Witness to disaster

Jim Lafferty was relaxing after breakfast Dec. 26, halfway through a two-week vacation in Phuket, Thailand.

Then the Finneytown native saw people running through the Laguna oceanfront hotel complex. Away from the water.

An hour later, Lafferty, his wife and four children had survived the tsunami and flooding that struck south Asia and Africa, killing more than 150,000 people. He says he felt the need to document history.

“I needed to just share it. I needed to get it off my chest,” says Lafferty, 41, a graduate of St. Xavier High School and the University of Cincinnati, and now a Procter & Gamble Co. executive based in Geneva, Switzerland. “Then every day got worse and not better. … So I wrote it down.”

Lafferty’s account appears below. He lost a good friend in the flood, Orapim Milindasuta, who oversaw P&G’s operations in Thailand. But his family survived the six waves by retreating to a tower adjacent to their hotel.

Lafferty’s 19-year-old son, Michael, a sophomore at Wilmington College, remembers the third wave – “the mother of all waves,” his father writes – chasing him up the stairs of the hotel.

“When it was first happening … it was exciting,” says Michael, now back at school. “I sort of felt a little guilty that I had that feeling. Now that I know that more than 150,000 people died, it’s almost a sense of guilt that I’m alive.”

Jim’s story
Dec. 26 started off as one of those simply superb days you experience only every once in a great while. It was sunny, not a cloud in the sky. The temperature was a pleasant 75, not too hot, just perfect. We were on vacation in a new and incredibly interesting place: Phuket, Thailand.

We were seven days into a two-week vacation, and every day had been a grand adventure. We’d seen Bangkok in all its glory. We’d spent time doing some business and meeting old friends, including Orapim Milindasuta, P&G’s country manager for Thailand. We’d dined with her and friends from Egypt during a traditional Thai dinner on the water just three days before.

Here I was, sitting on the edge of the beach on famed Phuket Island in southern Thailand, eating my third course for breakfast and looking forward to a lazy day of lounging around the beach. Renting some Jet Skis. Swimming with the local elephants in the Indian Ocean.

My wife, Susan, was sitting across from me, chatting away, and the four kids were in the rooms upstairs awaking from sleep or preparing for the day. Susan was eagerly waiting for me to finish my meal so we could take a two-hour walk along the beach.

Suddenly, one or two people ran by. You know how you can tell in your gut that something is not right?

Well, this was the same kind of thing. There is running, like to go back to your room because you forgot something. And there is running for sport, there is running to get your feet off the hot pavement. And there is running from pure terror. This was closer to the latter. No way this was a casual type of running, particularly for many of these folks given their age and/or physical state.

Still a bit unconcerned, more curious than anything else, I turned around casually in my chair and glanced toward the ocean. Dozens of people were moving toward us – and all moving quite quickly. Some were alone, some were dragging kids in tow, and some had their hands full of their personal belongings. I also noticed the sound of whistles, police-type whistles, trailing the people. The one thing they had in common was, they were all running like hell.

In those split seconds of time, I instantly started deducing what the issue could be. Shark? No, couldn’t be. Why would they still be running like this 100 meters from the ocean’s edge? Terrorists? This must be it! In fact, there had been warnings all week of impending attacks by Muslim separatists in the south of Thailand. But I never heard a bomb or gunshots. What was going on, I wondered. Nothing made clear sense.

At this moment the first runner approached us, and I asked her, “What is going on?” She screamed back, “There is a tidal wave coming” and kept on running past me, not even pausing to speak. In a flash, I first thought it was a joke, but then realized that with everyone running at top speed, she must be telling the truth. The people at the table next to us jumped up and started for the beach, running against the traffic, screaming for their children. Despite being 99 percent sure our kids were in the rooms, I instantly had that dread of panic they might be at the beach, and had bypassed us somehow. You know that feeling you have had, that horror when you lose for a moment your toddlers in a big department store, and you think they are lost or kidnapped? Well, multiply this by 10. That was the level of fear I had.

Amid the chaos of people now running in all kinds of directions – away from the wave coming – to the beach to find kids – to their rooms – my wife and I dropped the food mid-bite and took off for the nearest stairwell to check the kids. When we got to the top step, a woman standing alone asked me, “Do you think this is serious?” She was looking for some reassurance from nothing more than a large-sized stranger. Fear was in the air so thick you could cut it with a knife. We opened the doors to our rooms, and thankfully all four kids were there. They had heard all the commotion and asked, “Mom, Dad, what is going on?” At that moment, we could hear the rush of water and an increased sound of people yelling, and by looking over the edge of the balcony, we could see that the area we had been eating at only 30 seconds ago was now under water.

We looked out over the lagoon area that surrounded the hotel, and it was filling not only with water but with all kinds of debris – boats, chairs, cushions, umbrellas, beds, cars. After a few minutes, the water receded, and we were joined by many people from the second floor who cautiously ventured down to survey the damage.

As the power to the hotel was off (either turned off or shorted out), we knew nothing at this point. And as it was such a beautiful day, the concept of a storm or hurricane simply didn’t make sense. The initial discussions from the “experts” were, this was nothing more than a one-off rogue wave that happened from time to time. On this basis, the threat was “over” and everyone could get back to normal.

All six of us then wandered out to the beach and to the edge of the ocean. The damage was immense, with all the beachfront restaurants, massage shops, souvenir stands simply wiped out. There was nothing left but debris and a few chairs and the roofs of the buildings lying about. Glasses and bottles of whiskey from the bars were buried halfway in sand; trinkets and carved wooden elephants from a shop somewhere that is now gone. I immediately thought to myself, “If this happens all the time, how the heck can these people keep rebuilding their businesses after each rogue wave?” We started to walk along the beach to see the damage at the neighboring resorts. We were joined by dozens of other people and families. Everyone was walking in silence over the devastation in a kind of blinded stupor.

A mesmerizing wave, then shock and horror
About five minutes into our excursion, suddenly a very calm and quiet ocean started to empty in front of our eyes! And fast. Within seconds the shoreline had moved 20 or 30 meters out, and anything in the water was being sucked out. Thankfully nobody had ventured into the water just yet. It struck me that this meant another wave was forming and drawing water from the shoreline to feed the crest, and at that moment the police came running, blowing whistles, and yelling for people to evacuate the beach. I looked out into the distance and saw the wave coming. It was mesmerizing. The urge to stand and watch it hit was absolutely overwhelming.

My wife took the three younger kids and ran for the hotel building, the stairs and higher ground. My 19-year-old son and I went into a slower jog and kept looking back to watch the wave approach shore. When we were “safely” at a stairwell that we could scale quickly, we turned around and saw the wave strike the shoreline, climb the 5-meter “hill” on the beach, and race toward the hotel.

It was far bigger than “wave one.” It crashed through the first-floor hotel rooms facing the beach and emptied them of all contents. Glass shattered simultaneously in room after room. Luggage could be seen coming out of the rooms. The wave moved huge flower pots, pool tables, objects of enormous weight. A car tumbled over the edge and into the lagoon. The water washed away earth at such a rate that two 10-meter palm trees crashed down in front of us. As the water level rose, it chased us up the stairwell, and we kept instinctively ducking as each new crashing noise or tree fell. It was pure chaos, with people running and screaming everywhere.

As the wave crested, my son and I made a dash for our rooms to check on the rest of the family. En route, we were confronted with a crying family begging people to help find their missing 12-year-old daughter. Everyone just ignored them and ran past, consumed with their own worries. As a father myself, I could not just leave this family. So we stopped, asking for the girl’s name and where she was last seen. So, as the water receded from “wave two,” my son and I descended the stairs and went to the lagoons, thinking the girl would most likely have been washed into the lagoon water had any of the water caught her.

The ground floor of the hotel, which 10 minutes before had been a quaint collection of shops-on-wheels, patio tables, pool tables, a beautiful fitness center, was destroyed. Debris and ocean soot were everywhere. Chairs and tables were gone. The fitness center had electric treadmills sitting underwater. Pool tables with huge slate bases were tossed about like toys.

Wave three: The biggie hits, huge and hard
We still had no information about what was going on. The thinking was the rogue wave had re-fed a second wave when it went back out to sea and the undercurrent created a second wave. The idea of an earthquake – as nobody felt any earlier tremors – was not being discussed.

My son and I went to the lagoons, and by mounting onto some half-functioning docks, started to survey the water and move debris looking for the little girl. Again within minutes, whistles started to sound, people started running and yelling, and clearly “wave three” was coming. We took off running for the stairs to get to high ground.

This was the biggie. The mother of all waves. It chased us up the stairs, nipping at our heels like a dog. The shopkeeper behind my son, who was scrambling to save some of his wares, was only a step behind and was engulfed and dragged away – later discovered to be one of the casualties. A lady asked me to just hold her. Some people were clearly in shock, trembling, terrified into an almost catatonic state.

It is fascinating to examine what goes through the mind of a person in moments like these. Is the focus purely on survival? Is it complete fear of an impending death? In retrospect, I am shocked at what I was thinking. I recall it with absolute clarity. I had no idea, at the time, of the magnitude of what was happening.

We thought these were just “big waves” and were a local Phuket phenomenon. We had outrun three of them successfully already, and it seemed as long as we were within striking distance of a set of stairs, we’d be fine. The waves were taking out the ground floor, coming close to the second floor, such that with a three-story hotel complex, there would always be plenty of “insurance” of more stairs to stay ahead of the rising waters.

I distinctly recall the adrenaline rushing through my veins and being in a way entranced by the adventure of it all. It was almost like some sort of an adult game of “tag,” with Mother Nature being “it.” Waves recede, we go out to help, to survey the damage, and then outrun the waters when they came to “tag” us. We could always stay one step ahead and get safely back to “base.”

Evacuation, eerie normalcy, and, finally, information
As the big third wave receded, my son and I opted to go to our rooms to meet up with the rest of the family (the little girl from down the hall was found alive). We found them a bit distraught and on the balcony, looking for my son and me, and also taking pictures as best they could. A knock on the door alerted us to an immediate evacuation, as the structural integrity of the hotel was now in question. Nobody knew how many waves would follow. We packed the bare essentials of money and passports, leaving the rest, and we moved to higher ground at the front of the hotel. We mounted a bell tower that took us up five stories, and waited out the next three waves – which, we were thankful, got progressively weaker.

It was then I was finally able to take a moment and, finding the cell phones still operational, check messages and e-mails. Already calls were coming in as the news was breaking in Europe. Finally, some clarity and a beginning of understanding the enormity of what had just occurred. It was an earthquake. Many people were reported missing or dead.

Some word came from the hotel leadership at long last. It was reconfirmed as an earthquake. It was judged safer now, and the clear focus was to get the guests “back to normal” as if nothing had happened. We were in this little high-end tourist oasis, and within this oasis, everything was to appear fine. The pool reopened. They brought dancers to keep people entertained. It was suddenly as if nothing had happened, just some water damage. Was anyone missing beyond the shopkeeper we saw? Nobody knew. And nobody seemed to be checking. People got back to their vacations.

Because we were checking out anyway, and had reservations to depart, we went back to our room, claimed our bags and checked out. We learned the airport had closed briefly for water on the runways, but was now reopened. We met people who were urgently booking to leave Phuket by any means possible. All this while plenty went about their vacations as if nothing had happened.

On the way to the airport, and in the airport, it started only then to sink in as to the depth of the disaster. CNN. Bodies on the streets. Flooding everywhere. Preliminary estimates of 11,000 deaths. An airport mixed with two groups of people – one in panic to leave and buying whatever plane tickets they could get their hands on; the second standing four and five deep in front of the TVs, mesmerized by the news and realizing we had all dodged a big bullet. Everyone was stunned into silence.

Our flight eventually left. We arrived in Bangkok at midnight. My phone buzzed with stored messages when I turned it on. One was our Egyptian friends checking to see if we had made it out OK. The second informed us Orapim had made a last-minute decision to go to the shoreline and was walking the beach with a friend when the tsunami hit.

The friend was able to grab onto a tree and climb out of the water’s way. The last thing she saw of Orapim was her being swept off in a rush of water.

After more phone calls and a fitful two or three hours of sleep, I went into our Procter & Gamble office the morning of Dec. 27 to do anything I could to help in the search and relief efforts. The team did an outstanding job of staying cool and composed and putting in place withing hours a crisis center for all worldwide employees in the area.

While my desire was to immediately return to the Phuket area and look for my friend, in the end I was talked out of it by the local team. First, I was scheduled to do more training in the region (Vietnam) the following day, and the belief was I could serve the organization better by going on, signaling that hope and life continue. Second, as a non-Thai speaker, I would likely have been more of a liability than a help. So with a heavy heart, I prepared to head off to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).

The death rates continued to climb by the hour – 11,000 became 20,000. This soon became 30,000, then 50,000. Then we crossed 100,000, and it became clear this was one of the biggest natural disasters in the history of mankind. The death toll in our hotel complex started at one, rose to 16 and then 64. Entire families were swept out to sea.

For several days a dedicated team searched for my friend Orapim, keeping their hopes up for a miracle. On Dec. 31, I got a call in Vietnam from Ahmed, my Egyptian friend and head of P&G human resources in Thailand. They had found Orapim’s body. Our worst fears were realized. The disaster that was too numbing to be comprehended not only touched us each individually, but claimed a dear friend.

We made our way back home. We returned to Bangkok, then to Tokyo, and finally Geneva. Flights were interspersed by watching the news. It became an addiction of sorts. Go from the airport, check into a hotel, turn on CNN, watch until falling into a restless sleep. Finally, home at last.

Questions and chills on life and death
We’ve heard from hundreds of friends and family, some we have not talked to in 10 years or more.

The questions keep coming. Why did we not get more warning from the authorities? Why were people allowed on the beaches when authorities knew an hour before that the tsunamis were striking to the south? The questions have become much more deep, confounding. What would have happened if I had taken the beach walk only five minutes earlier with my wife? Would my kids be orphans today? Why were we so lucky and blessed to have everything work out perfectly – kids sleeping, us having breakfast right next to a stairwell – while others were in the water, and later dragged to their deaths? Why was I spared and not my friend Orapim?

I keep getting chills down my spine. Dec. 26, 2004, will go down in history, another 9/11 in a sense. I was not a distant observer, but right in the middle of it. On the edge of life and death, one random decision, one minute here or there, making all the difference between whether I lived or died.

Day 10 was far worse than when I was running from the waves in ignorance of what was truly happening. The enormity of it all has made the emotional impact much worse.

I already realize the answers will never come. So I have to be positive and not dwell on what I cannot control. I’ve discovered and rediscovered a fresh perspective. That people care. That life is a precious, precious gift, which can be snatched away at a moment’s notice. To live each day as if it were your last. And to take the gift of life, and make the most of it to make the world a better place. To leave the world better off than we found it.

Maybe with the passage of time, this will make it all worth it.