Light of Siam and the Tsunami

This article was originally published December 1, 2010 in Freemasonry Today.

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Howard Digby-Johns recalls the day the tsunami struck

The overwhelming awfulness was that we knew nothing. You could have been 500 yards from people consumed by the water and see and hear nothing. Forget the image of a cresting wave. The tide just went out and came in. Just very far and very fast. The wave was maybe six inches high, but 100 miles long – that’s a lot of water. The strange thing is the water was black with debris. Most damage was caused by the third wave, and particularly as it receded.The overwhelming awfulness was that we knew nothing. You could have been 500 yards from people consumed by the water and see and hear nothing. Forget the image of a cresting wave. The tide just went out and came in. Just very far and very fast. The wave was maybe six inches high, but 100 miles long – that’s a lot of water. The strange thing is the water was black with debris. Most damage was caused by the third wave, and particularly as it receded.The appalling tsunami which struck so much of Asia one year ago, is unimaginable for those who did not experience it, unforgettable in the terror it induced for those who did. Here in Phuket, in Thailand, we have a strong expatriate British community, a core of whom have formed their own English Constitution Lodge, Light of Siam, No. 9791. In one sense, we were uniquely placed to chronicle events as they unfolded, and to offer what assistance we could.

No one needed to have died. My friends were in the sea when it receded about 1 km. They ran to their room, got clothes and valuables, and drove off in their car in time to see their chalet demolished by the water. Most people stayed to watch. One friend was on the roof of a beach cottage after the first wave. The cottages were in a row. The second wave took the people off the end cottage, and returned their bobbing bodies a little later. The third wave took those from the second cottage, and brought back the awful offering.
Another friend was awakened by the black tide of death which she saw out of the window. She rushed out to the back, only to see another tide coming from the opposite direction. Then she was felled under the weight of the house wall falling on her. The water carried her and her wall into the reservoir. Luckily on the bottom of the reservoir, under the wall she did not panic, and went down to find a way out. She found one, only to find the surface blocked by sodden mattresses. She got an arm out, and was pulled to safety – she was only at the edge of the reservoir. Another friend was in a cave and was gently pressed to its roof. Others were taken up through trees, and trapped by their clothes. Miraculous escapes. Twelve months on, we still live with it. My friends who lost their little boy had the body identified only four weeks ago. I was with them that night. They had clung to the fantasy that he was on some remote island with fisherfolk. They took him home, and 400 attended the funeral of a little boy who was frozen in a container of corpses for all those months. They have just had a new baby.
But now Phuket’s people have taken stock. Some are dead. Some are injured. Most businesses are open. But many people have lost the means to make a living. Many hotels remain open for business, but they sit empty. The beaches have been cleaned and are more beautiful than ever, but they are almost deserted. Only a few restaurants, shops, bars and attractions have been disrupted, but they lack customers. There is no shortage of drinking water, power, food or any serious threat of disease. Life in Phuket is basically normal. But the only means for the people here to recover their lives is for tourists to come back.
So now Phuket’s people now face their second attack. Their recovery has been worse damaged by the second catastrophe – the tourists stayed away, and tourists are Phuket’s lifeblood. Phuket’s hotels are still virtually empty. For the tour guides, for those who gave massages on the beach, or took tourists on boat trips, ran stalls, or rented out deck chairs, there is still the rent and school fees and groceries to pay and suddenly no income at all. So the need to bring the tourists back is urgent. The poorest are local, and have no skills that would allow them to go elsewhere.