Yesterday I had a very rewarding but very sad day. At the Patong hospital last night they said there were a lot of injured foreigners so I started to go there on my motorbike. But I passed the Phuket...

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Editor’s note: Bob Stenehjem, 57, is a Seattle native and a merchant seaman who was vacationing in Thailand when the tsunami hit there. This is an excerpt from an e-mail provided by friends and published with his permission.


I had a very rewarding but very sad day. At the Patong hospital last night they said there were a lot of injured foreigners so I started to go there on my motorbike. But I passed the Phuket International Hospital and decided to pull in there to see if they needed any help.

The lobby was chaos. I went up to a long table full of phones and people and asked what they needed. The people at the table looked majorly overwhelmed. The lady asked what languages I spoke, and I told her a little Spanish, fairly good American Sign Language and English. She said sit here and answer phones.

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I had a list of 575 people who were injured, listed by country. I also had a list of hundreds missing, and there is a whole wall full of photos of entire families, people from all over the world who are missing and most likely dead. The list of the dead was at another table.

So I answered the phone and looked up names of the people the callers were looking for. None of the people they were looking for were there, and I gave them numbers of other hospitals.

I met four or five other volunteers at my table: a man from Germany, a Swiss woman, an English woman, a Swedish man.

A man from the Kuwait consulate office in Bangkok and another from Bahrain’s were looking for anybody from their countries. They didn’t know where all the hospitals were, so I told them I was going to the Patong Hospital later and I would check the list of patients and their huge list of dead for any of their countryman.

It turned out that there weren’t any at Patong, but there were about 65 unknown dead. The list of the dead there was 160 names with countries listed. Two Americans, five Canadians, most from Europe and many Thais.

After two hours at the Phuket International Hospital I was bored, as not many people were calling. Then I noticed a woman in her mid-30s who had been sitting with three kids in their teens. One daughter was in a wheelchair with a very bloody bandage on a large leg wound. The mother was pacing around, and I could tell she was freaking out.

Then she came up to the table and sort of lost it. Screaming, she said she needed someone to change the bandages on her daughter’s leg. A hospital woman said the mother still had to deal with her consul. Then the mother freaked out big time.

So I got up and asked her to sit down with me and explain exactly what she needed. She said she was Swedish, her children were English and the whole family was washed out to sea about a two-hour drive north of Phuket. They were staying on the beach in a bungalow that was sucked out to sea. Her husband had drowned; they found his body last night.

They only had the clothes on their backs. She said the Swedish officials were telling her she had to deal with the English. Her daughter needed help, and nobody would give it. I calmed her down, got her some ice water and told her to sit with her kids. I told her I would do her yelling for her.

There was a embassy phone list, and I called the English consulate and told them the story. They sent a very nice woman from the office in Bangkok. She was very helpful and said she would take care of all the passport issues for both countries.

So that made my day right there. It was still so very sad, as her kids had the thousand-yard stare. In major shock.

I went back to my table and looked at the patient list and wrote down room numbers to see what any of them needed.

One room I visited had a woman lying in bed, a daughter all bandaged up on a cot and a son in a cast on another bed. They were from Norway, and it was the girl’s 13th birthday. I asked them where they had been. Kamala Bay north of Patong, walking on the beach, when they were slammed up on the rocks and then dragged out to sea. They still have not found their father. Mom started crying but neither child did. They looked numb. They have family members arriving tonight to take them home.

I had seen a pizza place close by so I asked if they would like one. The birthday girl smiled. So I went and got them a big pizza and ate it with them.

In the next room there were four people from Switzerland. Dad and mom were in their 70s, and their son and his wife were maybe in their 40s. The younger wife was hurt the worst. She had had surgery on her legs. Her husband was bandaged up and bruised, as were mom and dad.

They were eating breakfast a block off Patong Beach when the first wave hit and shoved them through the restaurant into the street. Then they were dragged down the street when the wave went back out to sea. Then the big one came in.

They were all split up, swimming and trying to grab onto anything. The older man grabbed something but was shocked by some electric wires. He still held on, and Mom grabbed him. Their children were slammed about a block down the street, banging into floating cars and motorbikes.

The son saw a boat, jumped onto it and floated off. When the water receded they all found each other and carried the daughter down the street and waited for help. An American doctor drove up in a huge Jeep and took them to the hospital.

I asked what they needed. All their passports and money were in a safe in their hotel room, which luckily was on the second floor.

I told them I would go and check it out. I found the hotel, and it was in the major damage zone. There was a guard at the makeshift gate, several overturned cars on the grounds plus furniture, etc. Totally full of junk. I found out all the safes were put in one room with a guard in front. We called the hospital, and the Swiss family was very glad to know all their stuff was OK.

At the Patong hospital there’s a huge tent set up with hundreds of phones to call anywhere in the world for free. A young couple from Germany came up to me and asked if I knew where they could help. They were pre-med students and had just flown in from Germany. They had not even found a room yet, and the first place they went was somewhere to help. I suggested Phuket International Hospital, as I had heard earlier they needed blood badly but didn’t have enough trained people to draw it.

They said they could do that, so I got them the address and off they went.

I guess disasters bring out the best in people, and I saw it all day. I saw 40 to 50 tourists making piles of broken-up furniture and destroyed boats. There are tourists on the streets collecting money and clothes.

I fly out to Bangkok on Thursday. Now I almost wish I was staying, as these people in the hospitals were so glad just to talk with someone. I gave my card to most of them, and I think I have some e-mail friends for life.