Mike Corbeil, BSW '79, and his wife Cindy are former Victoria residents living on Phuket Island in Thailand. Safe from the worst of the December 26 earthquake and tsunami, Mike worked in the aftermath of the devastation to help survivors locate the missing. This is his account of an exhausting, heartbreaking ordeal.
December 26. After a late night celebrating Christmas with friends, I noticed my sofa shaking slightly. Was it an effect of the party or just my imagination? A second shake jolted the house and I knew it was an earthquake. That got the heart pumping.
I didn’t think any more of it and at 10:00 a.m. we started making our Christmas calls to family in Victoria. I didn’t know that the first tsunami wave was hitting the beach about two kilometres from our house. About an hour later, my friend German Mike came to our house, very shaken and having a hard time describing what he had just seen. At Kata Beach he had been unable to get through the chaos on the streets. People were receiving CPR, there was debris on the roads and vehicles were strewn about like matchsticks.
We immediately went to Nai Harn beach, where we spend a great deal of time, to check what was going on. A nearby lake was full of floating beach chairs and very muddy, murky water. Uprooted trees blocked parts of the road. I found a Thai friend who ran the beach chair concession. He was in shock. He described how the water had suddenly gone way out into the bay and then “just came up”—not a big wave, just a huge volume of rushing water.
We went about 150 metres down to the north end of the beach. People started to look anxious as a murmur rolled through the crowd that “it’s coming again.” The sea water was drawing out into the bay and we all ran from the beach to higher ground. There was a large surge of water, not a wave that caused damage but quite impressive.
Mike and I headed up to a lookout where you could see the beaches of Kata and Karon. The tidal action was very odd. The waves weren’t rolling in and out like they normally do—they kept lapping up to the shoreline. A British friend came up to the lookout after hearing on the radio that a large wave would be hitting at 1:00 p.m. Others had heard that a 50-metre wave was on its way. People, worried, scanned the horizon.
I realized I had about an hour to get home, put together a survival kit, pick up my wife Cindy and head back to the safety of the lookout. We packed and returned to find hundreds more crowding the hill. News came that the next big wave was not coming until 3:00 p.m. Then at 5:00 p.m., when it hadn’t materialized, we were told to go home. I was able to send an e-mail to family members and friends to let them know we were safe.
December 27. I had heard about a relief centre at the provincial hall in Phuket town. There were tents with tables and signs indicating different countries. At the table with a “Canada” sign, Thai volunteers gave me forms to register missing people and forms to document people who needed passports. They showed me where the Thai immigration staff was fingerprinting and photographing people so they could replace lost travel documents and arrange transportation home.
I went to the Canadian Embassy area, and met Ambassador Denis Comeau, his military attaché and three Thai staff from the embassy in Bangkok. I can’t stress strongly enough how great the ambassador was under the circumstances. The area was bustling with embassy staff from at least 30 countries. Helicopters arrived with hundreds of survivors from around the region. Thailand’s well-organized equivalent of Girl Guides and Boy Scouts were in their uniforms helping to dispense truck loads of water. Volunteers at food stalls fed victims and volunteers.
Bulletin boards held hundreds of photos of the missing and the unidentified dead. It was startling to see so many people, so many children. Some were badly battered from the debris in the water, but most looked peaceful, as if sleeping. That was the first day of photos. The next and subsequent days brought more and more images of the dead, indescribable and unrecognizable.
Letter from Phuket | Letter from Phuket Con't