Blessed to be a witness

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Monday, June 20th

For Emily, wherever he may find her

Emily [Photograph courtesy John Devine]

John stood on Tonsai Beach and watched as the water receded from the bay. At first he thought boats were being stolen, so fast were they moving out to sea. "The first I knew there was something wrong," he told me, "was when the longtails parked further down the beach started being flicked into the air like they were matchsticks." The time was 10.37 in the morning.

Then he remembered that at breakfast that morning he had noticed the surface of his coffee shaking. Though Australian, he had been living in Tokyo for a long time, and was passingly familiar with the mechanics of tsunamis. "The coffee saved my life," he said.

John ran as fast as he could for his hotel, a solid three-storey building. I ran with him as he recreated his flight for the first time. Every few minutes he would stop, and shake, and occasionally break down into tears. Then he would run again, describing the torrent of water roaring below him. "For a while I thought that the whole world was like this - that the sea levels had changed forever," he said, "then I thought trivial things - I'd just paid 180 baht for my sandals and I hoped I wouldn't lose them."

The water raged for five or six minutes, then receded. As soon as the waters pulled back for the first time, he ran back down the stairs to the beach, picking his way through rubble, shouting his friends' names.

"What amazed me was seeing the fishermen throwing themselves into the water in front of me. They just threw themselves in, grabbing the first floating object to hand, and started paddling away, going to find their families. I have never seen such animal fear and desperation in anyone's face."

Then the water came back. John ran back to his hotel again, and again I ran with him as he described it. At this point he didn't know that anyone was dead - "I didn't see any bodies for hours". When the waters receded for the second time and the sea level returned to normal, he walked down again looking for his friends.

Survivors started appearing, clambering out of the wreckage, and gradually people began to group together. "Another wave is coming," went the rumour, so John and anyone else who could walk or be carried climbed up onto a hill by the village, known as Reggae Mountain. He spent a few hours there, with groups of people huddled together, screaming occasionally as rumours of a bigger, more destructive wave passed around, or gently sobbing over missing family members.

Eventually he came down, still thinking there might be another wave. He spent the night in his hotel room, which was on the second floor and hadn't been hit. "If I was going to die, I might as well do so in comfort".

He went out at about 8 the next morning, clambering over rubble and debris, clapping his hands and shouting "hello". After half an hour of silence, he heard a voice from beneath a collapsed building by the pier. "Hello?" came a tentative child's voice.

It took about an hour to free Emily. She had been buried beneath a ruined shop for twenty two hours. While John worked to free her, she talked to him in Taiwanese dialect, which he happened to speak: "My name is Emily. I am from America." But by the time he put her on the rescue helicopter, she had become catatonic with shock.

Ninety-one bodies were pulled from the row of buildings where John found Emily. Only one survived.

When I met John, he was back in Phi Phi looking for information about her. He fears that, because she looks oriental, and was unable to speak, she might be in a Thai orphanage, her relatives thinking her dead. Even if she has been claimed, he wants to talk to her about her rescue, and help her come to terms with what had happened to her. And if she is indeed orphaned, he wants to give her financial support. He approached M on the pier to ask about Emily, because he has had little response from the Thai government or US embassy. Later I met him and I suggested that I could make him some posters. Through the poster he found the lady who had helped Emily onto the helicopter, which is a start.

John after having accompanied Emily to the helicopter [Photograph courtesy John Devine]

John is truly an inspirational individual. He has not had counselling, and is dealing with his demons his own way, which includes his search for Emily. He is an expert swimmer - he swims 6 kilometres every year for the Sikhanoukville street kids in Cambodia, and is doing a similar swim in Phuket this year for the tsunami victims; he also swam out into the bay through the bodies and the debris on the afternoon of the tsunami to see if there were any survivors stuck out in the water, but was panicked by a tidal surge and came back to land. I spent a harrowing day with him, helping to make his poster, going through his photographs, which are shocking in the extreme, talking about Emily, and accompanying him on his journey of recreation of his experience of the disaster.

Over the past few weeks I have spent a lot of time talking about the tsunami, lecturing about it on the tour, thinking about it, researching it for the forthcoming museum, writing about it, and walking through the wave-blasted places of great death. I am aware logically of what happened, but it was through John's story that finally the emotional vastness of the catastrophe hit me. Late in the afternoon we parted in the street, and I returned to the office, where I broke down. It took me a long time to get over the emotions I was experiencing by proxy. I felt guilty for experiencing someone else's trauma. But clearly a lot had been building up in me for a long time.

I wish John every success in his search. I am keeping in touch with him, and he's promised to keep me informed about his search. He is doing all he can, and if he ever does find Emily, it will be a fantastic day for both of them, and I shall shed another tear.

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