The Tsunami’s Horror Haunts a Thai Fishing Village

NAM KHEM, Thailand, Jan. 1, 2005 : This empty door frame, standing alone without a wall, is where her sister struggled for her life against the rising water before she drowned.

This pile of broken masonry is where her 13-year-old son held his grandmother afloat until, as he said, her eyes grew as round as a foreigner’s, and she died.

This jumble of debris is where Chanjira Sangkarak herself ran, stumbling, from the house until the wave dragged her, shaking her like a beast with its prey, down to the ocean floor.

When she bobbed to the surface, she found herself embracing a board filled with nails, and soon a blue plastic tray emerged beside her. She clung to those for the next 10 hours, she said, watching her neighbors sink below the surface one after another, until she reached the shore.

Hundreds of foreigners died here in southern Thailand when giant waves crashed ashore a week ago, along with thousands of Thais. The difference for the survivors is that the foreigners have mostly departed to recover in the clean sheets and fresh air of their home countries.

Many Thais, like Ms. Chanjira, have no homes left to return to; only piles of wreckage that are, for many of them, the graves of their relatives.


Chanjira Sangkarak is comforted near her home. : Photo by Seth Mydans

Along more than 10 miles of beachfront here on the coast of the Andaman Sea, huge resort hotels stand in ruins, their rooms and patios and spas and cabanas shattered and empty.

This little fishing village is shattered, too, with only a few broken buildings still standing, but it is not empty. Dazed residents like Ms. Chanjira sit in the rubble, breathing in a funk of mold and putrefaction, waiting, without real hope, for the bodies of lost relatives to emerge.

Here and there, under piles of concrete and tin roofing and coagulated clothing, the smell grows stronger, like a marker on a map suggesting the location of a buried father or sister or child.

On Saturday, workers set up giant pumps and began to drain foul water from a mine shaft behind Ms. Chanjira’s house. In another village not far away, several cars and a tour bus had already been recovered from a mine shaft, along with dozens of bodies.

“That pile of debris over there, that’s where my house was,” said Samphan Thongsamak, 74, a bill collector for an electric company. His mobile telephone began playing the Macarena, but he ignored it. “I go and dig around every day,” he said. “I have nothing else to do.”

In the town center of nearby Khao Lac, tents and a feeding center have been set up for displaced people. Aid has flowed in from private groups around the country, but there seems to be little coordination or long-term planning for recovery.

There is no body count here in Nam Khem, which was home to about 6,000 permanent residents. Thawip Sayhui, 47, a fish farmer whose wife was caught by the wave as she tried to flee in a pickup truck, estimated that as many as half the population had been lost, like her.

For the past week, volunteers have been carting away bodies without keeping records and residents have trekked from temple to temple, peering into grotesque and swollen faces in the hope of recognizing a relative.

Ms. Chanjira, 39, a fish trader whose husband is a fisherman, found her mother’s body and joined an assembly line of fast-forward Buddhist rituals and round-the-clock cremations that sent almost constant towers of black smoke into the sky here. Three other relatives are still missing, although her husband and children survived.

Just down the road from her house is the scrapheap that once was the home of Pichit Sittisangwanthai, 45, who made his living serving foreign tourists. He almost died along with them, as many Thai hotel workers did.

Mr. Pichit was a masseur, and on the day of the disaster, he was as usual on the beach with the sunbathers. When he saw the tide receding, leaving fish flapping on the seabed, he knew what was about to happen.

“Big wave!” he shouted in English as he ran down the beach, waving his arms in the air, “Oh, big wave!”

“I kept running and shouting to the foreigners,” he said, “but I think they didn’t believe me. They went closer to the water to look.”

He seized two small blond children and ran up a hillside; their family followed him. And then the wave came rolling up the beach in a rising spiral and everybody ran.

“It was every man for himself,” Mr. Pichit said. “Some 10-wheel trucks just raced up the hill, knocking down people and motorbikes. Some people escaped the water but then were knocked down by the trucks.”

By this time, Ms. Chanjira was in the grip of the waves, gulping oily seawater and paddling hard to avoid the logs and boats and debris that were colliding around her.

“I thought I was dead,” she said. “I tried to send telepathic messages to my brother and relatives, ‘Come and save me,’ but apparently that didn’t work.

“I cursed the higher powers. ‘I’ve done so many things to help people in my life and now nobody is helping me,”‘ she said, “and right at that moment the blue plastic tray floated up. It was probably sent to me.”

At last the waves that had seized her tossed her back onto land, and she crawled up the beach. It was dark, and the landscape was littered with debris and bodies. The air was thick with the smell of death.

Usually, Ms. Chanjira said, she is afraid of ghosts. “But now I wasn’t afraid,” she said. “I wasn’t afraid of ghosts, and I wasn’t afraid of the dead, because I was dead already, too, and I had survived.”

In the darkness, a friend from town pulled up in a car and offered her a ride. “Wait here, and I’ll come right back for you,” the friend said.

Ms. Chanjira lay down on the ground, placed her head on her blue plastic tray and fell asleep.

Copyright The New York Times