Web Exclusives: PawPlus

April 6, 2005:

Helpless Terror
by Leslie Anson v. Wangenheim ’85

EDITOR’S NOTE: Leslie Anson v. Wangenheim ’85, her husband Detlev and their children Theresa and Tino were vacationing at a beachfront hotel north of Phuket, Thailand, when the tsunami struck on the morning of Dec. 26. Leslie said she hopes the following account will “let you know what happened and to do so in such a way as to help you picture our experience, what we witnessed, what we felt and how we dealt with the most challenging moment of our (and we hope) our children’s lives.”

On the morning of Dec. 26, we were up and out of our rooms early at a brand-new hotel on an absolutely beautiful beach north of Phuket, Thailand: Le Meridien in Khao Lak. We had wandered around the hotel a bit the two days before, walked on what was a magnificently beautiful beach. Detlev staked out his own spot on the beach, I started my daily sport routine down in the fitness room. Tino had found the Penguin Club opposite the spa perched in the middle of the main pool, connected to the “mainland” by two wooden bridges. I took Theresa to the business center by the main lobby (a level above the beach, to send e-mails to her friends and, honestly, to get the unfinished school board minutes off my conscience). As I tried to finish up and send the minutes and a few pictures I had taken of the beach the day before (gloating to my family in Minneapolis how lucky we were to be in such a beautiful warm place) the Internet connection collapsed. Frustrated, we left the business center and walked outside.

From the main building and the beach area there came a sudden wave of screams, people fleeing and screaming, "Run, run ... oh my God.” We have all been so primed with the thought of terrorism that my first thought was, “Somebody is shooting.” But why was everyone running into the open? Then we heard the word “wave.” We saw the looks of helpless terror and we turned to see something so surreal, so all-enveloping, [that] one’s heart, one’s mind and one’s soul went empty. My husband and my son were there, over there – my God, there is no “there” anymore. There was no beach, no hotel. There was a rising gray mass of water and debris, floating beds, bungalows, cars and people – some of them alive, some not. The windows and doors on the inland side of the hotel were exploding and gushing water, and then everything was so terrifyingly still. All I had was Theresa and all she had was me, and we stood in complete shock with the overwhelming understanding that Tino and Detlev were not safe with us, that they had been down there – the place there was no longer.

“Mami, oh Mami. Papi, Tino – where is Papi? Where is Tino?” Over and over she whimpered their names and all I could was to hold her and to look at the churning, dirty water, the debris and the destruction, and then up at the sky to ask, “What the hell do I do now? Where did my family go?” Everything was floating – even what wasn’t floating in the terrible gray water around us had lost its relation to reality.

I could only tell Theresa what I hoped in my heart and soul to be true, but what I knew was probably only a dream: “Papi ran to get Tino, Theresa. Papi has Tino, they will come.” And so we waited all alone among dozens of terrified and hysterical Thais and hotel guests. The water rose slowly, bringing with it everything imaginable. Screams came from rooms downstairs, and people were babbling and whimpering all around us. And then he appeared from downstairs, with eyes full of wonder. His clothes were wet; his hair was dry. Theresa and I couldn’t move, we could only take him and hold him tight. “Mami, where is Papi? Oh Mami, what happened to Papi?” and for the first time in many years, I saw Tino cry not from pain or anger, but from fear.

“It’s OK, you guys, Papi is really tough. He’ll be OK.” This was the second time in only moments that I had told my children something that I myself knew was probably untrue. In an act of self-preservation, to avoid thinking about what might be true, I told the children. “Listen, my little ones, we have each other. We need to help others.”

I told a Thai girl, “Listen, we need to get water. Can you find water?” A Canadian woman organized towels. We set up an area for the injured. We kept busy. The children never let go of my shirt. They watched around them. “Papi is OK. He’ll be OK.” People were beginning to scream. They began to run panicked, begging whether one had seen their husband, their son, their baby. Detlev still wasn’t there. Our eyes made the hundredth scan of the hotel and its decimated grounds. We again looked back to the mangrove forest behind the hotel, the place where the debris and bodies had been swept.

Like a vision out of the mud and the upturned cars, the broken bungalows, and the pieces of what was once our hotel came Detlev, bruised and bloody, wearing only a bathing trunk. He has yet to tell me what swept through his body when he saw all three of us clutched together. He slowly walked up the ramp, and we enveloped the children in our arms and stood holding each other until it dawned upon us that in the midst of this indescribable horror, we were truly whole and complete.

Detlev had a massive laceration under his left knee and cuts and abrasions all over his legs, feet and chest. Only his head was unharmed. Most of those who died had been knocked unconscious by heavy debris before drowning. Detlev had been lying on his beach chair, reading. As he lay there, he looked up to see that the sea had withdrawn and that it was the most incredible receding tide he had ever seen. He watched, fascinated. A windsurfer was stranded on the sand where he had only moments before been afloat at sea. The Thais called for the windsurfer to come in, they told Detlev to move his chair. As so he moved it a meter or so back and assumed he might just get wet feet. And he read. Then he heard yells. The Thais were yelling for people to move. The sea had receded 500 meters, and this in a span of 10 minutes or less. Then there was the rumble, the strange rumble growing louder and the appearance of a strange gray wall out where the crystal turquoise sea had been. Moments later, the water crashed on an outcropping of rock jutting out to sea further down the beach. Detlev realized all at once that he needed to run, that he needed to run to get Tino, that this was not just a strange tide. Grabbing his backpack, throwing on his shorts, he ran. He never really had a chance. Only after did we know at what speed the mass of water hit the beach.

Before Detlev had even reached the main pool, he looked over his shoulder to see the beach suites explode and break away. He was hit by the force of the main wave and swept under, dragged with beds and glass and sand and refrigerators and screaming hotel guests. Each time he surfaced he screamed, swallowing water, “Tino!” He knew by then it wouldn’t help. He saw a wooden bridge ahead of him, the water breaking over and through it. If he didn’t dive, he would be shattered on the bridge. If he tried to dive and was swept under it, he might never come up again. When he surfaced, he was barreling toward a wall; the water swept him around a blood-stained corner. He heard the cracking of the sliding glass doors of the ground-floor rooms as he was swept toward them. They would break with a crash, and everything close would be sucked in. He realized he had to somehow keep away. He still doesn’t know how he did. As he says now, the decisions made repeatedly in those minutes with only milliseconds to react, and with no real hope of changing his fate, were based on an understanding of water and physics. He heard screams around him. He thought of Tino, and he knew he hadn’t reached him. Those moments in a parent’s life remain seared into one’s psyche. As he was swept beyond the hotel and into the mangroves he tried all the while, as best he could, to protect his head. He spotted a Thai clinging to the top of a monument and swam toward him. He stood frozen in time and waited for the waters to recede.

Tino had been playing Play Station with a Canadian boy, Pierre. Perched in front of a television set in a window facing the sea, the two played until the machine went dead. The boys set down the controls in frustration, and then the children’s pavilion began to vibrate. Little toys fell off their shelves. Tino looked out to see a strange grey mass of water and people running. And then it is hard to say what happened. What made Tino and Pierre react and run? Did they really understand the danger? Tino said from the beginning that none of the Thais had yelled, but somehow they ran to the door and the bridge closest to them, the one toward the main building. As Tino reached the bridge, the water was already only seconds away. The sea wave pushed the pool water ahead of it, sweeping Tino off his feet and throwing him against the rail. It seemed there was a split second between the pool water and the tidal wave itself. Tino managed to get to his feet and jump to safety as the water crashed through. Pierre was no longer there when he looked behind him. He was gone. Tino found his way upstairs, first stuck in a submerged stairwell before he found another way up.

It is hard to explain the cold rationality that sweeps over one when one realizes that everything that matters in life, everything one fears most to lose, is safe in one’s arms. This knowledge alone allows one to search around oneself to help others, to organize, to plan. Detlev’s only possession was his swimming trunk. The backpack and his shorts with telephone, credit cards, money, and glasses had been ripped from his body. And me? By some stroke of fate, I had a fully charged mobile phone in my hand, which proved to be the lifeline for us and many others. What this one possession couldn’t do was save us from the next hours of fear and occasional hysteria. The first wave was gone, but people were sure another would come. All we could do was to look out to the grey churning sea and strain our eyes to have warning and time to run ... although we couldn’t get higher if we wanted. The relief in our hearts was replaced by the terror of another wave. No one could tell us what would happen. Just as Theresa and I dared to try to go to the bathroom and had turned the first corner, only to walk by a room in which five bodies had been laid out, Detlev’s ear-piercing whistle came and screams: “Another wave, another wave.” There is no word to describe the collective fear among the survivors gathered in the upper stairways.

Detlev´s deep laceration, like the severe wounds of others, was gaping open, grea-brown flesh exposed. All the wounds that day appeared as though already gangrenous – the tide was so full of sand, dirt, human waste and fuels.

Someone pulled out a pack of cigarettes and a match when we suddenly realized that the air was filled with the smell of gas. A pipeline was broken. I tried to calmly yell, “Please don’t smoke. Don’t light a match!”

Pierre’s father, eyes streaming with tears, took Tino by the shoulders and begged him, “Where is Pierre? Did you see him? Do you know where he is?” Tino could never have understood how his answer would break this man’s heart. There are no words to describe the depth of misery and tragedy we saw that day. And then Pierre’s father’s eyes widened as a man appeared carrying a limp and wounded young boy. He was hurt, but he was alive.

The story goes on for hours and days. All four of us were evacuated to the hospital with the injured, racing in the back of an open police truck at breakneck speed with sirens blaring, through the eerily untouched areas only a kilometer from the beach. We saw more misery and tragedy than one needs in a lifetime. Children sat alone and traumatized, no parent, no support, with broken legs and lacerations. They stared blankly ahead, neither able to ask for help nor to respond to the world around them. There was a little girl, perhaps 9 years old, with transparent blue eyes and blonde hair. She was Finnish, but no one spoke Finnish. There was a little Swedish girl, lying with her leg in a makeshift wooden brace, cuts everywhere. Everyone stood, lay and walked in blood. No one had shoes; many had no clothes.

Detlev had his wounds cleaned by one of the Thai hospital staff who heroically tried to manage a situation that became more overwhelming and catastrophic by the second. Busses, tuk-tuks and cars emptied their wounded loads at a rate that would have paralyzed even a highly equipped city hospital. They cleaned wounds without anesthetic; they cut away the discolored and rotting tissue with scissors. Bodies were being laid in rows in the hospital reception. A mother sat cradling her dead child, surrounded by bodies of adults and children.

All the wounds were already infected; it was a matter of keeping the infection to a minimum. I called my family in Minneapolis. We needed a doctor to tell us what to do; we had to do this ourselves. Edmund Chute, my cousin’s husband and an experienced surgeon, instructed me to boil water with salt and to rinse the wounds several times a day, stuffing cotton into the wounds to absorb the infection. I cannot tell you how much it hurt me to do this to Detlev. All we needed to do was to get to Surathani, three hours drive to the east, and then to medical care.

We didn’t sleep that night. Closing our eyes only brought visions of all that had happened and, worse yet, all that could have happened. Detlev had Tino in his bed, and I held Theresa in mine. This act in itself brought repeated waves of tears and trembling. What a fine line, as though some invisible force had chosen to spare all four of us.

Detlev and another man decided, against all my wishes and instincts, to return to the hotels on the beach the next day to try to salvage some possessions – particularly our safe that, were it still there, contained all our passports, my credit cards, and a wad of cash. Our room had been destroyed and everything in it, including the beds, had been sucked out and lost. But the safe was still nailed into the closet. With the help of the traumatized hotel manager, Detlev took a man and a pick-axe and broke open our safe. He returned, only to collapse in bed with a fever. He couldn’t travel to Surathani.

After Detlev fell into a delirious sleep, I left Tino to watch him. Theresa and I went to search Takua Pa for a bank and a ride to Surathani. We bought a few more shirts and tried to swallow a few bites. Helicopters landed outside our window at a rate of two per minute. They emptied the dead and wounded and flew off again. I searched the streets for the sight of an air-conditioned van to commandeer to Surathani. It took hours before a van pulled into the gas station. A Swedish News team tumbled out and I ran to the driver to beg him to drive us to Surathani. I didn’t remember to ask how much it might cost. The Swedes wanted to hear the story. I really didn’t even register their curiosity, I was so concentrated on getting a “yes” out of the driver. He drove us to Surathani safely that evening, and life started to become vaguely safe and normal. Detlev’s leg was increasingly more swollen, red, and feverous, and it smelled. He needed a doctor.

With our flights arranged, we slept in Surathani and flew to Bangkok the next morning. And then we arrived at Bumrungrad Hospital, and everything began to heal and fall into place. The doctors took one look at the wound and said Detlev needed surgery and general anesthesia. He would have surgery twice in the next five days. They couldn’t get the infection under control. The doctors were finding combinations of up to four highly aggressive bacteria in the wounds coming from Khao Lak. Hundreds of those who got to advanced medical care too late have lost legs and arms. Detlev stayed in the hospital seven days. We will be forever grateful to the caring, professional doctors and nurses there who took the time for Detlev while they had unbelievably tragic cases arriving by the minute.

Keeping rational and staying clear in our heads helped us through all this. How one does it is a mystery to me. The indescribably horrific wounds we saw that day, the many dead, the traumatized children and parents, the former frozen in shock and the latter paralyzed with grief and guilt – all of this was normal that day. The human mind seems to shift into a different mode in order for one to cope, to survive.

Throughout all this, the Thais treated us “tourists” with a care, generosity and sublime kind of peacefulness that restored our faith in humankind. We were all treated with such immense heart by people who had lost everything – family, homes, and futures. There were many heroes that day, simple stories that proved that people can and will help one another even when in danger themselves.

We were – we are – so very lucky. So many others suffered so much more that our story is inconsequential. So many children lost their parents and vice versa, so many people lost their lives and homes and hopes. What we experienced is only a tiny drop in the sea.