Thailand’s Tsunami Story revisited (1)

3 Feb

My recent Phuket trip, had brought back some memories of the first time I went there. It was not a pleasant trip  but it had somewhat become a huge part of my growing experience both personally and professionally. I just want to share with you all the time I spent in Phuket for the toughest assignment to date.

Note : This entry is not about food, but I want to share entirely with you about the my experience on Tsunami that struck Asia on the boxing day of 2004

Part of a translated memoir from Thai – entry date  unknown.

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 … We were one of the first TV crew to arrived Phuket…the experience I had during  four weeks in Phuket made me grow so much and somehow shaped me up the way I am today.

It was a Boxing day of 2004, Sunday 26th December, I was sick that day but woke up to see the text messages saying about the earthquake  in Phuket. Right before noon, I’ve got a call from my reporter to check the news. I sensed that something was wrong, so I decided to go to the office instead of doing the checking from home. I found myself at the airport 2 hours later, with two nights worth of clothes in my carryon bag that I asked my mother to bring over. There was no time to pack.

Meanwhile there were lots of new information coming out, but still no one really knows what had happened or was happening at a time. After that we heard that there were massive waves (Tsunami was meant to only happen in Japan or Hawaii from my understanding at the time), Phuket airport shut down. Whlie everyone in Phuket were trying to leave, but we, the journalists were trying to go in. We caught the first commercial flight to Phuket at 5 pm after the Phuket airport re-opened. Once we got out of the plane, there were also other media crews there, mostly local stranded at the airport because people refuse to go to the disaster area called “Patong” no matter how much money you offered. For other media who couldn’t get the flight, some would charter the plane, some would get the plane to Songkhla province, some even drove down from Bangkok that’s more than 12 hours drive. Which ever ways they could think of to get to Phuket as quick as they could.

We were lucky that our Thai cameraman knew someone in Phuket, so off we went into an old van with an old driver headed to Patong. The crew consisted of a reporter, two cameramen and me, three of us at that time, we all never been to Phuket before. So..we had to rely solely on our driver… it went well until the petrol ran out at 3.00 am and our van was dead.

It was not easy driving in the dark, we were quite lucky that there were some places that still have electricity in Patong, however we had no clue on where we were exactly, we only knew that we were on the very damaged road in front of the beach where all the nearby buildings were badly damaged as well. One of the cameraman started walking to find the satellite signal for our first live report while the other helped out with equipment, the reporter was in the car writing the on-air script.  For me, I was a cheer squad.  We had to rely on the power connected from the Van’s batteries, and what ever we could find to get the sattellite phone going. Luckily the batteries we had for the camera and the phone were fully charged. Apart from our reports in Patong, communication with the outside world were pretty limited.  We had to travel back and fourth between Patong and the city to make phonecalls and for some little rest. It was not until 2-3 days after that, that the telecommunication system went back up again, so we were not able to work separately, or even contact anyone. That night we drove from Patong to Phuket town so many times.  At one point, the wind was so strong that we had to pack and leave the beach front to a hotel that was still operating at the time.  All the hotel guests were at the lobby with the blanket wrapped around them.

After the petrol ran out at 3 am, we tried many ways to fill up the tank so we could continue working, but no one could help us. My Japanese cameraman and I had to hitchhike  to go back to Patong near the Pearl Hotel, because we still had work to do.  With some help from the nearby motorbike taxi drivers, we finally found two cars and drivers that agreed to go with us.

That night,  none of us had any sleep but our reporting went on and it got better and better because we had more access to information. After few hours of misundersanding that Patong and Phi Phi island were the worst affected, it was infact Khao Lak that thousands of people died.

The next days I managed to book hotel rooms, and had 2 hours sleep. I found out later that the media centre was at the Novotel Patong, where everything still worked as it didn’t get hit by the Tsunami. I had to run (literally) to book the hotel rooms full of foreign journalists.

After that, things started to fall into places, we had smoother work flow, many teams flew in from all over the place, mostly from the headquarter in Japan and also from Beijing to help us out and devided the work loads.

We worked very hard for the next few days, with very little or no sleep at all.  All we concerned about were where to go next, where to get the information, how to get the newest information. I was like that as well alternate between work and sleep. There were no time to think about anything else. When I looked back, it was probably one of the tactics lots of people used to pull ourselves away from the situation we were facing as far as we could so that we could work continuously. Many of the journalists I befriended with at that time had to actually atend counselling sessions back home.

(to be continued)

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