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Boxing Day Tsunami Survivors Tell Their Remarkable Stories Of Courage And Loss 10 Years On

19/12/2014 17:46 GMT | Updated 24/12/2014 14:59 GMT

This report contains graphic details

The tsunami that ravaged the coasts of the Indian ocean on Boxing Day 2004 is still fresh in the minds of millions.

Over 150 Britons lost their lives in the catastrophe, while some are still unaccounted for. In all, 10,000 British nationals are believed to have been in areas directly affected when the wall of water hit.

2004 tsunami

The Sumatran village of Kuede Teunom was devastated by the waves after the 9.1-magnitude earthquake

The deadly waves were triggered by the third largest earthquake ever recorded and smashed the coasts of 14 countries, killing 230,000 people, with Thailand, Sri Lanka and Indonesia worst hit.

For the ten year anniversary this Christmas, survivors and relatives are revealing their ever-fresh memories of that incomprehensible day. They recall the pain, resilience and perspective that has marked their lives since.

luke and piers

Luke [right] and his brother Piers

LUKE SIMON, then 30, was teaching on the Thai islands of Phi Phi when the tsunami hit. His brother Piers, 33, was killed in the disaster.

The Simon family set up the Piers Simon Appeal. Its flagship project is School in a Bag.

“We hadn’t seen the sea at all that morning. The first thing we knew was when people came running into the café where we were having breakfast, knocking tables, chairs and people over. We couldn’t help but panic, because everyone else was panicking. We joined the masses and ran out of the back of the café, into the market.

Outside, there was chaos. People were running in all directions and there was a lot of screaming. It was a like being in a horror movie, but we had no idea what was going on. Someone said in Thai: “Water come, water come.”

Ahead of us, the shoreline was bubbling and boiling. One wave had struck and refracted around the headland, forming another wave of about seven metres high that came from the opposite direction, smashing resorts to smithereens. It was suddenly really, really windy.

We ran down an avenue of shops, and the last thing I remember shouting was that everyone had to get high up, and then I was on the tin roof of a garage. I can’t remember getting up: it was one of those moments when your body takes over.

"I was just pulling at this hand underwater"

"When it reached us, the wave wasn’t water. It had ripped everything out of the ground: corrugated iron, glass, door frames fridges microwaves, sewage, trees. I’ve always described it as moving landfill.

Sophie, the girl I was seeing at the time, was pinned between two walls below the roof I was on. She says my brother Piers was underneath her, trying to hoist her up.

I tried to pull Sophie up, but the water and debris rose up her body, up her neck and up her face, and then over her arm. Then I was just pulling at this hand underwater. The whole thing happened in around three or four seconds. Somehow, miraculously, something dislodged her, sucked her down and then spat her out further down the alleyway.

I was quite lucky in a sense, because I was so focused on Sophie and Sophie survived. If I was more aware of my surroundings, I might have seen Piers get struck and get swept away, and that would have been much harder for me to deal with.

I got Sophie up onto a high roof and could see my friends Ben and Nick were safe. “Where’s Piers?” I said. No-one knew. He was gone.

At that point, the island was pretty quiet. I found myself shouting Piers’ nickname: Lloyd. We spent about an hour up there, shouting. My brain started to put together sentences of things that I would say at Piers’ funeral. I couldn’t stop myself, it was very strange.

luke and piers

Luke and Piers in 2002. The brothers were "very close"

"I thought he would have clung on to a building somewhere and would then make his way to the hills, as we did. “We’ll meet him up there,” I said. I realised straight away that I might not find him alive, but I knew that we had to constantly remain hopeful.

Piers and I were very, very similar and very close. We lived together, worked together and played together. We never really settled down with anyone, because we had each other. When we left home and lived together, we joked that we needed an engagement party so we could get some stuff for the house.

Our search for Piers lasted five days. The Thai people are amazing; they handed us polystyrene pots of food and leant us mobile phones. A girl who was helping me had lost 20 members of her own family.

On Phi Phi, 1,500 people died and between 600 and 700 were never found, so we were very lucky to find Piers.

A friend phoned and said he thought body number 199 in a makeshift morgue was wearing the pale blue shorts Piers had on – my shorts in fact. We then had a very strange conversation about the difference between sky blue, navy blue and midnight blue. In the end, it wasn’t Piers. I heard cheering on the other end of Mum and Dad’s line when I delivered that news.

Then we had to sit down in the morgue and watch a slideshow of dead bodies. It was a more dignified way of lifting up plastic sheeting and looking at them. If a body had the wrong colour t-shirt, we didn’t look. We were chatting away, and then body 348 came up. It had a red Oakley t-shirt, and I just said: “Oh.”

I wanted to see him, but a forensics woman said: “No, you’re not going. That doesn’t have to be the last image that you have of Piers.” I didn’t have the energy to fight, and in hindsight, I think she’s done me a lot of favours.

When you drown, your body becomes a sponge; you absorb everything, so most bodies in the morgue didn’t look like people. I knew where Piers had moles, I knew where he had scars, and my friend Ben who confirmed the body said you couldn’t see any of that. He did say that Piers’ neck was very badly cut, and that’s probably what killed him.

Then I had to make the call back home – I heard Dad kind of groan a bit. “What do we do now?” he asked. I said: “Well, the job continues really.” I had to contact the embassy, get a death certificate and get him home.

"I thought the anniversary might come and go quietly, but it’s not going to."

"When I met Mum and Dad at Heathrow I knew I wanted to use the media coverage to raise money to help. We’d had amazing help from a developing country that had been smashed by the tsunami – Phi Phi was just annihilated. We created the Piers Simon Appeal, which funds projects like School in a Bag, sending school equipment to orphaned children in Swaziland.

Ten years on, I see the tsunami how I’ve always seen it. My memories of those five days are still fairly vivid, I guess because I’ve told the story so many times. I’m very lucky that I don’t have a problem talking about it.

There are so many stories that it has become one of those things you want to commemorate. It’s a bit like 9/11 but on a much greater scale because of the volume of people that were affected – not only the people that died. There are a huge number of people in Scandinavia who were massively affected by a tsunami in the Indian Ocean [there were over 500 Swedish victims].

Our family is very tight-knit, and some people think that that must mean Piers’s death is harder to deal with, but we think it makes it easier. Piers and I did so much together in our 30 years, more than some people do in a lifetime.

The word closure bugs me, really, because you don’t get it. Where’s the closure? He’s died. I guess we almost defy closure because we have a charity that runs in his memory and in his name. It’s generating his legacy.

My brain has done a really good job of shutting out the “What ifs,” to the point where I don’t even think I’ve started grieving yet. I’ve cried a couple of times, but the truth is that from 10.36am on Boxing Day 2004, we’ve had a job to do.

The first job was looking for Piers, the second job was getting him home, and the third has been running the charity. It’s been getting busier and busier, and the job continues.”

olivia seddon

Olivia, from London, witnessed waves destroying her hotel in Sri Lanka

OLIVIA SEDDON, then 17, was at a beachside hotel with her parents in Sri Lanka when they were trapped by the tsunami.

She now works as a volunteer coordinator for a national charity and is training to become a psychotherapist.

“Ten years feels significant. Ten is a nice round number, it almost feels like something should be coming to an end, but it's still such an important part of my life.

I am a bit nervous talking about this, like I won’t do the experience justice. I feel that I got away so lightly – I wasn’t even in the water – that I don’t have the right.

I found the first anniversary difficult. I was working in a pub at the time, and chose to work all day to keep busy.

I don’t like being caught off guard with it, so when I see something in the news about it I find it quite jolting. It’s hard to connect what I’m reading with my own experience. So much has happened in ten years: I was 17 when it happened and I’m 27 now and my life has changed completely. But at the same time, it was a very defining moment. I think of my life almost as pre-tsunami and post-tsunami.

I think about it most days, usually in quite a fleeting way. Something will remind me of it, or I’ll just remember it – sometimes I think it’s like a habit that won’t go away. I used to have very intrusive memories that lasted for a few years, and now the thoughts are still there but their effect on me has decreased.

I fell in love with Sri Lanka before the tsunami happened – in that week of our family holiday I had already decided it was somewhere that I’d like to go back to.

We got to the beach on Christmas day and we were going to spend a week or so there before flying home. My memories of Boxing Day are actually very patchy. I have a few very strong images, but the timeline is confused.

I woke up in the morning and thought there had been a big storm. Some of the sunbeds were overturned and the pool was muddy. I didn’t know at the time that the first of eight waves had hit.

eden hotel

The Eden Hotel in Sri Lanka before the tsunami hit

"I’ve never actually spoken to my parents about the experience to confirm what happened and what didn’t happen. I think was with my Dad, eating breakfast down by the pool. We heard this roaring noise and it got louder, and louder.

I looked up and through the trees and could see this massive white horse – the wave – coming towards us. My dad just said “leave your food, run.” We ran and managed to get up to the second floor of the hotel. There were eight waves and the third crashed completely through the ground and first floors below us.

I don't know if the people on the floors below us survived, but I think quite a few people did manage to get up high, because that first wave might have been a warning sign.

One moment that stays with me is when the wave crashed through the floors below. Hearing the glass shatter and people screaming, and at that point realising “this is really bad, my life is in danger.” Seeing people climbing trees and seeing people swept away. Hearing people screaming in different languages and not understanding. You heard that scream that people only have when their life is in danger.

"We had absolutely no idea it had affected the whole Indian Ocean."

"We were trapped on the second floor, looking on, for about eight hours. I was feeling absolutely terrified and the waves were getting bigger. We knew if that water reached us we didn’t really stand a chance. We were so lucky that the hotel we were in was a big modern building with strong foundations. I was really anxious that the foundations would go at some point because we were just being pummeled over and over by the water.

To get out of the hotel, we just had to chance it when the waves got smaller and further apart. We had a driver on the holiday and he was the only person we knew in Sri Lanka, so my dad rang him. At that point we thought the waves might have just affected our part of the beach, we had absolutely no idea it had affected the whole Indian Ocean. Our driver was amazing. His own brother’s house had been destroyed but he still drove to the hotel to help us.

I remember looking out of the back of the hotel and seeing devastation - everything looked flattened - yet somehow we still manages to drive to Colombo. That's one of the memories that struggle to make sense of. We were very lucky to get on one of the first rescue flights to the UK.

Back at school, my memory was terrible. I was having driving lessons and I remember getting back in a car and just forgetting how to drive. When I went to pay for things with my debit card, I’d forgotten my pin number.

I decided to have therapy about three months later. It wasn’t getting better, it was getting worse. I didn’t feel the need to talk about it; it was more like I’d heard therapy could help. It was almost a last resort. The tsunami was quite an isolating experience. I knew that people close to me were upset to think of what I’d been through, and I didn’t want to upset them even more.

Water was a trigger for me for a while, and big patches of water still arouse memories because they seem so powerful. But once the experience became less raw, I was able to control my own thoughts and feelings.

I knew quite early on afterwards that I wanted to go back, because of the devastation that I’d seen and feeling so lucky and guilty that I survived. A year later, on my gap year, I went back and volunteered in an orphanage and spent time going to the tsunami camps. I’ve been back three times since, so I still feel bonded to the country.

Life still feels quite fragile, I definitely don’t feel invincible. It’s left me with a fear of flying and of being in cars – it’s sometimes just as simple as being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

When the waves came, there was a really big rock out to sea which took some of the brunt of their force. If that rock wasn’t there, or I wasn’t able to run as fast as I could, it could have been so different. I still struggle with guilt that we survived when others didn’t, which sounds almost ungrateful.

But something I want to emphasis it that positives have come out of the situation as well: I have perspective. As long as I am happy and healthy that’s fine. That’s all I need. It sounds trite but I guess I have an appreciation for life and I don’t take it for granted. I am genuinely grateful every day that I’m here.”

natural history museum tsunami

STEVE GILL is co-chair of Tsunami Support UK, a group for people affected by the tsunami. The group was founded by the Red Cross and Steve helped to continue it after losing his wife, Heather.

After helping to set up the memorial to British victims in the Natural History Museum, the group will wind down in Spring 2015.

“Exactly how I got out is still a mystery to me. I was actually under the waves and was swept away, and to all intents and purposes I had accepted that I was dead.

I was in Phuket, Thailand, with my wife to meet my new in-laws, because we were very recently married. It was a kind of second honeymoon. We were on a bungalow on the beach when the waves hit, and she was killed.

It happened, and I know for a fact that it will always be part of my life. It is difficult for people who are now part of my life who were not involved, because they have to accept that there is something that they can’t fully relate to that has a major impact on me and the way I think.

Most people who look at the tsunami from the outside don’t really understand, and that’s one of the main reasons our organisation was created. It gave people somewhere to come and talk about what happened to them - to people who understood, to whom they did not need to explain.

Initially when our meetings took place, they were quite happy occasions. I know it sounds quite strange to say that. The feeling of release was so great, and planning the memorial at the Natural History Museum gave people something to concentrate on.

The need for support gets less and less as the event recedes into the past – we’ll have our last meeting next Spring. As an organistion, we’d like to be completely redundant. If we’re needed, it’s because people are still suffering and still unable to cope, and above all desperately need someone to talk to. Lots of our members were not actually there for the tsunami. They are relatives who lost someone and saw it on the news, and had a lot of loose ends to tie up in terms of relationships: things they didn’t say or things they didn’t do.

With survivor organisations for other events, there’s often something to fight for. With an air disaster, or an insurance case, there’s a legal process to go through: but you can’t sue a tsunami. There’s nobody to blame for what happened. The impact is no less, but there’s nowhere to put the anger that is part of the grieving process.

natural history museum tsunami

The permanent memorial at the Natural History Museum commemorates all the dead

"Grief varies from person to person. Some of the differences manifest themselves in the break-up of families. For example, if a child is lost and the parents don’t seem to be able to match their grief together.

It would be very simplistic to say that people move on. I think what happens is that your life moves on, whether you like it or not. The more time you spend on the earth, the more different people you meet and the more connections you develop.

And so if you find yourself living your life to the full, inevitably the tsunami will take up a smaller portion of your concentration, time and emotions. But for the kids who have lost parents, when they graduate from university or get married, the person who should be making the speech will not be there. That peculiarly shaped hole in your life is the thing that no amount of talking to somebody else will help with.

I found it quite difficult to a certain degree to get back in water after the tsunami. One of the things that struck me when I was back in England was that all of the water on the planet is connected. We use different names but it’s all just one big body of water. I’d been a diver for years and I absolutely love the ocean. I had to reconcile that, and ask if I wanted to give up enjoying and exploring six sevenths of the world because of this. So, I went back a year after and deliberately snorkeled at the same bay where the waves had hit. It needed to be done.”

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John May searched for his daughter Lisa in Thailand

JOHN MAY, then 56, lost his daughter Lisa on the Phi Phi Islands in Thailand where his other daughter, Nicola, had just been married.

Lisa was setting off on a trip around the world, but was caught up in the Boxing Day tsunami.

After bringing her body home, the former mayor of Surrey Heath founded The Lisa May foundation with his family to raise money for those affected by the disaster.

“Most people don’t talk about it when they lose people, particularly children. You always think your children are going to live longer than you. It gives me some comfort that when people hear I have a daughter who died in the tsunami, they say “oh yeah my daughter died in a car crash”, or “my son had a brain hemorrhage”, and you would never know. They keep it to themselves.

In 2004, we’d had a few fantastic days in a 5-star resort, for my daughter Nicola’s wedding. My other daughter Lisa was a bridesmaid. Although she was 25, Lisa hadn’t really been travelling, so she stayed on Phi Phi to start a round-the-world trip. She’d sold her car, given up her flat and got rid of all her possessions, to maximise the money she had.

We left Lisa with massive baggage to carry: it was so heavy that I took some of her things out and brought them home with me, and waved her off.

We were expecting to hear from her over the Christmas period and we woke up on Boxing Day to find out there had been this massive tsunami. And then of course, your hearts are in your throat.

natural history museum tsunami

Lisa May was planning a trip around the world

"We phoned the consulate and all that sort of thing, but of course they were all on holiday, so I decided to just get on the first plane I could and get out there.

From then on I don’t think my phone was off. I was basically waiting for a call until we found her and brought her home in the January, which was pretty harrowing.

With Steve, Nicola’s new husband, I went onto Phi Phi and got kitted out with SARS masks, because of the stench of the bodies in the heat, and started walking around the debris.

At this point it had certainly hit me that Lisa might be dead. We searched all the photos of lost and found people, those [message] boards, and we hadn’t found anything. We started looking where we thought she [might have been] in the rubble, but there were already a lot of body bags lined up on the quay, being shipped back to Phuket to put in a morgue.

"I felt in a state of numbness. It's difficult to talk about, even though it's ten years on."

"We found out from one of Lisa’s friends that she had broken one of her front teeth when she was malarking around before Boxing Day, so she had been to a local dentist and there was an up-to-date picture of her teeth. We went to find the dentist and get a copy.

We went to the morgue in an old temple in Phuket, had DNA swabs done, and handed over all the records. At the same time, they put up a list of bodies and what they were wearing. One of my daughters recognised [that] some of Lisa’s clothing was listed.

Lisa May sounds very much like a Thai name: Lisa sounds Thai, and May sounds Chinese, so the authorities thought she was not a farang - the Thai word for European. They had moved her body to a cemetery, which I went to with my brother who had flown in from Los Angeles. That’s when I sort of freaked. A JCB had basically dug a mass grave, and they had all these bodies wrapped in white in the grave alongside each other. They hadn’t filled it in yet, thank God.

I felt in a state of numbness. The bodies were awful, they were like Buddhas, almost, and blown up. They were all sort of purple and green, because they were obviously rotting.

It was surreal, like you were on another planet, but everyone was rushing around. All I can remember was the smell of the morgue.

I got the people from the high commission to start [talking] in Thai, and they arranged to remove Lisa’s body from the grave and shipped back to the UK. It’s not very easy to talk about, to tell you the truth, even though it’s ten years on.

Throughout, I was feeling extremely tired. I’d left my phone on for weeks, just in case Lisa called, but the press would keep calling me to ask if I’d found her - trying to get a bit of a scoop, bless them. They meant well. Every time I’d fall asleep, I’d get another call. But the adrenaline kept me going, and I suppose the purpose did too - we have to find her, we have to get her body home, we have to have a church service and say goodbye.

We were able to do that by mid January, and it was after the hiatus died down that the real grief seemed to come at you in waves. You thought, my goodness, it could have been even worse as we might never have found her.

I think [saying goodbye] was very important. It was important for all her friends: a month before they had waved her off, and suddenly she’s back in a casket.

We decided that the best thing to do was to set up a charitable foundation to try to help restore life to some normality in Thailand. We were one of the groups first in with the money, and raised around £60,000 in the first six months. It bought around 39 boats for fisherman to get back to work, and we put some physiotherapists out there and tried to help with things like school uniforms and fresh water. Small things, but everything we could do with the money we put together.

lisa may boat

A fishing boat marked with Lisa's name, donated by the Lisa May Foundation

"I know the charity helped with my grief. One felt one was doing something, and we’ve really kept that going. We still support other natural disasters as we can, but when I was mayor of Surrey Heath I saw so many local charities that needed help, so we continue to help them through the Lisa May foundation.

It is quite amazing how all of those areas in Thailand have recovered. The hotel that we were staying at for the wedding is back as good as new. The Thais are very resilient people, and they have this reincarnation concept so they simply accept things.

It was a shocking one for us all, but I don’t think we’re still shocked any more. Members of the family all deal with it in different ways: some want to be quiet, some want to be raucous. At Lisa’s birthday every year the whole family eats chocolate cake, because she loved chocolate cake.

We do always have this period up to Boxing Day where you feel sort of sad, but you feel slightly elated that you’re still doing things and trying to keep everybody together.

I occasionally talk to people whose sons and daughters are doing the same as Lisa did out there, sitting on the beach at Phi Phi, sending postcards to their friends saying 'this is a wonderful idyllic place'. It brings me comfort in a funny sort of way: it says that life has to go on. Lisa was in the wrong place at the wrong time and hopefully those other young people will go on, and will succeed.”

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