Phuket paradise washed away
From Journalist Alan Morison
PHUKET, Thailand (CNN) -- At this time of the year, Phuket is a typical tropical island paradise.
The weather is almost always perfect, the water is deliciously warm and the sea is still and translucent.
It's high season, and holidaymakers come from all over the world to enjoy some fun in the sun.
On Christmas Day, I spent several hours relaxing with a swim and lunching at a restaurant almost right on the sand at Kata Noi, one of several perfect white-sand beaches on the island's West coast.
The beach was packed with people from Europe, North America and Australia, lying on beach loungers under striped umbrellas, playing with their children or frolicking in the water.
Today, paradise was ripped asunder, washed away by a series of freak waves that left the island dealing with its biggest disaster in modern times.
At Wachira Hospital in Phuket City, where doctors and nurses were struggling to cope with scores of injured people, Canadian Don Howie was sitting and counting his blessings.
He had bandaged arms and legs, and an amazing story to tell.
One of a party of 20 from Calgary who arrived in Phuket on December 20 for a holiday break, the 57-year-old employee of a property developing company chose to go snorkeling at the south end of the Kata Noi beach about 9 a.m. on Sunday morning.
His wife, Beverly, was watching from their room on the third floor of the Kata Thani hotel, which dominates the beachfront.
The first Howie knew of the impending disaster was when a gigantic surge sucked the water from under him.
"The sea suddenly surged out for about 200 meters (656 feet)," he said.
"There was nothing left but sand. Luckily, I was left standing on the rocks where I had been looking at the fish and coral.
"Anyone swimming in the middle of the beach must have been dragged well out to sea. My boss, who is not a strong swimmer, was wearing a buoyancy vest, which was just as well."
Before they could react, the first of the series of huge waves pummeled them and swept them from the rocks.
Howie suffered cuts and abrasions to his arms and legs as he was swept against the rocks, but kept his head above water well enough to survive a dramatic ride into the beach.
He was able to note that one of the waves seemed to him to sweep along the beach sideways.
Howie's wife, watching from their third-floor room, saw the waves coming and was powerless to do anything except look on in mounting horror.
"The second wave was the largest," she said, as she sat beside her husband at the hospital.
"I'd say it was about 15 feet (4.5 meters). The water just smashed everything in its path. It came up over the beach, over the road running along the beach front, behind the main part of the hotel, and swept away large four-wheel drive vehicles.
"Water surged into the hotel lobby of our wing, on the other side of the road, and smashed the windows of shops fronting the street."
In the pandemonium that followed, hotel staff were quick to attend to the immediate needs of the injured.
Howie and other survivors were quickly moved up the hill that fronts the beach to a safe height, where doctors among the vacationers tended to their wounds.
Many people were carried off to hospitals and clinics on the back of pick-ups as rescuers moved through the sandy debris that choked local bars and restaurants.
"All but two of our party have been accounted for," Howie said.
"The hotel was full of people from all over, including Europeans and Australians."
Later he was taken to Wachira Hospital, one of three public hospitals on the island.
Outside the hospital, officials were posting the names of people who had been admitted for treatment on large boards.
A crowd of about 100 people, most of them locals, were waiting anxiously for news of relatives.
Every few minutes this afternoon, ambulances were arriving with the injured.
As night fell, police had sealed off Patong and the other beaches on the West coast and were only allowing emergency vehicles through their roadblocks.
The sound of ambulances carrying people to the hospitals, which are mostly on the eastern side of the island, could be heard more than eight hours after the waves struck.
It will be days before authorities on the island can gauge the full impact of the disaster, and perhaps years before Phuket recovers its reputation.