By Phil Jago
December 26, 2004, Phuket, Thailand
“Son, are you coming for breakfast?”
I rolled over and glanced toward the door of the bamboo hut that constituted my hotel room for this leg of the holiday. Light had slipped into the room through cracks in the walls, the ceiling, and the door from behind which my father had just spoken.
“The atmosphere was one of disbelief. Some people wandered around numbly, calling the names of loved ones, while others sat, expressionless on the ground.”
After a few precious seconds, during which I simply lay back and considered how lucky I was to be waking up in paradise, I answered in the affirmative, sat up, threw on shorts and a t-shirt (no shoes required), and made my way out into the surprisingly powerful 9 a.m. sun. All in all, from waking up and walking 50 feet to sit down at the table of our favourite restaurant right on the beach, perhaps 3 minutes had elapsed.
I was on the island of Phuket, Thailand, having spent a week in the sweaty, heady maelstrom of Bangkok. A short domestic flight from the capital had deposited us on the island on Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day was far from the frigid traditions of home. For turkey, read: tempura shrimp. In place of our customary mimosas, we had buckets of Sang Som, the local fire water, with Coca-Cola. These are the details and the memories I seldom share with people. They have been swept aside, dismissed as mere flotsam and jetsam in the years that have passed since the Boxing Day Tsunami. I have had the good fortune to travel relatively extensively for someone of my age and means. I have visited something like 20 countries, and have no intention of stopping there, but for a long time I was defined, and indeed defined myself as a victim of an event I escaped. Guilt was my cross to bear. Guilt for being alive, for escaping unscathed, for being lavished with sympathy that I craved and yet felt I did not deserve.
January 7, 2005, Wellingborough, England
I sat in the common room, on one of the sofas usually reserved for the elite, surrounded by people who didn’t usually ask me to sit with them. My mother had not wanted me to return to school so soon after the tsunami, but I was insistent. I wanted, I told her, to just get on with things, to get back to reality. In all honesty, and I don’t think I have ever shared this with anyone, I think I wanted the attention. I have never had much attention for anything; my time at school was mostly spent balancing athletic and academic achievement, neither of which brings the same accolades in England as they do across the pond. Suddenly, I was somebody. Everybody knew my name. When my school had a special assembly about the tsunami, heads swiveled in my direction. When a charity football match was organised to raise money for the victims and survivors, I was made a captain. This celebrity status came with a downside, as I suppose fame often does. Tears came like a tidal wave of their own in private moments, sometimes cuffed away before putting on my mask for the sake of those around me, other times running unchecked and uncontrollable in steady streams down my face. My friends would look down, or look away, share glances of discomfort as I sobbed silently. I started skipping classes, but it was tolerated.
My grades dropped, but my teacher wrote a letter to accompany my university applications, explaining my situation, leading to my acceptance into a top-10 university I would leave after 6 months, sodden with drink and bitterness at the rich kids that surrounded me there. Those who had known me before the tsunami knew the change that had occurred in me, and pitied me for it. To those new people I was around as I went to college, Phil, who had been in the tsunami, was the only Phil. He was sullen, guarded, and he drank. It took a long time for this Phil to fall back into the shadows, and even now I can feel his hand on my shoulder on darker days.
August 4, 2013, Much-Wenlock, England
“This is Phil. He was in the Tsunami.”
I was at my friend’s wedding, a glorious English summer occasion with drinks on the patio, arms around strangers on the dance floor, and cheese. This was August 2013; some nine and a half years after the tsunami, the event that still makes me fleetingly interesting at social functions. I was in the queue for lunch, with a cold Moretti in my hand and a Ploughman’s on my mind (the red onion chutney really was spectacular), and as such, this comment caught me off guard. It came from the mother of the groom, a woman I had known since the age of four. The mother of the groom commands a certain level of respect at her son’s wedding, and so I dutifully put lunch to the back of my mind and began to tell a second cousin, or perhaps an uncle (I suppose it doesn’t matter) my tale. We were at least 10 minutes from the front of the lunch queue, and I was concerned that I would struggle to fill this time. To his eternal credit, cousin/uncle assured me that I didn’t have to talk about it if it was difficult, but my friend’s mother, a social wrecking ball in an expensive hat, insisted that I proceed. No sooner had I begun my story before she wandered off, perhaps to remind another guest of a car crash they had experienced, or the time their living room ceiling collapsed. Mercifully, cousin/uncle allowed me to trail off, perhaps to make a comment about the trestle tables we were inching towards, laden as they were with all the delights of a thoroughly good lunch. In the nine years since the tsunami, I have told my story hundreds of times. Sometimes I feel guilty about it, sometimes I feel guilty about not feeling guilty about it. I genuinely did see things that have scarred me, but should I have let this experience come to define me? Did I need to tell my story more than people needed to hear it?
December 26, 2004, Phuket, Thailand
“Hey! What’s going on?”
This came from a fellow holidaymaker, a man the colour of well-cooked bacon, sitting at a table several feet away from our own. We were feasting on fresh pineapple, mango and papaya, with French toast and eggs on the way, when the tide went out. That’s the first part that surprised people, that the tide went out. Interestingly, when one tectonic plate slips beneath another and starts the chain of events that leads to disaster, the tide goes out before it comes in. These facts, although interesting to me as someone who experienced the phenomenon first-hand, are generally cast aside when I retell my story. These are not the exciting, gruesome details that my listeners want to hear. As the warm, gentle waters of the Indian Ocean receded toward the horizon, probably around half a mile in 2 minutes or so, many tourists ran down onto the beach in curious high spirits, sprinting after the waves as if it was a game. They were some of the first to die, but by no means were they the last that day.
Ah, this sparks interest in my audience. Now we are getting somewhere.
December 31, 2004, Birmingham, England
I was a mere 16 years old, an irrepressibly cocky but generally well-intentioned teenager, still a boy really when I went to Thailand with my father.
I was the envy of my friends for having the opportunity to visit such an exotic location. The person who returned from that trip lost much more than his passport, mobile phone, clothes, shoes, toiletries, several books, and thirty-two CDs (this was the time before music was transported digitally). The young man who walked numbly through the automatic doors of Birmingham airport, ushered through the terminal without a passport into the glare of electric lights and the hysterical clutches of his mother, had lost a layer of himself. And yet, possibly a quarter of a million people, possibly more, for it always seems difficult to count the victims of tragedies who do not hail from the first world, lost far more than I did. I even got a new passport for free. I remember receiving a cheque in the post from Her Majesty’s Government for £42.00, feeling like a spy as I went to my bank to pay it in, enjoying the quizzical glance from the cashier as she processed the transaction. Still, I was only 16. I did see more death and destruction than a kid from Middle England should have. I did have nightmares, I sometimes still do. Why have I put myself through the wringer for so long? For the benefit of strangers? To hold onto my ace in the hole?
December 26, 2004, Phuket, Thailand
The tide came back in, not with the lazy, gradual advance of waves that typically lap the shore in a thousand clichéd poems, but with a determined intent to do harm. Those of us who were already uneasy had our suspicions confirmed when the tide kept coming, and coming, completely covering the sand and heading further inland. My father and I rose from the breakfast table, cheap plastic furniture falling onto the warm sand, turned and ran, as others who were slower to react fell
“These are the details and the memories I seldom share with people. They have been swept aside, dismissed as mere flotsam and jetsam in the years that have passed since the Boxing Day Tsunami.”
and were swept along. This was the chaos, the screams that still wake me from troubled sleep when my stress levels are higher than usual. The animal, primal quality of a scream of pure terror is something the movies cannot authentically replicate. This is where eyewitness accounts are the next best thing, the reason that 10 years later, my story is still worth telling.
Approximately 400 yards inland from the beach was a patch of higher ground, a squat but definite hill topped by large tropical trees, their leaves and branches outspread, offering comparative safety. To get to it, we raced across a patch of scrubby wasteland, strewn with rusted cans, food wrappers, and the general debris that one finds on wasteland worldwide. There were perhaps 100, or 150 people milling about beneath the trees, with more arriving all the time. The atmosphere was one of disbelief. Some people wandered around numbly, calling the names of loved ones, while others sat, expressionless on the ground. I stood there for maybe five minutes, just stood. It only occurred to me later that I was shaking. It occurred to me eventually that I was crying. It occurred to me suddenly that I was not with my father. My audience’s eyes brighten. They sense danger.
October 11, 2008, Birmingham England
I was at a university house party, drinking a bottle of cider, two litres of sulphites and disappointment to insulate myself from an environment I have never been particularly at ease in. My flatmate, I wouldn’t call him a friend, was telling a group of girls that I was in the tsunami. Perhaps he was trying to live vicariously through me, to assume an air of casual danger, and as I felt my turn coming up, I tried to project a picture of nonchalant peril onto myself. It had been almost four years since the event itself. But here at a new university, with a more positive outlook on life, I couldn’t spin a tale of heroic acts, for I had performed none. I survived, but most did not. I was lucky, but most were not. I saw many dead bodies, but none of them were related to me. The girls walked away, and my flatmate, I wouldn’t call him a friend, patted my shoulder as I sipped my cider.
I’m Phil, the guy who was in the tsunami, but it’s not all glamour. I don’t discuss survivor guilt, nightmares, and the hollow, raw pain that I feel. Not at parties or weddings anyway. I think I understand that people want to hear the tale, but their motives are related to distance. Those closest to me have never asked about it. In fact, my father and I have never discussed what happened. Never. But casual acquaintances and strangers want to know everything. The question I have learned to pre-empt, so as not to prolong the process, is whether I lost anybody close to me. “No”, I say reassuringly, “We were very lucky.”
As this good news is delivered, I see my audience visibly relax as they settle down to listen to what they know now will be a good story, relieved that nothing bad happened, or perhaps that they do not have to awkwardly console me or invest time and effort in my grief for their return of a good story. This most commonly occurs with people who are not close to me, as with the mother of the groom. I got lucky that time; on other occasions I have had to describe to ravenous listeners in painful detail the bodies I saw smashed and broken by nature. The fact that I didn’t know the owners of those twisted corpses, some bloated as they lay in the tropical heat, apparently removes the horror. My listeners must feel a degree further removed, as if I am the glass of their television screen, the medium through which they can learn about what happens in the world in relative comfort. But wait, which way ‘round is it? Am I just another Reality TV star, hungry for my fifteen minutes?
December 26, 2004, Phuket Thailand
I found my father within a few moments.
In truth, he was never far away, but on that hill, surrounded by people searching for those they would never find, the collective despair and hysteria affected everyone. This was perhaps 10 minutes after the tide came in. Not the wave. The surging, boiling tide that we had just fled was the excess water pushed out ahead of the wave as it built itself up quickly and then slowly. Out at sea in the deep, a tidal wave travels at several hundred miles an hour, and yet barely a ripple was seen on the surface. As it approached land, where the sea was shallow, it slowed down, and grew in height as the ocean floor rushed up towards the daylight. As it reached the shore, where half an hour before we had been eating breakfast, it was over 30 feet high.
“I don’t discuss survivor guilt, nightmares, and the hollow, raw pain that I feel. Not at parties or weddings anyway.”
Words are overused nowadays. Brilliant, amazing, legendary. One of my personal pet peeves is overuse, or perhaps the misinterpretation, of the word incredible. Time spent in the optimistic vernacular of the 20th century has robbed the word of some of its more objective meaning. Literally speaking, the meaning is clear. In(not)-credible(believable). Words are maybe the only things I have been true to in my life, and I make sure I dispense them carefully. The force and destruction created by the wave as it made its way onto the land was incredible. The beach ceased to exist. Bamboo huts, furniture, umbrellas and the assorted props that set the scene for your standard beach paradise went from being fully formed objects to pieces of undefined debris, seemingly without any stages of transition. More solid articles like cars, and in one case, a 50-seater coach, were swept up as if they were matchbox toys in the hands of an exasperated mother, and cast in all directions. People who had gambled on the level of destruction, who had sought shelter along the waterfront or in the nearby hotels and bars, were killed. Their bodies were smashed, bones snapped as if made from sugar, while lungs filled to bursting with salty water brought death from the inside out.
When we went to what little remained of our accommodation the following morning, I stood shin-deep in mud and silt, and simply stared. I was unable to cry. I wanted so badly to let go some howl of pain or expletive to break the silence that had fallen like a blanket over this little corner of paradise. Our rental car, a pale blue Toyota corolla, was flipped and wedged between two trees. The huts that had served as our bedrooms the night before had collapsed and been swept into ruin, our possessions with them. Images of the big bad wolf flashed through my mind, an absurd thought in the circumstances, but I suppose the mind does strange things when under great stress. The rev of an engine broke the silence and we turned to see an army jeep carrying members of the Red Cross. Without a word, without question, we slowly walked through the silt and thick, cloying mud toward whatever lay ahead. As we were shepherded toward an ancient bus filled with other displaced people, I saw the lines of bodies covered by white sheets lying at the side of the road, some large, some impossibly small. All the tears that had refused to fall came at once.
November 16, 2015, Millersville, PA
I have not talked about the tsunami in about two years, maybe closer to three.
Here in the USA, there is no real interest in my past; in this young country people focus solely on the future. This has been something of a revelation to me, content as I had been to play the role of survivor when called upon. It is a different game here, and I am slowly learning the rules. Empathy is less generously shared, which is hard for someone accustomed to a collectivist approach to tragedy. Not that there isn’t collective emotion here. In Europe, we mourn together, we weep together, and we heal together. Here, we mount up, deal with adversity head on, and kick some ass. If I tried to spin my tale here, I can predict the response. “You didn’t let it beat you though, right?” I almost did. I have never felt in control of my emotions, I tend to let them do what they may. My wife doesn’t understand this. Resilience was the buzzword in her family growing up. In the process of writing this piece, I told her my story in full, from start to finish. But something was missing. She didn’t gasp in horror in all the right places, didn’t fix me with hazel eyes full of kindness and pity. She listened quietly and respectfully, and then nodded when I was done. Her neutral reaction did more for me than almost 11 years of sympathy, therapy, attempted empathy, and assorted gasps. It broke the spell. Behind her eyes that same question echoes through her bones: “You didn’t let it beat you though, right?” I almost did.
I’m Phil, I was in the tsunami.
Phil Jago is a graduate student in the M.Ed. English program.