Phi Phi Island, Thailand
by Christine Lang
Our stroll down Main Street draws my friend Rubina and I to a souvenir shop cluttered with flip flops, fisherman pants, and incense sticks. I am about to laugh out loud at a kitschy key chain with a portrait of the King of Thailand framed in gold plastic, when I remember Lonely Planet’s advice to never insult the Thai royal family. I imagine the headlines: Kindergarten Teacher Imprisoned for Mocking Beloved Thai King.
I turn away and hunt for a small wooden Buddha statue, similar to one I had admired in Phuket. But to no avail. Phi Phi Island is predominantly Muslim, consequently my little Buddha is nowhere to be found.
My friend Rubina and I flip through postcards on a spinning rack. I finally settle on some stamps and she buys bottled water. We exit the shop and set out in the direction of the pier when we notice something bizarre.
An older Thai woman wearing a sun dress, her hair pulled back in a bun, races from the jewellery store into the street. She’s screaming hysterically in Thai, and carries a plastic bucket, filled with water, which splashes over the sides onto the dusty brick walkway.
“That’s odd,” I say staring at Rubina.
“Yeah, wonder what’s wrong?”
The woman drops her bucket and flees across the road, running inland, away from the beach. We continue to stroll along past the pier where we stepped off the ferry four days ago. Some frightened cats leap squawling across the street in front of us and we see frazzled clerks sprinting from the currency exchange service. Rubina and I stop in our tracks and look around, puzzled at the growing chaos. What’s going on?
Other shop keepers abandon their businesses. As they dart past us, I realize they’re not only running from their shops, but they’re running from the shore too. I glance to the beach. A row of buildings block my view.
What’s happening? Is there a fire? Has a boat crashed into the pier? What are these people running from? I search for information, but there are no clear signs, only mad confusion.
Heart wrenching screams filter the air. I shudder at the terror on the faces of people speeding past, their mouths contorted around panicked cries in a language I do not comprehend. More and more people join the growing hoard. Thunderous footsteps career down the road. The air billows with dust clouds. My mouth is dry. My hands are clammy. Everything has sped up and slowed down all at once.
Survival instinct kicks in; adrenaline pounds through my veins. We’re going to be trampled to death if we don’t depart immediately. A burly Thai fisherman, his eyes wide with terror, shoulder checks me, spinning my body around. I steady myself and look for Rubina. She’s no longer beside me. Disoriented, I search for her but I don’t see her. Was she bowled away by the crowd?
A German man wrenches my arm, screams, “Run!” But I can’t leave without Rubina. I wait for a break in the crowd. It’s clear. I bolt toward the 7-Eleven narrowly dodging a bikini clad tourist. A man in scuba gear sprints toward me and whips past me trampling over my toes. I charge toward the 7-Eleven and arrive underneath the store sign breathless, heart thumping, scanning desperately, but I don’t see Rubina anywhere!
A screaming crowd runs inland and another runs in the direction of the mountains. I focus on my search for Rubina. I see a small shack at the foot of the dock and spot her as she hides behind it. I dart toward her. She doesn’t notice me. She’s gone deathly pale and her wide eyes state toward the beach. I grasp her trembling arm.
“Rubina, come on!” I yell. “We need to run! Now!”
She snaps out of her trance and we run side by side following the stampeding crowd heading inland. I see Thais racing, mostly men, but there’s no instruction, no direction, no one telling us what to do or where to go. What we are running away from? I hear a child shriek. A man yells in Thai. “Where are we going? All I know is that we must flee. The crowd scatters as we race down a road that connects the two beaches. We make a sharp right heading in the direction of the dive shop where we had left my brother, Michael. We pass the Phi Phi Hotel, the only high rise on the island, and arrive at an abandoned intersection.
A massive rumble freezes us to the spot. It swarms the air, engulfs the island and invades my ears like a fleet of jet engines. Is a plane about to crash? I look up. Nothing but the sun in a crystal clear blue sky. The ground suddenly shakes. A bolt shivers up my spine. I tremble. It’s like we’re trapped in a Hollywood blockbuster movie. There’s no escape.
“What about Mike?” Rubina screams, as she stumbles backward across the street. I see a group of tourists rushing into the Phi Phi Hotel.
“What about Mike? What about Mike?” Rubina cries as she steps farther and farther away from me. I stare down the road in the direction of our hotel, at Lo Dolum Bay. Oh my God! A dark monstrous wall of water, two-storey high, is barrelling right for us. I gasp for air and somehow manage to scream for one last time.
“Run, Rubina! Run!” I scream. But Rubina disappears. I charge in the direction of the Ph Phi Hotel as shallow water streams in from the pier side swarming the hotel entrance. It swirls around me, seizing my ankles. I fight to lift my legs in the now knee high water but it’s strong as cement. I’m bolted down. Trapped. Everything around me is flooding in the rising water and the massive wave appears closer and closer. The sound of it is deafening as it looms down the road toward me.
“Mary Mother of God help me!” My final call for help surfaces from the depth of my soul, saved for this final moment. As the water envelopes me, my past flashes before me.
I remember a classroom, lined with rows of little girls sitting at petite desks wearing white starchy blouses and navy blue pleated tunics. My penny loafers side by side with my hands folded ‘to minimize fidgeting.’ I look up at an old but kind face, framed by a habit. Sister Leonita is one of the few nuns left at the school who continues to wear one.
“Girls, listen up. If you are ever caught in a moment of desperation say, ‘Mary Mother of God help me,’ and your prayers will be answered. Over in the convent, this morning, I came across a remarkable story in the newspaper. Not far from here, there was a devastating fire. A young woman was trapped in a burning building, surrounded by mad hot flames. Do you know what she did?”
I put up my hand. “She prayed Sister.”
“Yes dear, she prayed.” She rewards me with a coconut candy wrapped in cellophane. “And girls, what did she say?”
The entire class chants in, “Mary Mother of God help me.”
“That’s right. Now, girls, remember to ask for God’s help when you need it. Pray for me, pray for your parents, and pray for strength.”
Now, trapped in the path of the giant wave, I brace myself for the inevitable and pray! Water blasts into me, swallows me whole, drags me away. I’m completely submerged. I don’t know which direction is up or down. The wave pummels me into the unknown, pulling my limbs in every direction. I’m struck from behind and above. My arms and legs flail helplessly. I’m a rag doll in a washing machine being tossed with the contents of an entire island.
Suddenly the water pressure lessens, but I’m slammed onto the side of a building. Oxygen bubbles rush past me underwater as I hear the screech of metal twisting, the crack of wood breaking, and the crash of buildings collapsing into the water. I open my burning eyes. My face is near the surface. I struggle to push my mouth to the air above, but I can’t move my arms or my legs. I’m pinned between crushing debris. I feel it tearing at my skin. My body caves in, as if I’m wedged between elevator doors. Aching for air, I wiggle my arms, my shoulders, my legs. The debris compresses further, trapping me. The water is now still. I squirm one last time, make one last effort.
Air! I need air. I don’t want to die. My body goes limp. A burn of salty water ricochets through my nose, prickles through me like needles. Death hovers as my mind races, refusing to accept my fate.
I don’t want to die here. There’s so much more I want to do. There’s so much more I want to experience. Am I really drowning? How can this be? God help me, I need air. I need air…
I close my eyes, and see my mother’s face, my mom who’s always been there for me. It brings me comfort. I see my friend Kris as the first time I saw him: smiling brown eyes, toothy grin, dimpled cheeks. I remember our hike up Grouse Mountain, him giving me his hand, pulling me along. I embrace his image with a full heart. I feel at peace…letting go…
Without warning, a second rush of water, more explosive than the first, blasts into my death trap. My arms, my legs are suddenly free! Relief is flushed out by the relentless rush of water gushing over me. The surge storms my body. I’m being tossed again, in some never ending playground ride.
Random objects shoot through the water like arrows. Something hits me on my cheek, my forehead, my chest, but I feel no pain. The sensation of the of the wave overrides all. I try to draw my flailing hands to my face but my arms are yanked from my control, seized by the water.
The current torpedoes me along. I keep my legs streamlined, my arms tight across my chest forcing my face to light. Above, water mixes with air creating spray. I strain upward and gulp it. Something whacks my nose. I manage to cover my face with my hands squeezing my eyes shut. The water is warm. I’m buoyant and pretend to be somewhere else…it’s like I’m on a water slide. I pray the ride is over soon, and surrender as the force of it pushes me along. I slip into unconsciousness. Darkness. Silence.
I wake, underwater, drowning again. My limbs are free. I look above into darkness. I’m down deep. The weight of the water crushes me. Debris boxes me in. I turn left…everything is black. I turn right…there’s a faint circle of light. Instinct guides me to swim! Swim! Swim for your life! Adrenaline fuels me and I sever a path through the filthy, now motionless, water. Swim! Swim! Swim! I kick furiously and charge through the wet darkness. My only focus is the brilliant halo in the distance. Life!
The circle of light nears. My head throbs, my heart thumps. I fight for breath. My muscles blaze in pain. I need to breathe now. Keep kicking, Christine, I tell myself. Focus on the light. Get to it. The halo shines brighter. The circle grows larger. It’s my last chance. I fight. Arms reach. Hands reach. Fingers reach. Legs thrash. I need to breathe. The light. The light. The light…
I hear a swoosh! as my head breaks the surface. I suck in the air like a vacuum. Oxygen fills my lungs. Finally, I can breathe. I tread water and scream. I’m not going to die here!
Editor’s note: This is a chapter from a memoir by tsunami survivor Christine Lang. W. Ruth Kozak met Christine in a writing class she was instructing when she was first writing down her recollections of that horrifying, near-death experience when the tragic tsunami happened, December 26, 2004 killing more than 225,000 people in 11 countries. It was a miracle that Christine survived. Her friend, Rubina Wong, did not.
Tsunami Information: www.globalchange.com
About the author:
Five years ago Christine, a grade two teacher and accomplished swimmer, left rainy Vancouver for a Christmas vacation in sunny Thailand where she met her brother Michael and his girlfriend Rubina Wong. What was supposed to be a trip of a lifetime, turned out to be an experience of disaster, death and a swimming miracle. Christine lives and teaches in Vancouver, Canada. She recently competed in the Half Marathon in San Francisco.
Tsunami aftermath by Michael L. Bak / Public domain
Tsunami water approaching by David Rydevik (email: david.rydevikgmail.com), Stockholm, Sweden. / Public domain
All other photos by Nicole Peterson and Sandy Clemens.