Back in the deep
Nearly two years after the tsunami devastated south-east Asia, a controversial drama documentary is to re-enact the disaster. Becky Barnicoat and Craig Taylor ask survivors who have seen the programme – did they find themselves reliving a terrifying ordeal, or was it simply unreal?
Sasha Pagella, fundraiser
Survived the tsunami in Penang island, Malaysia
There was a blue sky and the sun was shining. I was in the sea and noticed a savage current. I thought, “That’s strange,” then a man started screaming. I turned to see a grey mass coming towards me. The next thing I knew, I was clinging to a wall in this surging water. There was a tiny girl by me, and I reached out to grab hold of her. Our eyes met and our hands touched, but the wave knocked her away. It still haunts me. In the film, a little girl slips from her dad’s grip. Watching that made me cry. Eventually I was hauled out and the water receded. Then the screaming started. There must have been 40 bodies strewn on the beach. I spent three hours desperately looking for survivors. I didn’t feel happy to be alive. I felt lonely and guilty. The film captured that emotional experience. I want everyone I know to watch it, so they can understand what it was like. I felt so guilty about not being able to do more for that little girl. And then guilty for feeling guilty – because I could leave, but there were so many people who couldn’t.
Niki Medlik, graphic designer
Survived the tsunami in Ahangama, Sri Lanka
I felt very emotional when the film began. The worst part for me was the opening shots of the sea. It made me want to run out screaming. I was swimming when it happened. The sea was odd – the waves were crossing in a strange way. I headed back to the hotel and saw that the whole bay was full of water. Then it was at the hotel steps. I got to our apartment just as the door flew in. I scrambled on to the bed, and as it floated up I thought, I’m going to run out of oxygen. The Sri Lankans saved our lives. They led us to higher ground and picked us up when we fell. It didn’t look as bad as the film – I saw only one dead body. But so many locals lost everything. I think you’re supposed to get to the end of the film and say, “Oh, isn’t that lovely, I’ll cry now.” Well, it isn’t lovely. There are still people living out there in shacks and tents. None of the money got through to the Sri Lankans . But people will just watch the film and say, “What a good drama.”
Steve McQueenie, policeman
Survived the tsunami in Khao-Lak, Thailand
I was on holiday with my partner Nicola. The beach was gorgeous. We laughed about how beautiful it was. On Boxing Day morning, we heard a strange noise outside the bungalow. Through the glass, we saw a 30-foot wall of brown water approaching. I grabbed Nic’s hand as our room exploded. I didn’t even have time to say “I love you.” It was like a washing machine. The water was dark brown and full of the sound of my own screams. Every now and then I popped up and gulped the air. If I hadn’t been pushed against a palm tree, that would have been it. I hooked my arms around it and hung on. As the water went out, I slid down until I was lying on the sand. There was blue sky, sunshine, dead quiet. I had a bamboo spike through my leg. After a while someone found me. Because I’d seen Nic on the surface, I thought she was going to be OK. My brain wouldn’t let me think the worst. We finally found each other at a rubber plantation on higher ground . I wanted to say something witty but we just held each other and cried. There isn’t a movie scary enough for what happened that day. What the BBC film has done is highlight some of the issues, like the lack of a tsunami alert system in the Indian Ocean, and the land theft by the hotels. They’ve done as good a job as you could, but you just can’t tell every story. If ever the phrase “you had to be there” applies, it’s to this.
Anna Stokes, actress
Survivor with her friend Annecy at Koh Phi Phi island in Thailand
How strange, I remember thinking while I was underwater. I never thought I’d die. Then the idea I wouldn’t exist any more was suddenly real. I started to relax. Annecy and I were staying in a wooden hut on the beach. I was eight weeks into a year-long trip. I had saved up and was going around the world. Back in London, I had been attempting to be an actress, and temping to pay the rent. One of the questions raised about this movie was whether or not it was right to show so many dead bodies. Well, there were a lot of dead bodies. That’s the way it was. If you’re going to make a programme like this, it’s worth depicting the reality. When I first heard they were making a film, I thought they were milking a terrible situation . Now I want every single member of my family to watch it. I want my friends to watch. I can never fully explain what the experience was like, but this will help. I’m quite glad the film didn’t include 20 minutes of the wave hitting. In fact, it didn’t focus too much on the actual wave, the noise and the smell, the fridges and sinks in this grey water that had been dredged from the bottom of the ocean. Unlike the way it is in the film, we had a good experience with the embassy – even the wives of embassy officials, who brought us [hair] conditioner. I’m quite practical -minded about my recovery. I had some terrible counselling, but today, seeing the film, I was reminded there are lots of emotions, fears. It’s OK to say I’m not as strong as I say I am. This event is a huge thing to deal with. As for Annecy, I’m glad our friendship is stronger. We laugh about some of the details, like how I found it so important to put on my waterproof sandals. When we were reunited, her face was bright red with burst blood vessels. Her eyes were devilish and red. I thought, This can’t be my friend. She said , “I knew you’d make it. You’re a tenacious bugger.”
Annecy Lax, theatre director
Survivor who had joined her friend Anna at Koh Phi Phi for a holiday over Christmas
We were travelling that day to a friend’s wedding. I was packing when it hit, and I said to Anna, “We shouldn’t panic.” The hut next to us smashed and I said, “Now we can fucking panic.” We were clinging together in the water; I got dragged one way, Anna the other. There was glass flying everywhere, wood splintered. I was hit in the back by a fridge. After struggling, I began to swallow water so I would die faster. The wave finished, the debris loosened, and I gave it one final push. I got to a palm tree and climbed up higher and higher. I had never seen a dead person before. I made up for it that day. There is a sort of bullying cabal that surrounds survivors. They say, “You’re so lucky.” “How does it feel?” “Are you like Jeff Bridges in Fearless?” For me, luck is f nding £10 on the street. This is different. I came out of something horrendous. For me it took a long time to take advantage of this chance of life I had been given. People said, “Carpe diem.” I was paralysed by the experience for a while. Thankfully, I had good trauma counselling. The movie can’t cover every experience. Only the wave was the same. Because we were on an island, we thought: has it only happened here? They’re going to leave us here to die. We were there for almost 20 hours. At night the wind moved through the trees and people would yell, “It’s a wave.” There was an element of stoicism on the part of the Thais, which is in the film. The hotel workers came back with huge sacks of food. But there was also, for example, the pain of a woman who had lost her baby. Her friends couldn’t calm her. The film-makers will succeed in making people cry, but these actually were the stories. There were people searching desperately for their children. The wave was the easiest part of the experience. You could surrender to it. The choices that came afterwards were hard. The film captured that. I went and stood on Great Yarmouth pier recently and watched the water through the slats. And yes, I was holding on to the side with white knuckles. A year ago I wouldn’t have been able to do that.
Father of Hannah Tugwell, who died at Khao Lak, Thailand
When I heard about the tsunami, I had no idea Hannah and her husband Matthew were in the firing lin . It wasn’t until 3.20am the next day that we got a call. Matthew had phoned his mum from Thailand. There was no sign of Hannah. I knew I had to get out there, and by Thursday I was in Khao Lak. They were bringing the bodies up from the beach and cocooning them in plastic. I must have looked at 50 or 60 bodies, many of them children. After four days in the tropical heat, the smell of putrefaction was intense. I checked every hospital and every list before returning home. By that time, I was running on empty. I couldn’t stop my eyes weeping. I wasn’t crying, they just kept watering. The film took me right back. It captured the chaos perfectly, although the wave itself was far too clean – Matthew described it as black, boiling water. When I saw the man being knocked on the head and going under, I thought to myself, that’s how my daughter died.
Simon Richards, technician at ITV
Survivor with his partner Isabelle on Hong Island
We were at the end of our holiday in southern Thailand and had gone to Hong Island on a day trip. It was a 40-minute boat ride from our resort. We arrived, went for a quick swim and then went for a walk. The middle of the island was a national park. We moved away from the incoming water. I can remember thinking in the woods, maybe I’ve run far enough to avoid it. It went from “I might get my passport wet” to “This is my final breath.” It was such an intense experience and it felt totally personal to me. My whole life was the sum total of everything I had experienced and that whole world was ceasing to exist. There were strange thoughts, too, like: I’m never going to have a chance to redecorate my place. It’s very hard to capture the experience. The f lm was competent, but didn’t raise it to the sublime. They chose a very concrete way of dealing with it: the issue of finding a child. I was hoping the actors could capture this sort of raw emotion, but I don’t think they quite got it – it failed to get inside the experience. One thing it captured well was that this wasn’t just a struggle for one day. It was a struggle for four days. It dealt with the embassy, the Thai hospital – the trauma continued when the wave was gone. We were separated for only a short amount of time, but still it was a very powerful image when I first saw Isabelle walking out of the trees alive.
Isabelle Bergeron, French teacher
Survivor with Simon in southern Thailand
The water went strange. Nature, it seemed, was upside down. Simon didn’t realise what was happening, but I knew how serious it was. Perhaps it was from something I had seen on television. When the water hit, everything atomised. I was really alone. All was quiet underwater. I could feel the violence of the motion but I was very serene in my head. I realised I couldn’t say goodbye to Simon. I said goodbye to myself. This is reality, I thought. What I lived before is different; this is what reality is about. When it switches off, it’s the end. This intense calm was broken as I came to the surface. Obviously things come back. There were screams. You have to think about others when you realise you might live. I was back, in a way, to some sort of normality, away from the calmness of drowning. The film allowed me a sense of cohesion – to understand what was going on – because each of us was just a very small part of it . I prepared myself for the film but I still cried . I remember being in hospital. This woman was talking to me, saying: I want to die. She’d lost her husband and three children. She would inevitably have a diff erent reaction to the film.
Richard Bennett, works with a food manufacturer
Survivor with his partner Clare at Karon Beach on the island of Phuket, Thailand
The film doesn’t do justice to the sheer horror. It comes close. It will give you an idea, but it’s like car crashes – unless you’ve been in one, your experience will always be limited. We were at Karon Beach, where most people either died or weren’t hit. There were only a few in between. We’re two of them. Strangely, there was humour in the situation. A fi m like this could never include that kind of black humour, but it’s what gets you through the horror. One scene, one strange, humorous moment, and they’d have been hammered by the press and the people who were there.
I lost a chunk of my leg – the rats probably feasted on that for weeks. But that’s me, you know, always giving. There’s that humour. I cannot give enough praise to the Thais. They’re the reason we’re both alive today. The British government response was hideous. The Swedish and Dutch governments put up posters for survivors. A week later the British embassy sent someone to read out an announcement while driving down the street. He was Thai, and we could only hear snatches of what he was saying. We tried to write it down on each pass. It was Comedy Central.
Look at the pair of us. We haven’t lost limbs. And yet, we went through things people will never know. You live, and you feel guilty you’re alive. It remains with you. There was still sand coming out of our ears weeks later. Some mornings we’d look at the pillows and say, “Whose sand is that?” The film-makers have done the best job they could with their remit, which was limited – there’s no mention of India or Sri Lanka . I think it’s a brave film.
Clare Francis, works in local government
Survivor with Richard on Karon Beach, Phuket
It was not the apocalypse. There were no horsemen on the horizon. It was the most beautiful day. It’s this juxtaposition that really fucks with your head. There was someone lying on the ground with their neck twisted like an owl. A woman so lacerated there was fat spilling out of her arse. But it was a beautiful day. The film made it dark, dingy. It wasn’t like that. You work in an office, you listen to some co-worker go on about whatever all day, you dream of getting away – and here you are in paradise. It was that beautiful.
I felt the earthquake in the morning. I went for an early morning swim. The water was choppy. By the time we walked up to the restaurant, there was no beach. I’m a bit of a panicker. I looked out to the ocean. There was no horizon, just a wave. I don’t do feet and inches, I just know it was high. I ended up holding on to one of the posts that held up the restaurant, with my flip-fl ops in one hand. At this point I’m not thinking ,”I want to live.” I’m thinking, “What the hell is this? It’s just water. Water! ” There were hair-dryer units in the water, beach furniture, cutlery. I remember feeling that cutlery.
The film could have shown a lot more of the strange behaviour. We saw the best and worst of people. There were tourists comparing video footage : “Did you get that? Did you get the guy going down the path?” One man went straight to the receptionist and asked quietly, “Where’s the nearest airport?” I remember being covered in blood and passing someone coming down the stairs ready for a day at the beach. Or afterwards, a little Thai girl picking up pretty snapped fingernails. There was so much the film didn’t or couldn’t show.
I think when people see the film they’ll see the wave and think, “Oh, it’s not that big. I could have handled that.” I don’t think it depicts the Thai people and what they lost. They lost everything and still they helped us. That part was unbelievable.
The first part of Tsunami – The Aftermath is broadcast on BBC2 on Tuesday at 9pm, with part 2 shown on Tuesday December 5. For more information about those affected by the Asian tsunami, go to Tsunami Support UK.