATM cards, credit cards, mobile
phone, sunglasses, etc – you can understand she didn't want to lose it.
Neil complied by looking, but it was a hopeless case.
One hour before we left for the airport,
Neil asked Roger and Rex if they wanted to go and see what the hotel
looked like. They were interested to see for themselves, so we
walked across and Usa joined us. As the boys were inspecting the
damage and Roger & Rex were awed by the scene, Usa went to the restaurant
and asked the workers about her handbag. Amazingly, they had found
it! She did lose her mobile phone and sunglasses, but all the important documents were intact.
The Thompsons Leaving Phuket
were in a different position. Wi and Daniel were both hospitalized in Phuket Town – far away from the beaches. This was
deliberate, as Trevor wanted to get them to a hospital that he knew was in
a safe location. To minimize family disruption the remainder of the
Thompson family camped in the hospital for the duration. Trevor's first
business on the following morning was to get clothes; everyone only had
the clothes on their backs and the remainder were waterlogged. He went to
a Tesco-Lotus superstore (similar in size to a Wal-Mart) and describes himself walking
around in hospital gear buying new clothes; he really felt the shoppers
were worried that he'd escaped from a local institution. The next order
of business was to get the tsunami-affected clothes cleaned. He found a
laundry close to the hospital that washed clothes for Baht 5 (US$0.125)
per item. Rumor has it that this laundry was the only business in Phuket
that made money in the next few days, Trevor accounting for much of it.
With Wi and Daniel recovering, the Thompsons wanted to leave earlier than their original December 30 bookings.
But they had a problem - they'd lost their tickets. [The Gambles
were lucky, they had e-tickets.] Owing to the rush of people wanting
to leave Phuket, it
took 2 days for Trevor to get hold of his airline and when he did he was told
they couldn't go on regular flights – there would be special flights for
people who lost tickets. In the coming days he tried everywhere – Thai
Airways and all the no-frills carriers that have sprung up in Thailand
but the answer was the same everywhere;
there were no tickets to buy because
everything was booked and only special flights would be available for travelers who
had lost tickets. So while the Gambles left on December 28, the Thompsons could
not. They wanted to go to the airport to be on stand-by status, but the
airlines highly discouraged them, saying that all seats were sold,
waitlists were closed and the chances of getting a standby ticket were
very low. Given that there are 5 in the family, with 2 of them injured
and Wi really hobbling, they decided not to try for stand-by. It turned
out, after a lot of discussions, that they returned to Bangkok in the
evening of December 29, thus bringing an end to a "memorable" experience.
They had spent the whole period from December 26-29 in the hospital.
We need to reserve a special mention for
the situation in the hospital. Wi and Daniel waited for around 5 hours
before receiving treatment; frustrating, but understandable given there
were so many people badly hurt and in dire need of help. The
hospital lobby was full of people – injured or their friends / family. Bulletin boards had been setup with messages and photos of
injured and missing people. There are three major hospitals in Phuket,
so families who were separated had to search in multiple locations to find
There were harrowing tales from every
corner of the hospital in the following days. Everything you have read
about husbands losing wives, wives losing husbands, parents losing
children and children losing parents is tragically true and it was a
gut-wrenching, horrible experience to be exposed to it. To go through
that experience must be unimaginably horrific. There were stories
everywhere of heartbreak, of heroism and every now and again a vision of
Early in the first day at the hospital
Trevor came across an injured JW Marriott employee who said the hotel
received about 10 minutes warning of the approaching tsunami. She had
personally gone down to the beach to warn visitors that they needed to
evacuate. She was injured herself and in the hospital as a patient but
was also in shock because no-one took her seriously, the result being many
injuries to incredulous hotel guests. She was blaming herself for people
not moving away from the beach.