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Surviving the tsunami in Thailand

By Ian Colledge for CNN

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The military plane that flew the Surin Neua evacuees to Bangkok.
SPECIAL REPORT
• Aid groups: How to help
• Gallery: Stories of survival
• Flash: How tsunamis form
• Special report: After the tsunami

BANGKOK, Thailand (CNN) -- Briton Ian Colledge, 29, is a keen diver who has traveled widely in southeast Asia. He was on a diving trip to Thailand with his Czech girlfriend, Petra Vesela, when the tsunami struck the island of Surin Neua. Since then he has been keeping a Web log for CNN.com. He lives in Prague and is writing his first novel.

Part 1: Sunday, December 26

Part 2: Friday, December 31

Part 3: Monday, January 2

Monday, January 2

The Thai military plane carrying our group of evacuees landed at Bangkok Airport around 2am on Tuesday Dec. 28.

We were taken to a large arrivals lounge where embassy staff had set up help desks. We could not find any Czech or Italian representatives, but there were British, French and many others.

Water and food was offered by dozens of Thais waiting to help us and free phones had been provided for us to use.

The first question the British embassy lady asked me was, "Do you have any money?"

From past experience this was the last thing I had expected. I was told the British embassy was open 24 hours to deal with the disaster so decided to go the next day.

We all called home from the airport before leaving for a hotel and the sleep we craved. Our parents were worried about reports of disease outbreaks and all wanted us to come straight home. But we were safe, a huge contrast to the news coming from Indonesia that brought a dark numb feeling.

We hugged goodbye to our Norwegian friends from Ko Surin. As we walked away I felt the loss of that emotional bond that had helped us the last days and I realized we should stay a bit longer in Thailand.

We wanted to be with Stefania and Michi and other friends who understood what had happened. We did not yet feel able to return to a Europe in winter and begin telling our friends and families what had happened.

Leaving Bangkok airport, we were driven by a taxi driver who appeared intent on breaking all records for speed and recklessness. We were unable to persuade him to slow down, and had to laugh at the irony of this.

We slept fitfully, woken by bad dreams and the hotel shaking as large trucks sped along the motorway nearby.

The next morning we sat in silence reading the newspapers. The news was almost overwhelming. We felt almost guilty for being so fortunate. Not only to be alive, but also to have been picked up so soon and been given food and water and shelter.

I walked to the British embassy and found the staff amazingly helpful. My replacement passport was free of charge and ready to collect the same day. Dozens of British evacuees were gathered there, most battered and penniless, but the mood was one of calm fatigue. We were sharing stories and some even meeting lost friends with hugs and tears.

Only one incident left a sour taste, a woman staying at the five-star Sangri-La Hotel commenting to her husband who sat next to me, "I must have a pedicure and manicure to get this dirt from under my nails."

People were coping in different ways. Some trying to ignore the reality of it all.

At the Canadian embassy Michie encountered a very different situation. The embassy staff showed a lack of understanding and concern, bringing many people to tears. A distraught yet dignified man was refused a private room and forced to relate the loss of his loved ones over a loud speaker for all to hear.

Michi was told her passport would take two weeks and that she would need to find the money to pay, even though she had lost everything.

She was also forced to file a police report, which took a whole afternoon. When she asked if they could help with accommodation she was told, "There is nothing we can do." The embassy then closed at the normal time.

The following day we went to Khao Sarn Road, the Bangkok traveler hangout, to buy clothes and bags. It was a strange experience. Spending money again on things not totally essential felt disrespectful to those thousands without.

There were also groups of newly arrived travelers getting loudly drunk on the street side bars. One teenage Australian girl shouted, "Here's to being alive and not arriving last week." I thought violent thoughts for the first time.

Further along the road a girl who was on her own began shouting at a

Thai who had done nothing but offer her a T-shirt for 200 Baht, "Don't try to rip me off. I was on Phi Phi. I lost everything. Just tell me where I can get cigarettes."

She ran off crying and I thought again how much more difficult it is to deal with this alone.

We spent New Year's Eve with a group of young Thais in Ayutthaya, just outside of Bangkok. The mood was sober, no celebrations. Around midnight the news which we had been trying to avoid watching was still showing footage from along the Thai coast.

Suddenly amateur footage of Ko Surin showed me in a bright yellow life jacket, watching the water rush by. We decided to not watch the news for a few more days.

Reading and hearing news from Khao Lak has become very difficult. We kept thinking of the friends who had spent 10 days with us surrounded by sun and beauty. We knew them only by their first names and so will probably never know if they have survived or not.

But thousands have. There are stories of miraculous escapes all around us: acts of human bravery are becoming beautifully routine. Stories of nature saving lives as well as taking lives: Elephants in Khao Lak who lifted people onto their backs and took them to safety. A heard of buffalo running into the hills near the Thai-Burma border, leading a hundred villagers away from the approaching wave, the whole village saved.

With the numbers printed across the front page of the Bangkok Post becoming longer each morning, you have to focus on these stories and believe.

Friday, December 31

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Michi, Petra and Stefania (left to right) aboard the Ocean Princess.

Once safely aboard the Ocean Princess, the ocean liner that had evacuated us from Surin Neua, the first thing we did was find the routes to the exits and life boats.

There were only five boats remaining, three having been smashed against the island. We still had no news from the mainland, and almost all of us were making plans to return to Khao Lak. Some had left bags behind. Others had left friends and relatives in one of the many resorts.

We were all thinking the mainland would have suffered less damage. Petra, my girlfriend, told me, "If your ear infection had not gotten better, we would have left for Khao Lak yesterday."

She was thinking that in Khao Lak we would have escaped this. We knew nothing of the utter devastation that had taken place on that long beach.

We spent the evening lying on the floor of the large ship's lounge, wrapped in blankets. We wandered off to get hot drinks and food from the restaurant buffet and returned to talk again, sharing stories with the other evacuees.

Our shared experience had formed a bond between us, which made it easy to understand each other without the need for many words. This removed all the usual social barriers between strangers.

I was surprised how few tears flowed those first hours. People were calm. Despite many still missing there was an optimism born from not knowing.

The passengers and crew brought out their spare clothes and shoes. Many evacuees had nothing but their swimsuits, and there was humor in trying to fit large European bodies into Thai clothes.

A German couple we knew had been staying in one of the few hillside huts. They came to hug Petra and gave her 2000 baht to help us get to Bangkok once ashore. Petra broke into tears for the first time -- touched by yet another random act of kindness.

I could not sleep that first night, moored in the dark shadow of Ko Surin Tai, the south island and our protector. I paced the upper deck, leaned on the rail and stared out across the now calm Andaman sea. I was sleep deprived yet intensely awake.

Petra and the rest of the passengers were sleeping inside. Only the night crew and one lone Thai passenger was awake with me. He approached and managed to share his fears in broken English, "Cannot sleep. Worry. My family think I dead maybe. Very worry."

He left, chain smoking, and I was alone again with my thoughts. It would be later that the knowledge and immensity of what had happened would swamp me. There was something calming in looking up at the full moon, the dark night canvas of scattered lights. The sea was truly beautiful. There were no white crests, only continuous ripples, shining, a silver misty mirror in the path of the moon's rays. It seemed impossible that this calm beauty had been so angry and destructive a few hours earlier.

I eventually slept for three hours and awoke Monday morning to find the ship still moored by Surin Tai. More people had been found alive on the north island. Most were from the other campsite.

We lined the starboard deck to watch the first longtail boats arrive. Silence traveled down the deck as we realized that the first boat was carrying a body bag. It was lifted gently onto the stairway and disappeared inside the ship, which was now a rescue vessel and morgue.

Sixty more evacuees came aboard. They has spent the night in the forest. They had not slept, surrounded by the calls of Macaque monkeys and the constant crying of thirty Moken children. Their two villages had been destroyed. We were told that all but one young Moken boy were saved.

In the late morning a police launch arrived and many of the villagers were taken aboard. This was the first official help, some 24 hours after the first wave had struck.

Around midday the Ocean Princess finally started out for Phuket town. News had been filtering through that Phuket and Khao Lak had been hit hard, but we still did not know how bad.

In the late afternoon an announcement was made that mobile phones were working from the starboard side. There was an exodus to the upper decks. Phones began to bleep continuously as messages arrived. All along the deck people began crying.

The relief of speaking with concerned and sometimes hysterical loved ones released the tension of the past days. It also brought a deeper realization of how lucky we were to be alive.

Michi, my Canadian friend, broke into tears and bizarrely someone started filming her. She pulled her sarong over her head.

I finally managed to speak to my parents two hours later. My mother kept repeating, "Thank you for calling. We were so worried. Thank you."

As we approached Phuket, the ship began parting the debris floating in the sea. The ship was almost silent. The TV had picked up a signal, and we were watching the first pictures of the wave crushing Khao Lak.

All our previous assumptions were destroyed. A Swedish man was staring at the TV with the emptiest eyes I have ever seen, hugging his crying daughters of 6 and 10. His wife and son were on Khao Lak beach. He could not reach them on their phones.

A tall Norwegian girl, wearing too-small donated clothes, took the oldest girl on her lap. She hugged her for over an hour until the ship finally docked at Phuket as night fell.

The Phuket dock was crowded with people, police cars, camera crews and coaches. The foreigners were asked to disembark first. I said thank you, "Kop Khun Kap," to every crew member I could find.

As we walked down the gangway hundreds of Thais lining the decks and dock started clapping, cheering and waving. If I ever take a cruise it will be on the Ocean Princess. I also resolved to return to Thailand again soon. These people are exceptional in their generosity and concern.

On the dock, biscuits and bottles of water were thrust into our hands. The tourist police chief made us all count aloud, "one, two, three..." but many were choked with emotion and unable to speak. He reached 41. Within 10 minutes a coach was whisking us to Phuket airport with a police escort.

I was struck by the surreal nature of that night trip through Phuket. The street stalls were frying chicken feet as usual. Thais rode three to a scooter and sat smoking on the street. Everybody was going about their normal evening routines.

We waited an hour at Phuket airport. In the next room some seriously injured people also waited for the flight to Bangkok. I recognized in most of them the same dark stare I saw in Petra and my friends. What we had seen and experienced marked us more clearly than our bandaged and scraped bodies.

Around midnight we were swiftly loaded onto a Thai military plane. There were over a hundred of us, seated in two rows facing each other. It was here that we began sharing stories with others.

A Dutch man from Khao Lak told us how he had opened his bungalow window and seen a wall of water approaching four meters high. It had crushed the bungalows nearer the beach as it approached. He grabbed his girlfriend's arm, left everything else, and started running.

They were saved only because they could not afford the expensive beachside bungalows. They had been near the point when the beach finally started to rise, slowing and then halting the wave.

It was this story that erased all thoughts of possessions. As the noisy plane took off, I had all I needed; my life, my girlfriend and my friends sleeping slumped against each other.

Sunday, December 26

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Efforts to re-float a lifeboat.

My girlfriend Petra and I had been spending the 10 days leading up to Christmas on Surin Neua island in the Andaman sea, some 50 kilometers off the Thai west coast.

The island is one of five that make up the Mu Ko Surin National Park archipelago, which has some of the most stunning shallow coral reefs in all of Thailand.

It is a perfect spot for diving and snorkeling with daily close encounters with reef sharks, green turtles, moray eels, and schools of iridescent fish.

The north island, where we stayed, has a dozen bungalows set high up on the hillside, but most people sleep in tents scattered along the beach front.

There are also two beach-side villages where 40 families of Moken sea nomads live in delicate stilted wooden houses; their roaming culture, dark-skinned appearance, and fearless attitude to water distinguishing them from the Thais holidaying with us.

As usual the island population had tripled for the weekend, with eighty foreigners being joined by 300 plus weekending Thais. Most were due to leave on Sunday afternoon and were enjoying a final morning of photographs by the sea.

They were joined by around 100 more from the Ocean Princess, a cruise ship visiting for the day, all wearing bright orange life jackets, even when paddling and walking on the hot sand.

Recovering from an ear infection, I decided against a diving expedition and spent the morning reading outside our tent while Petra headed off for a trip to the island of Ko Stork, the most exposed island with strong currents.

It was coming up to 11 o'clock when I was drawn from my book by the sound of water rushing and a few shouts, and looked up to see a wave turning the corner some 100 meters away to the left, moving into the sheltered bay between the north and south islands.

It looked quite small, less than a meter, and I thought it must be the full moon tide coming in fast. Grabbing my camera, I walked out onto the beach. The Thais on the sand bar some 50 meters ahead of me were laughing and pointing, filming the wave, some moving slowly back to the beach.

Fifty meters further out the first snorkelers were met by the wave and swept forward, no screams, just arms flying and grabbing hold of each other, causing those on the sand bar to start running towards the beach.

I turned and ran back to my tent as the orange life jackets were picked up and swept towards the narrowest point between the two islands which had changed into swirling angry rapid.

Reaching the tent and grabbing Petra's camera I suddenly felt water at my feet and turned to see a much bigger wave turning the corner from the south island.

Ignoring my backpack, wallet and air tickets, I ran up the hill, mercifully close to the beach.

Five seconds later the tent was swept away, joined by all the others, bright yellow rubbish bins and beach-front trees as I started to climb through the thick forest, the rushing, boiling angry water rising and rising.

More Thais were swept against the hill, caught in the trees and fortunately saved from being swept into the channel; a man smashed into a tree below me, blood streaming from above his left eye as I pulled him higher and out of the water.

Some were marooned on instant tree islands, climbing the branches as the water rose, water and debris still pounding against the hill before surging off to our left and into the channel between the two islands which had become impossibly high, a raging torrent of white water, the whole bay acting as a funnel.

A few orange jackets were rushing through now, but most people had already been swept through and out the other side into the wide eastern bay where the water was dispersing and becoming less fierce.

Everyone on the hill was safe, able to climb higher until the waves started to diminish. It felt like an immense portion of my life but can only have been five minutes or so.

I started thinking about Petra, if she was in the water when the wave struck, if her boat was overturned. I felt comfort that the wave was so bad and high where I had been and rationalized that it couldn't have been so bad out at sea where she was, the first of many attempts to apply logic with insufficient information.

I also imagined that the wave wouldn't be as big when it hit the mainland, spread out across the shore rather than funneled into one small channel.

I couldn't have been more wrong. South Surin had shielded us, with even the small island guarding the entrance to our western-facing bay protecting us and diverting the energy of the wave away. But knowing none of this, and unsure what had caused the wave, I assumed we had been the worst hit.

Running across the side of the hill, I scanned the eastern bay, where the huge white Ocean Princess was unmoved, standing firm at anchor, at contrast to the scattered long-tail boats that were noisily battling the current at full throttle, turning into the waves yet still maneuvering to pick up the scattered orange specks.

These boat boys were the true heroes of the first minutes, all their years of driving these small vessels in differing currents and winds distilled into the skill now needed to save hundreds of terrified people, some having been ripped from their life jackets by the force of the wave.

With nothing to do there, I climbed back to the western beach where the water was receding, revealing a beach stripped of sand. A dozen beach front trees had been swept aside like twigs but most held firm, holding the soil and rocks in place.

I met a Japanese man stumbling in the trees, bleeding from cuts and with a broken foot. He spoke little English but his face told it all. He kept repeating, "My wife, my wife wash away".

I held his shoulder and took him to the first aid hut but it had been evacuated, all supplies moved further up the hillside.

I told him over and over, "I think she will be safe, the boats are picking up many people. I think she will be safe."

But she couldn't swim, and I feared for her and this crushed man, his back bent, unable to lift his head.

An American man was searching for his Thai girlfriend. I recognized him as our neighbor who had spent his daylight hours lying on the beach in front his tent with his girlfriend, laughing an irresistible full-body laugh.

I told him about the boats picking up the people in the western bay and it seemed to calm him. I also told him I had lost everything but my camera and swimming shorts as I grabbed other people's bags from the water and threw them up the hill. He suddenly realized he too now had only the shorts he was wearing.

At the top of the hill people were congregating, the injured being patched and stitched up, the first aid team having sprung into action and dragged stacks of supplies to higher ground.

The canteen and kitchen were still standing, and the only other building, the National Park office, was also unscathed.

We were all asking why we were not warned by radio, and were told that the Ko Similan National Park further south had radioed a warning, being hit earlier, but that nobody was told; one of many rumors that would never be confirmed.

Half an hour later, again without warning, a wave appeared from the other direction, from the mainland, and raced past the Ocean Princess out in the eastern bay and towards us.

We knew what to do by then, and raced again to higher ground, watching in disbelief as this even bigger wave wiped out the buildings, swept up the long-tail boats that were upturned on the beach, and hurled them into trees and buildings like smashed toys.

For the next four hours smaller waves appeared, along with a warning of another big one which never materialized. People began collecting food and drinks scattered from the kitchen storeroom.

Some national park staff were busy collecting hundreds of scattered beer cans and bottles of whiskey. I met two boat boys out on the beach rifling a washed up bag, but they were an exception. Everyone else was bringing the bags in for people to claim, or searching the seas for anyone washed away.

Walking back from the beach collecting scattered food and drink, I suddenly heard Petra screaming my name and turn to see her walking in her bikini, fins in hand, wide-eyed and staring with her mouth open.

She had been in the water with her friend Steffania, had felt a strange current, and swam back to the boat in time to see whirlpools form near Ko Stork island.

The long-tail boat was powering at full throttle to stay out of it, bare coral exposed at the center as waves appeared by the rocky coast and traveled in the wrong direction, away from the island.

She had expected Ko Surin to be untouched, having seen only minor waves, although bizarrely behaving ones, and so was shocked by the boats impaled in the remains of buildings, and the completely missing tent city.

Two hours later our Canadian friend Michi appeared. We had been truly worried for her, as she had been diving with a research group from Bangkok University at the time.

They had felt the shock wave and were swept by crazy underwater currents, grabbing coral which broke off with the force of the current and then been carried into a buoy line which they were able to cling to and surface.

Having survived, yet surrounded by devastation, and maybe because of the small death toll on the island (three people though some still missing), nobody from the park office took control of the situation.

That job was left to an officer from the Ocean Princess who appeared on the scene with a radio and began collecting names and numbers to be evacuated.

As dusk approached, he decided it was safe to ferry people via long-tail boat to the cruise ship. Mid-transfer another wave appeared which, though small, caused a minor panic before the transfer resumed.

We had wanted to stay on the island, fearful of the next big wave that had been promised for hours without materializing, and reasoning that high land was always safer than the biggest ship.

We had still heard nothing from other islands or the mainland, though knew there had been an earthquake in Indonesia. However, we were forced to leave, which turned out to be a good move.

The Ocean Princess was amazing, as were the boat boys steering us through a dark and newly rock-strewn bay, bumping into underwater obstacles, but bringing all 300-plus evacuees to safety.

We were welcomed aboard, given blankets, a soft floor to sleep on, and free food and drink from the ship's amazing restaurant buffet; a stunning example of Thai hospitality that would be repeated again and again.

We settled in for the night, waiting moored in the shelter of the island, and began sharing stories of near misses and fortuities. Both the large American with his huge lovely laugh and the Japanese man with his non-swimming wife found me and introduced me to their rescued other.

The whole ship clapped and cheered as the last family arrived on board, a Swiss couple with two angelic blonde daughters of three and seven who immediately became the ship's mascots.

The family had been kayaking and were capsized by the first wave. The youngest, unable to swim and sinking in the torrent, was hauled from below by her father.

He kept looking across at his daughter when telling me the story, checking that she was really still alive.

Almost to a man, woman and child we were penniless and battered, yet we felt truly blessed to have survived.


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