They were supposed to be relaxing on the beach or playing a round of golf on yet another sunny day of vacation on their refuge from the harsh winter of Norway. Instead, Leif Giske and...
PHUKET, Thailand — They were supposed to be relaxing on the beach or playing a round of golf on yet another sunny day of vacation on their refuge from the harsh winter of Norway. Instead, Leif Giske and his wife stood on the concrete driveway of a hospital amid the stench of corpses at an overflow morgue.
They lifted the blue plastic sheeting that wrapped one of the bodies, then recoiled at the sight: It was their niece, bloated from the waters that claimed her.
“This is incredible,” Giske said. “I’m having trouble believing this.”
A day after a series of devastating tsunamis swept over the coconut palms fringing the beaches of this Southeast Asian island, rescue workers continued to extract bodies from a landscape of waste — from collapsed buildings, and from the shores, where each incoming tide deposited a fresh harvest of dead.
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“When you hear the sirens now, it’s only dead people coming in,” said Ed Plunkett, a volunteer coordinator at the Patong Hospital. “No more injured. Just dead.”
Hospital staff loaded bodies into plywood coffins as relatives kneeled next to their dead. A German man in a blue tank top stepped gingerly through the checkerboard of corpses, pausing at a wall of photos, faces of the dead connected to misshapen bodies. He bent closer, seeking, then he shook his head and walked away.
A woman in blue surgical scrubs and mask bent over the body of a 4-year-old Thai girl with a beaded bracelet on her left wrist. She rubbed baby powder into the girl’s creamy skin, then ran a comb through her wet black hair.
The adults lying dead all around were contorted and grotesque, their misshapen features seemingly attesting to lives taken violently, against their will. The girl’s face was serene, as if she had yielded contentedly to sleep. The woman with the scrubs wrapped a white sheet around her, then used a red magic marker to write an identifying number on the outside. She was corpse number 68.
Giske was on Patong Beach when everything changed. “Suddenly we saw the ocean was disappearing,” he said.
In the span of about 15 seconds, the water simply vanished. The undertow was so powerful that anyone in the water was instantly sucked out, witnesses said. Then came a strange period of calm, the ocean gone, fish flopping on the abandoned sea bed. Some people wandered out for a look.
“Suddenly, we saw this big wave coming,” Giske said. “It took all the yachts and swept them in. We didn’t understand. We were just paralyzed.”
And then they were running full speed toward a hotel above the beach — Giske, his wife and his niece, 32, the mother of two small children.
His wife ran though someone’s first-floor hotel room. He ran to the stairway and got up to the safer ground of the second floor. Where their niece went no one really knows.
As the water crested over the beach, it tore furiously into the shops and hotels on the seaside strip. “Big cars and boats were coming, crashing into the hotel,” Giske said.
He found his wife, alive, after about 10 minutes. They didn’t find their niece. They went to one hospital after another. Yesterday morning, a nurse told them where they might have to look, and they came to the morgue.
A quarter-mile away at the beach, streets were littered with the detritus of the great wave: stray sandals and office furniture, a bench seat pried from a van, a barber chair, the left arm of a mannequin and a pair of trousers on its separated torso. Footprints were pressed deep into drying mud, pointing away from the sea.
Despite the pulverized landscape, Phuket yesterday amounted to a refuge for hundreds of tourists making their way back from outlying islands. Among the hardest hit was Koh Phi Phi, a crescent of land with steep outcroppings towering over jungle stretching to white sand.
For Lisa Reed and Chris Chapman, two British backpackers, Koh Phi Phi was to be a relaxing highlight on a global adventure that has taken them from Latin America to Asia over the past year.
“We’re due back in Wales in February,” said Reed, 24. “Koh Phi Phi sounded beautiful, perfect for Christmas.”
They were in their guesthouse, set about a half-mile back from the beach, when they heard what they described as a terrifying rumbling. Then, they heard screams and saw people running. “Then I looked up and saw water coming down the street destroying everything in its path,” Reed said.
The water reached their second-story room, then flowed back out. Then another wave came, and they realized they had to get out.
A refrigerator was lodged in the corridor along with furniture. The only exit was through the window. They removed slats blocking their path and climbed down, emerging into a scene of carnage. A man with a punctured lung wailed for help. People were stuck in trees, having grabbed them as their boats and bungalows floated past at the high-water mark.
Some tourists set up an impromptu triage unit in a bungalow on higher ground. Reed and Chapman were enlisted to help. He took an ax and detached doors from their frames for backboards. She collected bed sheets and affixed them to poles for use as stretchers.
As night fell Sunday, the island was without electricity and telephone service, they said. Thousands of people hiked up to the high point of the island and lay down in the jungle, passing an uneasy night. Every now and again, someone shouted “snake,” setting off a stampede, Chapman said. They heard people describe how their children had been sucked out to sea before their eyes. They heard husbands ask if anyone had seen their wives.
They had no food, though they did have water. They borrowed someone’s mobile phone and sent text messages to their parents in the United Kingdom letting them know that they were all right.
At first light yesterday, they hiked back down and talked their way on to a ferry to Phuket. They arrived mid-day, exhausted, emotionally battered but happy to have survived.
“I guess it will be OK from here,” Reed said, slumped against the wall, tears in her eyes. “I’m just reflecting on how grateful I am.”