We walked the 5 min walk from our beach on one side of Phi Phi, down the narrow lane lined with shops and shacks, to the pier on the other side. We stood for a minute, waiting to get on the longboat we’d just hired to take us to Monkey Island. While we were waiting we noticed that the bamboo jetty on our left was collapsing into the sea. People were jumping off it and the longboat men were jumping into their boats, which immediately flipped over. People were pointing at the sea and Zac (my 10yr old son)asked if there was a shark. There was a sudden sense of panic in the air and I said, “let’s go” and we started to walk back up the lane, away from the pier. Within seconds there was a lot of shouting and everyone started running. I still didn’t know what was happening but I knew it was serious. I heard a huge roar and when I looked back there was a massive wave rushing down the lane behind us, wiping out everything it touched. We turned right into another lane and were immediately stuck in a people-jam (we later realised that this lane lead to the Phi Phi Hotel, one of the only tall, concrete buildings on the island). A woman holding a baby asked me what was going on and all I could say was “the water’s coming”. I saw my friend Louise and Zac in front of me jumping onto a high step and into a shop and as I jumped up to follow them I saw another wave rushing towards us from the other side of the island. The next second we were all under water being tossed around, as if we were in a huge washing machine full of rubble. I could see furniture and bodies but no light and couldn’t figure out which way was up. By now it felt like I was drowning and that was when I thought our time was up; I thought of Zac and thought, “God, what have I done?”
There was a table on top of me and I heaved it away and suddenly my head was out of the water, a few inches away from the ceiling. I started screaming Zac’s name and heard someone shout “mum” but I wasn’t sure it was him so I carried on shouting his name and then heard Louise shout “I’ve got him, we’re ok”. Such a relief. We were all still treading water and hanging onto anything we could and it was very dark, as debris had blocked up the door and window. I could see a Thai woman next to me going in and out of the water so I grabbed the back of her head and tried to keep her face out of the water but she was struggling so much she just disappeared. Then a little girl (I think the woman’s daughter) aged about 2 sort of floated into me and I dragged her onto a piece of wood and tried to get a sign of life from her. She was like a rag doll, with foam coming out of her nose and mouth and there was nothing I could do. By now someone had kicked out the window and the water started to ebb away. I was at the back of the room and Louise and Zac had swum out of the window at the front left. I couldn’t figure out how to get over to the window but I saw my other friend Lisa near the door at the front right so I swam over to her and we both climbed out the door onto the remains of an air-conditioner. There was debris everywhere, palm trees, roofs, glass, slabs of concrete, the contents of shops etc. To our right was the Phi Phi Hotel and there were people on the balconies shouting at us to try and get over there. Louise and Zac were to my left, standing on some steps leading to the roof of the shop we had been in. Lisa and I started to climb over the debris towards the hotel but when I looked back I couldn’t see Louise and Zac anymore.
I think the wall of the hotel had the occasional brick missing as a kind of pattern and I started to climb up the wall like Spiderman! People on the balconies had knotted sheets together to make ropes and I grabbed one to get onto a little ledge below the balcony. A man with an arm pouring with blood grabbed my arm and pulled me onto the balcony. Lisa was below saying she couldn’t get up so I grabbed her arm and her pulled her up. Then two Chinese women saw me and were pleading for help so I dragged them up too. It’s amazing the strength you have when you really need it. Another wave came rushing in but this time there was nothing left for it to knock over. Then I saw Louise and Zac, back on the steps again. Someone had started to make a path over the debris with mattresses, from the shop to the hotel and Lou and Zac climbed over and also climbed up/got dragged onto balconies. I was running down the hotel corridor frantically opening all the room doors until I found the one where they had ended up. The hotel soon started to fill up with people, some of them terribly injured. I walked past one man lying on the floor in agony and the next time I saw him he was dead with a sheet pulled over his head. More and more injured and dead people were being brought to the hotel, although there were no doctors to help them and soon the corridors were full of people and the floors were covered in blood and broken glass. We started ripping sheets up to make bandages – there wasn’t much else we could do. We saw a couple of helicopters in the early afternoon that seemed to drop someone off and then airlift some people off the beach. For the next few hours there were constantly rumours flying that another wave was coming or that big cracks were appearing in the walls, or that there was a smell of gas.
We didn’t know what to do – stay put and risk having the building explode or collapse or leave and risk getting caught in another wave? I had been outside earlier to retrieve my bag that I’d seen in the debris and I knew that leaving would mean exposing Zac to the sight of so many dead bodies but staying seemed just as bad, especially as it would soon be dark and the hotel was beginning to stink of blood and death. Finally at around 5.30pm a tall English man appeared and said that we should get up into the hills, as there was another story circulating that another wave would come at 6pm. He said he would lead us there so we grabbed what we could, sheets and towels, and followed him. We had to walk and climb through the devastated town, looting stuff that had been in the shops – peanuts, water, chewing gum, a shirt, anything that might be of use. It took about 30 minutes climbing through jungle undergrowth to get to the camp that had formed in the hills. There were about 200 people there, Thais and tourists, sitting or laying on the ground and an open, wooden, local ‘bar’, where seriously injured people were being put – I know one was a pregnant woman and one was a baby. A few fires had been lit and everyone huddled around, very calm, all in deep shock. A Thai man gave us a candle and we lit it but then got worried that it might have to last a long time so we decided to put it out and only use it if we really needed to. Luckily there was a bright full moon so we didn’t need it. More people arrived throughout the night, lots of them looking for their friends or family but there were hardly any children up there. At about 3am a local man got a transistor radio working and eventually tuned in to a news channel which was when we realised the enormity of what had happened (up until then we didn’t know if was just Phi Phi that had been hit) and knew that people at home would be hearing this news soon and would be frantic about us. The news said that all the surrounding islands had been hit so we wondered how anyone would be able to get us; where would a boat have to sail from and how long would it take? It was impossible to sleep.
At about 6.30 we decided to go down to the pier as we could see a few boats heading towards the island. As we got to the beach we started to see dead bodies, most had their faces covered. About 100 people were on the pier, waiting next to more dead bodies that were being put onto a boat. A woman started screaming and crying as she identified one of them. We got onto a ferry that took 500 people to Phuket, 2 hours away. It was eerie sailing on the same sea that had been so wild the day before. There were a lot of people quietly sobbing; one was a Swedish man who we’d met the day before when he was searching for his girlfriend called Andrea. He still hadn’t found her. Another was a boy who was about 14 who told me he had lost his dad whose name was Lenny and he asked me if I’d seen him. It was so sad. When we got to Phuket it was pandemonium, lots of noise and sirens and Thai people thrusting dishes of rice and noodles at us. They were so lovely and genuine and kind to us strangers, when their own country had been devastated. Someone asked where we were going but we didn’t know and me, Lou and Lisa all burst into tears! He told us to get in the back of his jeep and he sped off through Phuket (which didn’t look like it had been affected at all, it must have been the other side that got hit) to a college or town hall that had been turned into a makeshift ‘help centre’. It was total chaos, but after a few hours we got on a bus to the airport and after another few hours we were flown by military jet to Bangkok. It looked like the sort of plane that might fly tanks and for one horrible minute I thought they might make us parachute out at the other end! British Embassy staff were waiting at Bangkok airport and we finally got the chance to phone home to say we were ok. Then it was on to the Landmark Hotel courtesy of the Thai government where we stayed for two days while we sorted out new passports and some clothes. We decided then to carry on with our trip, not go home and sit watching terrible news footage (and I didn’t want my son’s lasting memory of Thailand to be the Tsunami) and we actually managed to have a very lovely two weeks in Koh Samui! Then it was back to reality and the realisation that, but for the grace of God, we could have just had our last ever holiday.