This SHIT is real….in case you want to read a real story from skateboarder Jesper Rosenberg.
Text: Jesper Rosenberg.
It took me six years to translate this story from Danish into English. The story was too hard to tell for me. The years after the incident December 26th 2004 on Phi Phi Island in Thailand, I was unable to talk about it, it was such a traumatic experience. I have never been in any war, but I could imagine how it is. The tsunami in South East Asia December 26th 2004 came very unexpected, turning paradise into a sort of war zone. Giving me Posttraumatic Stress Disorder for the rest of my life. There is not a day passing by where I don’t think about what happened on that island on that day during Christmas in 2004. However, I survived…. This is my story:
It was seven o’clock in the morning, december 26th 2004, my alarm clock woke me up as usual, I took a shower and walked through the narrow streets of Phi Phi Island to my job at Visa Diving Center, as a dive instructor. After two weeks on the island I had become used to the Mallorca like atmosphere, with loads and loads of tourists. I had also become used to the manager of the dive shop, a woman from Sweden I called “The Colonel”.
The day before, December 25th, I had walked into the dive shop to talk to “The Colonel”, and to let her know I didn’t want to dive the next day. I had been diving every day for the past two weeks, I was exhausted from carrying tanks and equipment and being underwater. With a set mind not to dive the next day, I walked into the dive shop and was about to say it to “The Colonel”, but she interrupted me and said: “Hi Jesper, you have two student tomorrow!!!” Even though my body was tired, I still liked to dive and the thought of me sitting in one of the two dive shops all day, didn’t appeal to me. “All right then, but then I need a break”, I replied without knowing this decision would save my life.
Beautiful beach on the island before the tsunami. Phi Phi Island, Thailand, December 2004
At eight o’clock, after the walk through the streets of Phi Phi Island, I arrived at Visa Diving Centers shop by the Cabana Hotel we called the Cabana shop. There was also a shop in the main street but we didn’t do any teaching from that place. I packed my equipment and talked a bit to Matt from Birmingham who didn’t dive, because he was a bit of a bad swimmer. I didn’t know it was the last time I would ever see him.
The dive boat left the floating pier at nine o’clock and headed for Bida Nok and Bida Nai, two dive sites thirty minutes from Phi Phi Island. I was in a very good mood, despite my aching body, life as a dive instructor was good. With my two students I went through some questions, they hadn’t been diving for a year and needed a refresher course.
At Bida Nok we geared up and jumped into the water after a short briefing, where I went through hand signals, the animals we would see and how we were going to do the dive. The girl was a bit nervous, I tried to calm her down by saying it was a very easy dive with no current. Under water she was still nervous, I could feel it and see it, so I dove around holding her shoulder, it usually helped.
After ten minutes in 10 meters of water, there was a bit current, but nothing I hadn’t experienced before in this area. My friend Ian from England, passed me with his students, saying with hand signals, there was a bit of current coming against us. I signaled OK and wanted to turn around following Ian, but the current took us the other way. Confusion is a lite word to describe this scenario…
Two minutes later there was much more current and we were flying along the vertical wall of Bida Nok, away from Ian. Millions of fish came against the current and us, to get a meal of plankton, it was beautiful and nothing I had seen before. The current went faster and faster, reaching around six to seven knots, I think, and we had trouble staying at the same depth, the current took us up and down. At some point we were taken from ten meters to thirteen meters and back to 9 meters in under three seconds. I was holding on to the girl and she was holding on to her husband. With smiling eyes in my dive mask and very calm gesture, I asked them if they were OK. Even though their eyes were frighten, they were calm and signaled back an OK. If I was taking it easy and calm, they would do the same.
All of a sudden the visibility became under one meter but I was still holding on to my students. We tried to do a safety stop in five meters of water for three minutes but the current took us to the surface. On the surface all the other divers popped up laughing about the situation, but I couldn’t see Ian. One guy yelled “Woohoo! We been in the washing machine of Bida Nok!!!!” We had no idea what was going on at this very moment.
Everyone, including Ian and his students, were picked up by the dive boat from various spots around the small island, laughing about the current and the rather unusual dive.
From the dive boat I could see the current get stronger and stronger, and the captain of the boat said that dive two was canceled, a thing I could not understand at this point. We sailed back towards Phi Phi Island but the captain didn’t want to get close to the island, another thing we didn’t understand at this point. We could not see Phi Phi Island from the dive boat and the customers got a bit worried and impatience about it.
A guy got a text on his mobile phone, that a rather big earthquake had hit Indonesia, the captain got a call on his VHF radio that the pier we docked at everyday with the dive boat, was gone, but I could still not figure it out and I don’t think any on the dive boat could either.
The frustrations that we could not get to land evolved, the captain called for a small speed boat that was close and most of us jumped into it. The speed boat sailed slowly towards land. There were so much debris in the water it was dangerous to sail faster than one knot. Building materials, beach chairs and even closets were floating in the calm water about 2 miles from the island but we could still not see what had happened on the island itself.
All of a sudden another speed boat in high speed with local Thai people trying to avoid the debris, was coming towards us. They waved their arms and when they got close enough yelled: “ANOTHER WAVE IS COMING, GET BACK OUT!”. In high speed our boat followed the other away from the island. We could still not understand what was going on but it was not good.
The captain of the speed boat, a local guy from Thailand sailed out to a hospital ship and wanted us to get onto it, but everyone agreed that we needed to go back to Phi Phi Island and look for friends. The captain put his head down and said ok, after we had waited another hour. Now it was around 6 hours since the crazy dive at Bida Nok. While we were waiting, another dive boat passed us with some instructors I knew. I asked them if they had seen some of my friends and what had happened on the island, but they didn’t know much more than we did.
The captain didn’t like to get too close to the island and we waited another hour in deep water and more than two miles from Phi Phi Island, when a jet-fighter from the air force circled the island three times and disappeared again. Ten minutes later a fishing boat passed us with something on the side. When I realized it was a dead person tied on the wrist I knew it was very very bad. A Japanese instructor was about to yell “LOOK!” when he saw the dead person but I made him not do it, the lucky ones in our boat that had not yet seen this awful sight, didn’t need to see it.
The captain from the speed boat had heard, that our dive shop was completely gone and so was the pier. We didn’t know what to do but as we were running out of drinking water on the speed boat, and we got more and more worried about the situation, we made the captain take us to shore, after much yelling in various languages. The girl I had been diving with was crying, that we would get killed if we went back to the island, but we convinced her to run to the hills to be safe, while my friend from England Ian and I wanted to go look for friends.
Slowly and with a frighten captain, we got closer and closer to the island through the debris in the water. I put empty water bottles into my backpack to keep it floating if I would loose it. I put my camera, iPod, passport and a credit card in plastic backs inside the back pack. If the captain wanted to turn back to deep water again, I would jump in the water and swim to shore. About 10 meters from the beach, we jumped in knee deep water and helped the others off the speed boat.
The sight was unreal, everything was destroyed, most of the sand on the beach was gone and two dead persons were lying on their back, completely stiff with their arms half way up. This was only twenty meters from the point we got off the speed boat. More dead people were scattered around the beach lying the same way as the first two. The silence on the beach was deafening.
Ian and I went through the destroyed main street with no shoes on. We had left our flip-flops at the dive shop like we did every day, no reason to bring shoes onto a boat. A guy from Thailand asked if I wanted a pair of sandals. I thanked him many times, but couldn’t help thinking that the original owner of the sandals, might be dead. The Visa Diving Center shop in the main street, was totally wrecked with furniture, papers and everything else in a messy pile. At the big fish fountain we turned left. A dead person were lying on a table with a sheet over. I snapped a photo but felt like an idiot. What the hell was I thinking taking photos now?!?!?!
We went up to my bungalow on a hill side. I knew it was still standing, because the water line from the wave sweeping the island was around chest-height. I had a pair of shoes I gave Ian and put on my hiking boots. We still didn’t know if our friends were alive. On the way down the hill from my bungalow, we saw a girl walking around the ruins and debris, desperate shouting a name numerous times, but there came no answer. Hours and hours after this scene, the girl was still screaming in my mind.
It was difficult for the speedboat captain to reach the island.
Along the beach more debris was lying around and all of the interior of the island, was gone. The palm trees were the only standing objects left by the water. Constantly we kept an eye on the sea, afraid of another wave would hit the island. We pointed out every place, being mostly palm trees, we would be able to climb, in case the water would rise again or another wave would come.
A man shouted at us if he could walk with us. All he had on was shorts and flip-flops, and he walked in agony. With out crying or a change in his face, he said he just lost his wife and two kids. A tear rolled down his chin while he focused on something that did not exist in the distance. I put my hand on his shoulder, telling him how sorry I was, but what the hell do you say to a man who has lost his family.
A group of ten people carried a stretcher with a guy covered in a carpet. It wasn’t really a stretcher but an old door with beams underneath. I recognized the wounded guy on the door from a bar we went to earlier looking for surviving friends, where he was lying in agony on the floor. The group of people yelled at us, “come and help!”. The wounded guy was overweighted but he needed be carried to a place where some helicopters might come later. Every thirty meters we had to put him down on the sand, to rest our arms, and every time he was screaming in pain. While I was trying to catch my breath, I looked for the man who lost his wife and two kids but he was gone. I will never forget that blank stare he was carrying on his face. After many breaks and rests, we put the heavy guy next to other wounded people where the helicopters would land later.
We walked towards the place Ian was staying but everything, of the two story building made of solid concrete, was gone, except the floor. Ian had only the things he was standing in at this very moment. We walked on, picking up cans of coca cola and other sodas, drinking some of them to stay hydrated and passing out others to people we met. In the middle of the island, we saw a one meter Black Tip Reef Shark lying dead and left alone by the water. Our eyes were constantly on the sea and where we could climb, if another wave should come raging the island. A kitten was sitting on a ledge of a floor, looking confused at us walking by. How did this kitten survive when everything around it, was gone? And how did the kitten survive when the shark didn’t?!?!
Without knowing where to go and what to do, we walked down to the beach again. A woman was lying dead on the beach with stiff arms. She were still wearing her hip back and had her face covered by sand. She was a turist. In the water more dead body were floating around like logs of wood between plastic chairs and roof boards.
Instead of going to the hills and the safety, in case another wave would come, we made a deciscion to help others. Ian and I were not wounded physically, our minds were another story. The darkness came rolling over the destroyed island of Phi Phi and it became more and more difficult to navigate through the broken buildings. From my bungalow, we had brought two dive-touches. My light stopped in the dark at a dead person, squashed by a palm tree he apparently was trying to climb when the waves hit. His mouth was open and he was still hugging the tree. An awful sight I didn’t want Ian to see, but I couldn’t move my arm, my body was in a state of chock. I could hear Ian struggling through broken trees and ruins just ten meters behind me, asking me what I stopped for. I said nothing, moving my light away from the dead guy, holding the palm tree and moving on. Ian didn’t have to see this.
We came to more walkable ground, it was now very dark and the torch I had, was getting dimmer and dimmer, even though I had been trying to safe the batteries. But it didn’t really matter, the rising of the full moon in the silent, chaotic and scary night over the hills who had saved lots and lots of people, threw enough light over the island. Maybe too much light, I could see more of the horrors. A group of people I couldn’t see the faces of, was carrying a guy who laid absolutely still and said nothing on a homemade stretcher. Ian and I were asked to help carry him down to the water where a boat was waiting. We asked why not the place where the helicopters were going to land, but somebody told us, there were no more helicopters coming tonight, it was too dark for them to land. First we carried the wounded guy down the main pier, through fallen buildings and knocked over palm trees, constantly avoiding to trip on anything or get hurt, but there was no boat to be seen. Exhausted we put him gently on the ground while another guy ran out into the dark to find the boat. Everyone was gasping for air, sweating like pigs and the despair was showing in the faces around the wounded guy. A guy told me silently, that the wounded guy had both lungs collapsed and a back injury. Maybe it was only one lung, how can you survive with two not working? The wounded guy had not said a word, and I was starting to doubt he was alive but kicked the thought out of my head again.
Finally, the guy searching for the boat came back telling us, the boat was at the other end of the beach…. We lifted the door the wounded lay on and walked all the way back, now in sand on the beach, trying to navigate around debris and corpses. Another group of people with another wounded, was right behind us. I could see them in the moonlight but like our group, only heavy breathing could be heard, no words were exchanged. My arms were super sore but I could not complain, at least I was still alive. Our group were extremely tired and we took a break while the other group went towards the waiting boat. The full moon was very beautiful but it meant so little in this situation.
The boat was waiting very close to the beach, actually too close, it was sitting on the bottom. We put the wounded guy, still in silence, on the sand and tried to push the boat into deeper water, but with no success what so ever, the 40 feet motorboat was not moving at all. Desperate we tried to rock the boat from side to side but this didn’t help either. I was exhausted and felt extremely helpless.
Out of nothing the water was rising again and everyone panicked, afraid another wave was on it’s way for more destruction, but the boat was off of the bottom. The two wounded on the sand was almost floating but we lifted them up upon the boat, while we were standing in waste-high water. It was so demanding to lift the two guys and we almost dropped one of them, but managed to get him safe on board. The boat went away and we walked back towards the helipad with our heads between our shoulders, exhausted, helpless, tired, depressed and defeated. Why the hell couldn’t the helicopters land during night??!?!?! Of cause they could do it, they had done it for many years now in all sorts of situations… there must had been another explanation for this. Ten minutes later a helicopter could be heard landing on the bare field that used to be a tennis court. That was the first time, but not the last, I let the tears run down my face. The two wounded guys we had carried around the last hour to the boat, through all this destruction, could have been on that fucking helicopter….!!!!
“IN COMING CHOPPER!!!!”, yelled an English man who had taking control over the place where the helicopters landed and the wounded were lying. The place was right in front of the Cabana Hotel, that was still standing despite a completely ruined ground floor from the waves. The English guy did a very good job, telling everyone what to do and who needed the most attention of the wounded. When the rotors of a Huey helicopter forced dust up into the air we covered the faces of the wounded, so they didn’t get more dirt into their open wounds, faces and lungs. As soon as the helicopter had put down the skids, we left the wounded and ran over to take out emergency food and water under the noisy rotating blades. Others carried the wounded on stretchers made of various things, until the chopper was full, the rest lying on mattresses from the hotel, had to wait for the next helicopter. Everyone turned their faces and covered it when the helicopter super noisy lifted of, sending dust everywhere around the place, sheets was flapping and some disappeared into the night. The helicopter flew away in the night towards the mainland of Thailand, leaving a deafening, terrifying silence over the island of Phi Phi. A silence that made me feel very alone and very afraid. In the back of my mind another wave could hit any minute but I had no time to be afraid. We took lots and lots of water, medicine and food to The Cabana Hotel’s first floor, one of the only buildings still standing. I took several trips the 100 meters to the staircase leading to the first floor, with around 20 kilos of water and food, and was somewhat glad I was able to do it. I could have been one of them waiting on a mattress, hoping for another helicopter.
Another helicopter could be heard in the distance, breaking the silence once more and the English guy yelled again “IN COMING CHOPPER!!!”. We covered the faces once again of the wounded and then our own. When the chopper had contact with the island, people started to drag out more food, medicine and water and we carried more wounded under the noisy rotating blades and into the chopper. At some point I carried a guy being my own age, who was covered by a sheet. The rotors forced the sheet off him leaving him naked on the stretcher and me trying to cover him up again and saving him for an embarrassing moment. Not that it mattered at all, but he was so helpless and could only lay very still. Some wounded screamed very loud, when the stretcher was removed under them in the helicopters That hurt my heart listening to, every time it happened. I carried a stretcher which was actually another old door, with yet another wounded towards a chopper, sincerely hoping not to hear the scream. When it came I cried, still fighting to get the door out of the helicopter.
When the noise of the helicopter went towards mainland with wounded and again leaving the terrifying silence, we started to carry the water and food towards the first floor of the hotel again. This went on for four or five hours, I don’t know how many, I was in some sort of blurry, depressed state of mind. And we got more and more tired and exhausted as the hours passed, the wounded was carried to helicopters and the trips to the first floor of the hotel.
We needed to sleep but didn’t dare to walk back to my bungalow in the dark, the threat of another wave was still there. The Cabana Hotel was the only option to try to get some sleep. On the second floor we kicked in the locked doors find a place where we could sleep, but most rooms still contained personal belongings. In one room where we emptied the fridge for beers and liqour, a baby carriage was knocked over between suitcases and clothes and the inevitable thought came instantly. Was this family who lived here still alive? We bumped into a couple and talked to them, while we were drinking a beer, trying to drown our thoughts. What we talked about and for how long, I don’t know, I was in shock. Finally we found an empty room and sat on the porch facing the tennis court where the helicopters had come and gone. A few more helicopters disappeared with wounded in the horizon, while we where trying to erase our minds with whisky. A helicopter landed and turn off the engine, maybe there were no more wounded.
Had we done enough? I asked Ian a few times if we should have continued helping and if we did enough but we agreed, we had no more energy and had done a lot. The headache I had had for the last three hours was still raging and the beers had not helped me at all.
Drunk I went to bed with my clothes and boots on and I never heard the last helicopter leave.
After a couple of hours of deep sleep, I was waken up by mosquitos that were flying around my face, an irritatating sound when they were flying close to my ears. A sound, I did not know would lead my thoughts in the future towards this terrible catastrophe, among with the sound of helicopters and the moon when it is full. It was light out. I stood up covered in mosquito bites, still with a headache and realizing it was all true, the dead people, the fallen houses and bungalows, the washed away island, it was not a very bad dream, it was the very bad reality, and I did not know how many of my friends had survived. Depressed by the situation our goal of the day was to find surviving friends, especially my friends from Denmark. Frank, who I just finished the dive instructor exam with in Phuket, and my friend for many years, Jeppe.
The Visa Diving Shop by Cabana Hotel was completely gone. A huge compressor, dive equipment, tanks and weights was no where to be seen. The only thing left was the concrete floor. Last night we met Caroline from England, who had been in the shop when the first wave hit, she had told us, that Matt had been washed three hundred meters out into the bay and disappeared, but she had been able to stay on the surface most of the time, she never saw Matt again alive.
If Jeppe, who had been working right next door to the Visa Shop, in the Hippo Dive Shop, had been sitting there, he was dead. I was already thinking about what to say to his parents in Denmark but cut the thought out, he had to be alive, I could not face his parents with this.
Ian and I walked towards the Island Divers Shop, where Frank had been working. The shop was wrecked inside but the main structure was still standing, and so was the big guy from Denmark, Frank, right next to the shop. What a relief to see him alive! Frank knew where Jeppe had been staying and we went through the devastated streets to find him. A guy from Hippo Divers yelled my name and told me, that Jeppe was alive and ok, I almost started to cry when I heard that. The guy pointed in one direction and Jeppe came walking towards us. Not many times have I been this happy to see a friend. He was a bit hurt on the arm but nothing major.
When the first wave had hit, he had been in the Hippo Divers Shop and the water was rising and rising. At first, he had stood on a chair, then on the desk but the water had pushed him towards the ceiling. Desperately trying to knock a hole in the ceiling, the water had continued to rise and the thought, now it is all over, had crossed his mind when he realized the ceiling was stronger than his knuckles. All of a sudden the water went down and he ran towards the Cabana Hotel when the second wave had hit.
He was still shaken, like most of us, and wanted to go to the View Point on the hill and wait for evacuation off the island. He had a huge cut on his arm and was unable to use it. Frank, Ian and I wanted to see if we could help some more people. Jeppe and I agreed to meet by my bungalow exactly 5 p.m.. Frank, Ian and I went back towards the Cabana Hotel and the helicopter pad, looking for people we could help, but most wounded had been evacuated during the night and the rest lying in fallen down buildings, were dead. Around the beach were more dead persons lying with a sheet covering their faces. We went up to the View Point to see if anybody needed to be carried down towards the helicopters but everyone there were ok, just waiting to get off the island. We went back to the Cabana Hotel, this was the only place we knew there was food and water, and one of the only places standing. We knew this was strong enough in case another wave would come, a thought that was constantly in the back of our minds.
Frank went out of the hotel to go to his bungalow and get some things, he would be back in one hour. Two minutes later an American woman came to the room and told us, we had to leave and go to the boat to get evacuated. She was very disappointed when I told her, we were not leaving without our friends Jeppe and Frank and all my belongings in my bungalow. She tried to convince us several times but with no success. Not knowing what to do we went back to my bungalow the get my stuff. Most of the bungalows had been broken into, maybe to see if any people were alive, most things lying around, were untouched.
Out of nowhere Jeppe came walking towards my bungalow with his backpack and a life jacket in his hand, he was in survival mode, like most of us left alive. He was depressed. When I had packed my things, we went back to meet Frank through the reception in my guesthouse. The guy who owned the guesthouse, was lying in the reception with a sheet covering his face. The day before I had been talking to him about a good price for the bungalow. He was in his sixties, always walking around with glasses on and no shirt. We stepped over him to get out but too much debris was in the way, we had to walk back and had to step over him one more time to find another way out….
Sweating we arrived at the Cabana Hotel where we were waiting for Frank who had not come back even though the hour had long gone. The hotel had a bad feeling to it and we didn’t wanted to wait there. Jeppe wanted to see the Hippo Divers Shop where he almost lost his life just thirty hours earlier, and Ian and I did not want to stay any longer around the hotel. We were all very shaken when we sat around the fallen walls of the dive-shop. Behind the shop was another dead person but at this moment, I was familiar with the sight of dead bodies, but not used to it. An arm was sticking out and I did not want to see if I could see any more of the persons body. It was weird to sit and talk less than twenty meters away from a dead body, but what could we do. On the beach was another three-four dead bodies and some others were pulled out of the water by army guys.
It had been about three hours since we should have meet Frank but he never showed up, so we took the last ferry towards Phuket around 3.30 p.m.
Ian, Jeppe and I were very depressed, very tired and were all the time on the edge to a major brake down, when the ferry pulled away from the island. A dead dog was floating in the water when we passed some debris. Only few words was spoken between us, we were all in a state of shock.
After we had arrived in Phuket Town and stepped off the ferry, a team of nurses asked if we were ok. I knotted with out saying anything, I was very depressed. A friend of mine from Germany, Adi, who had worked with me on Phi Phi Island, meet us at the ferry. He had been on vacation in Phuket when the tsunami had hit and still had all his things. He wanted to go back to the island the help out, but was not allowed by the police.
We were pointed out to a pickup truck with a group of French people when a Thai lady came running towards us. Her face was desperate and she had been crying. In her hand she held a photo of two girls around twelve years old and asked, if we had seen them. I could tell the photo was taken on Phi Phi Island. I had to hold back my tears when I shook my head, I could do nothing, I was helpless like the woman with the photo. The pickup truck took off leaving the crying woman behind.
At the evacuation center in Phuket Town the truck stopped and every one got off. It was crowded and we didn’t want to get in a line to give information about us. We all, except Ian, had our passports and he didn’t care if he got a new one today or tomorrow, so we took a taxi to Kata Beach to try to get some sleep.
After a shower, a sleepless hour and another shower we meet up at our local bar. No one had heard anything from Frank but we knew he would meet us here if he was ok. A couple of hours later and loads of beers, Frank stepped into the bar. The American lady from the Cabana Hotel, had convinced him to go to the ferry after he got his things, and had said, that we would be on the ferry. However, we never got on that ferry because we were waiting for him.
We called our families and friends, to let them know, we survived one of the worlds biggest natural disasters in history, killing over 230,00 people in fourteen countries.
I was ok and not hurt on the outside of my body, on the inside I was a wreck…