Wednesday January 19, 2005 1:32am
from the MIT alumni site / Coping with the Aftermath
Living here in Thailand for 16 years (working on Mekong Subregion Development) I just wanted to say I am ok, and so is also my daughter Sara(in the USA now). To my knowledge, there were none amongst the MIT Alumni here who died, although the grandson of the King of Thailand, the 21 year old son of Julie (Ubolratana) Jenson (MIT Class of 197?) and Scoot Jenson was amongst those who died at Khao Lak, the worst hit beach here in Thailand.
You may have seen pictures of the Yan Yao Temple "mortuary" with the dry ice clouds drifting around the thousands of bodies of victims... well, that was where I spent my New Year "vacation". With so many suffering and a need for translators and administrative skills, I was easily recruited, drove my pickup truck a thousand miles south with Ae and served as best I could for five days. Did some of everything, from trying to improve processes and communications, translation of documents from bodies (those years in Germany and France were helpful), assisting families and embassy officials, and when needed, helping to unload bodies and dry ice from trucks. People who die from drownding are not a pretty site; it is not a pleasant way to die. All we could do was try not to think about each individual life, but just focus on getting the job done that urgently needed to be done. At the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve we were short of volunteers, and I was helping to unload three hundred bodies from trucks, dressed from head to toe in protective costume, gloves, mask and boots, standing in a field of hundreds of body bags, all surrounding by smoky clouds from the dry ice we placed around the bodies. It was a surreal experience beyond description, a New Year I will never forget.
I never imagined to live to see a disaster on such a scale... so many thousands dying within a period of a few hours with no warning. Truly makes one realize that those Biblical descriptions of the final days of our world may have become a reality. More than 150,000 dead, millions of lives disrupted and homes destroyed, many thousands orphaned and handicapped.... trauma beyond comprehension for many more. What I saw in death and grief was only a small part of the overall picture, and it was difficult enough for me. I will never forget the elderly Japanese man, injured and just out of the hospital, who came looking for his wife amongst the thousands of dead and injured. They were walking on the beach together when the 12 meter (high as four story building) wave hit that beach.... she was lost and was taken to the hospital. He described her so lovingly, so sadly, the little mole on her face, the details of her bathing suit, on and on.... we did not find her in the hospitals or her body in the temple... and I had to send him to the hospital in an ambulance, alone with no family or friends. I will remember the young Russian man searching tirelessly for his bride, and the young scandinavian child, beautiful even in death, who matched perfectly the photo her father had posted as missing. I will remember the Thai and non Thai volunteer workers and officials who worked without stopping for so many days, desperately trying to care for the sick and identify the dead with as much dignity as possible under very difficult circumstances. So many stories of heroism, many of the Thai hotel workers losing their own lives trying to save the foreign tourists. Without exception, the families of the dead were so kind and patient and understanding in a chaotic and war like environment. I cannot even begin to imagine the situation in Indonesia where the disaster was twenty times the scale of what we experienced here in Thailand. Thank you to the MIT community for your thoughts, support and prayers for Asia.
We were on a beautiful beach on the south coast of Sri Lanka with our two children, Finlay and Maya on the morning of the 26th of December, on our way to visit some new friends we had made in the next door compound. As we were walking along the water to their compound we noticed the boats beginning to dance violently before charging up the beach. Behind the boats a large volume of water was rushing towards us. Finlay was separated from us in the chaos. He became trapped by a wall, water on one side and no where else to go. The wave hit him straight on and he was completely engulfed in water.
Alistair who had run into the water to help the fishermen with their boats was the last of us off the beach. He ran into a house that quickly filled with water. Luckily he saw an open window at the end of the house and as the water reached the ceiling he managed to swim out of the window and cling on to a nearby coconut tree moments before the house completely collapsed. Hanging onto Maya, Jac continued running, now in gushing, thigh high water when a man ahead motioned for her to follow him into a nearby house. As they entered the house water engulfed the room, rushing around like the inside of a large washing machine. Water rose to the ceiling. The man took Maya and placed her on a window grate before punching a hole in the ceiling of the hut. Maya was pulled to safety by her hair and Jac followed just as water completely filled the entire room. As the wave receded Jac looked down from the roof to find Finlay holding onto a branch in the debris below. He had dived into the water and swam the length of three houses before grabbing an electrical wire that had become tangled in a small tree. Though he was severely bruised and in shock he was alive.
It took another 24 hours to find a way out and back to Colombo. The next day we rented a van and filled it with supplies. After many hours we made it back to the village where we had been. It was deserted. Families had relocated to the refugee camp fearing the return of the wave. We found a few people vainly attempting to salvage anything they could from their destroyed homes but all that remains is rubble and large pools of filthy water that have immediately become a very serious health concern. The boats, representing the livelihood of almost everyone in the village were damaged beyond repair and sat in a heap at the bottom of the compound where the waves had left them.
The rest of the villagers and their children along with others had gathered in a nearby school. It was not until we arrived there that the real extent of the destruction hit us. 2000 people including over 600 children were huddled in little groups, crammed into the open air classrooms with no where to sit or sleep but the hard concrete floor. Many were deeply traumatised by what they had seen and all were desperate for anything that could be provided. In Sri Lanka alone there are 500 such camps spread across the country and filled with traumatised families that have no where to go. Surviving the tsunami was a terrifying experience, but nothing in comparison with the sight of the devastation the wave has left behind.
Three days later we walked into our beautiful apartment in Paris. But for so many other survivors of this terrifying experience, the prospect of returning to their homes and communities seems bleak indeed. Countries like Sri Lanka are extremely poor. Keeping these people alive is a challenge with which the government has already admitted it cannot cope let alone the challenge of rebuilding homes and livelihoods. In the meantime, the possibility of disease increases daily and the ability of these families to begin recovering from the myriad effects of this terrifying experience decrease exponentially.
A U L
P H O T O G R A P H Y
all images © 1995-2005 Paul W.H. Kan
Hong Kong, SAR
People's Republic of China