In the instant before the water swept over the land, her father rushed into the house to warn her. "Get out," he shouted. "Run. " Kanchlee Oonmanil ran, and she lived...
NAMKIM, Thailand — In the instant before the water swept over the land, her father rushed into the house to warn her. “Get out,” he shouted. “Run.”
Kanchlee Oonmanil ran, and she lived. She raced up the hill as the wave demolished everything behind her, flinging fishing boats onto the shore like toys. Her father, meanwhile, ran to warn cousins living nearby.
No one has seen him since — not in the hospitals, not in the open-air morgues. Not among the bodies strewn in the muck in the wasted village of Namkim, once home to 2,000 families and now a graveyard for more than 600 people.
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There is no census for the dead. Three days after a tsunami ravaged coastal communities from Indonesia to East Africa in one of the most lethal natural disasters in modern history, information about those who died remains sketchy, but certain patterns have emerged:
The waves arrived on a Sunday morning, when most children were not in school, leaving coastal-dwelling youngsters free to play by the water. UNICEF officials said Tuesday that up to one-third to half of the dead may be children.
Elderly Thais died disproportionately, according to officials at hospitals and morgues, suggesting that people who could run more swiftly had a better chance of escape. Men also died in greater numbers, because they tend to work by the water.
The tsunami brought catastrophe to some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable communities, including subsistence-fishing villages and transient seaside settlements where people without the means to build homes of brick and mortar fashioned flimsy shelters from bamboo, thatch and aluminum sheets.
Although much attention has focused on the thousands of foreign tourists who died while vacationing on Asia’s white-sand beaches, the disaster overwhelmingly affected local residents who occupy marshy scraps of undeveloped land with no protection from the sea’s wrath.
Within these coastal communities, the difference between living and dying was often determined by panicky, split-second decisions or small twists of fate.
The dead were closer to the water or farther from the door. They were the ones like Kanchlee Oonmanil’s father, who tried to help friends and relatives, or who did not immediately heed entreaties to run or who heard them an instant too late. They were the ones who hesitated, torn between the impulse to flee and the fear of losing their belongings.
Namkim in Phangnga province — the hardest-hit region in Thailand — was settled decades ago by tin miners. The mines have long since been exhausted, and residents shifted to fishing, work generally pursued by men. More than 500 of the bodies extricated from the muddy wreckage this week have been men, according to police.
Most fishermen spend their nights at sea, casting nets for tuna and squid. By 10 a.m. Sunday, when the first warnings came, the men had returned and unloaded their catch. Some were having a meal or a cup of coffee; others were perhaps tinkering with gear.
“Fishermen, they have no fear about the sea, so they couldn’t believe all the shouting,” said Talinee Chuwanakit, a woman who sold shredded coconut in the village market. “They stayed behind and they worked on their engines.”
Talinee said she was tending her market stall in the center of town when she saw people running and heard shouts of “Water! Water!” She fled immediately.
Yesterday, she returned to survey the wreckage. Entering her stall, she bowed slightly toward a photograph on the wall and placed her palms together in a Thai gesture of reverence. It was the face of a famous Buddhist monk, she explained, and the reason she had survived.
“Because of his protection,” she said.
The location of her business also appeared to be a factor. Talinee’s stall was at the center of the market, away from the surrounding concrete walls. The path up the hill lay straight ahead.
“As soon as I got outside, I saw that the water had already swept in on both sides of the market,” she said.
Two of Talinee’s friends — who worked in another row, up against the market wall — did not make it out in time. One was a 65-year-old woman who sold chicken and chili paste, the other a 50-year-old woman who sold pork. A third vendor one stall away from her, a 70-year-old man who sold vegetables, also died. He was in good health and could move fast, she said, but he made a bad calculation.
“He didn’t believe the warnings,” Talinee said. “He was worried about his stuff, thinking about business. I ran, he stayed.”
Supon Panjarat, another villager, did not hesitate when he heard the shouting. He grabbed his wife and headed for their motorbike, but the engine did not start right away, according to a family friend.
The wave hit the couple before the bike could move. Supon was flung through the window of a nearby house and out the other side, the friend said. Floating in the water, he grabbed an empty plastic jug and bobbed like a cork as he was swept along. He landed in mud a quarter-mile away, alive.
But Supon’s wife has yet to be found. She lost a leg in a car accident 15 years ago, limiting her ability to swim. For three days, the family has been searching.
Although the line between life and death was often accidental, the general poverty of the villagers made them all vulnerable to seaborne danger.
Kanchlee and her parents, for example, were landless. They rented a house next to the pier and earned about $8 a day selling plates of rice and noodles to the fishermen who tied up their brightly painted vessels there.
When the water came, there was only one way out: up a narrow road lined with engine-repair stalls.
Yesterday, the people of Namkim were reminded once more how close is the sea’s danger and how slim the avenue of escape. As rescue workers hacked at the boards of a collapsed house, hoping to extricate a woman who was reportedly still alive, more than 100 people gathered to watch.
The onlookers were buoyed by word that, three days after the tsunami, someone was going to be rescued from the rubble, someone whose body would not need to be wrapped in a sheet and driven to the morgue in a pickup.
But when they heard faint squeals from the ruins, the crowd realized that the only life below belonged to a piglet. The woman was dead. When the workers pulled the animal out, some people smiled or laughed with a hint of survivor’s pride: So much death around us, but we are still alive.
Then, in an instant, everything changed again. Someone shouted that the waves were coming back, and hundreds of people began running up the road as fast as they could. Some jumped into pickups and then panicked as they encountered other vehicles coming down the hill. “Go back! Go back! Water!” the drivers shouted.
It was a false alarm, but the jumble of trucks pulled out hurriedly as police officers whistled at the incoming vehicles to turn back. In the open backs, people held hands and hugged, exchanging looks of terror.