A Tsunami Survivor's Story
By Chris Burke '00
I have been thinking lately that I’m the luckiest guy on the planet.
In 1999 I dealt with the chilling threat of cancer; in 2001 I was in Manhattan during the tragic terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and escaped injury. In November I negotiated 10-foot swells on the open ocean in a sea kayak in Palau and had to be rescued – and in December I survived the Boxing Day tsunami in Southeast Asia. At least I can say that my life isn’t boring.
Dec. 26 started as a great day, though I woke up with a slight hangover from Christmas celebrations. I was getting ready to leave the island of Ko Phi Phi, Thailand, the following day so I had a few details to take care of, such as paying bills and having laundry done. After making those arrangements, I was packing my daypack for a day at the beach.
The time was about 10:15 a.m. As I stepped outside my bungalow, I heard people screaming to my right and saw them running towards me with a rush of water about 1.5 meters (about four feet) high coming after them. For an instant I thought this looked like a movie I’ve seen. Then I was thinking, “I should get to higher ground.” A couple and I found a house with a balcony about six feet off the ground and we ran up there, thinking it would be high enough.
Then I heard more screams coming from my left. I looked in that direction and swore to myself as I saw a wave about 20 feet high rushing towards us. “Maybe this balcony will hold us,” I thought. The wave had everything in it … from people, to homes, to roofs, to chairs. You name it, if it was on the island it was caught in the wave. Then it hit us with the force of a Mack truck.
The water pinned us between the railing and under a metal awning that had been covering the balcony. We remained underwater for about 20 seconds. A thought came that I had better do something or I might not be around much longer. I reached up and grabbed an exposed edge of the awning and pulled as hard as I could. It actually started to break free of the house. We all got our heads above the water and breathed in the air. But since we were still pinned, I pulled the awning with every ounce of energy I had and it broke free. Keep in mind, the time from when I first heard people screaming to this point was maybe 35 seconds.
Then the three of us were swept out to sea. My companions were wearing their large travel packs, I assume because they were going to catch a ferry off the island. I think the weight of their packs pulled the girl under the water, and he went after her. I then looked to see what else was in our paths. A big palm tree with debris collected at its base was calling our names. I looked back and the two people were gone.
I still had to worry about the palm tree. I was almost pinned by the debris it collected, but was able to negotiate my way around it and ended up 150 meters, or a little over a football field’s length, out to sea. I was sort of in shock at this point. I had to find a boat, and fortunately there was one nearby. I started swimming towards it. The people aboard threw me a rope. In disbelief and shock over what had just happened, I thought of my family. This, I knew, was going to be a long day.
There were several other people on the boat, including a Thai couple that was missing a child and a Japanese gentleman who was missing his wife. I noticed another survivor had a bad laceration on his calf, and I then noticed I had a bad laceration on my right ankle. We were able to find a few first aid supplies and I treated us both. Meanwhile, I told the captain that I had medical training and wanted to get back on land.
Throughout the next two hours, and for the rest of the day, my emotions were like a roller coaster. My thoughts would rotate between family and loved ones, to all the dead people I knew were on the island, to what I could do to help. I felt helpless just sitting on the boat, but I knew the water was too dangerous to get back on land at this point. We were all scanning the debris on the water for survivors and bodies.
After the water settled down, I asked the captain to bring me back to the pier, which he reluctantly did. I then went to work at the Ko Phi Phi hotel, one of two buildings still standing, evaluating patients and rounding up supplies.
At the hotel there were dead bodies all over the place. The injured were screaming, sobbing, and crying. People were laid out with crush injuries, huge lacerations with bone exposed, people who had lost large amounts of blood, fractures, head injuries, people in shock and many other injuries associated with such a disaster. As bad as the scene was, no one knew the enormity of the situation, and we wouldn’t until days later. I had recruited a few people to help me gather supplies and asked others to find out who was injured and to lead me to them. I was working at the hotel for several hours with Thai military helicopters coming and going with supplies and evacuees. Later I headed for higher ground and helped a group of injured people there when rumors of another wave spread.
When no new wave came, I joined a triage center set up by other volunteers near the helicopter site. We didn’t have many supplies, but we did what we could. I was working with a psychiatry resident from London named Cici Romain. A Swede named Erik Liungman was organizing the logistics of our efforts, while Cici, myself, and a former nurse/emergency medical technician named Ricardo were doing the majority of the evaluations and treatment. Later a Canadian physician, Nelson Ames, came and assisted. I was shaken to learn his 21-year-old daughter and her boyfriend were missing and presumed dead.
The injuries people sustained were very bad and in some cases life threatening. By looking at someone for five seconds you could see the amount of physical and emotional pain they were experiencing, but there’s only so much you can do. Just holding their hand can make the biggest difference. There are a few patients who stand out, including a guy named Nick, whom I saw earlier in the day at the hotel. He was obviously scared for his life because he was having difficulty breathing as a result of fractured ribs and a punctured lung or two. I held his hand and we both started crying; we didn’t have to say a word. He was flown out; I hope he made it.
Despite all of the injuries and people crying in pain, my reaction to the disaster at that point was focused on helping. I didn’t have time to be upset. As the night wore on, critical patients kept arriving; it seemed like the stream would never end. We were so overwhelmed, but we just kept working and doing the best we could with the limited medicine, food, and water we had. We had a decent system in place and we evacuated as many patients as we could as quickly as possible.
Eventually it was discovered my foot laceration was pretty bad, and Cici made the decision that I would go on the helicopter if there was room. Part of me was relieved, but part of me wanted to stay to help. However, I knew my foot needed treatment quickly to prevent the infection that was surely started. After some people who had been pulled from the rubble were loaded on board, I was given the final approval for a seat on the helicopter.
The helicopter flight took about 35 minutes to Krabi, Thailand. I gazed out of the window and thought of what I just went through. It seemed so surreal; it still does.
When we landed I was amazed how efficient the triage system was on the landing pad in Krabi and at the hospital. There were receiving teams ready to go and ambulances running. I was put in one with a Chinese gentleman who appeared to have fractured a leg. At the hospital there were people everywhere looking to see if anyone they knew was in the arriving ambulances. I can’t imagine what they must have been thinking, not knowing where their loved ones were, or even if they were still alive.
I was sent to a minor care area in the hospital lobby. Next to me was a German woman I had seen earlier in the day who had sustained back and shoulder injuries. I also saw a dive guide named Mark I met on Christmas Eve. I was afraid to ask him if his colleagues, some of whom I had dived with, were alive. He looked terrible like the rest of us. But I was glad to see a familiar face. He told me about a hotel in town that was putting people up for free. I was seen quickly and the nurses worked on my ankle for about 15 minutes and ended up closing it with a suture, which, as it turned out, was a bad thing to do. A girl named Heidi came up to me and told me she was helping out and offered to call my parents. Upon hearing this I burst into tears just knowing that they would soon find out that I was OK. After about an hour I was discharged with a few prescriptions and I went in search of the hotel. A Thai girl who spoke a bit of English came up to me. I told her where I was trying to go and that I didn’t have any money for a taxi, and she volunteered to take me there. I’m glad she did because it was about 2 km away. I thanked her profusely with hugs.
The hotel staff was waiting up for people and they sorted me out. I was able to make a very emotional call to my parents. It was so good to hear their voices. Now I could think about how to get home. I had scanned my passport before I left (and I felt like the smartest guy in the world for doing so) and asked my parents to e-mail it to me at the hotel. I was told that Thai Air was flying victims for free to Bangkok, where I knew I would have better and faster luck obtaining a passport and leaving the country. My family had also arranged to get me some money and a place to stay there.
The airport was a chaotic mess, with everyone basically crowding the counter and trying to get out. They had a disorganized waiting list and I put my name there. After a few hours, I was able to buy a ticket and get on a 5 p.m. plane to Bangkok. While waiting for a taxi at the Bangkok airport I talked with the U.S. Embassy staff and made a plan for the following day. I eventually arrived at the hotel, but I was very sick at this point because my infected ankle was causing more systemic responses. I was not in good shape. I ordered room service, took a shower, and tried unsuccessfully to sleep.
The next morning I went to the embassy and within a few hours I had a new passport. So many people at the embassy saw that I was in bad shape and were willing to help me with whatever I needed, even buying me lunch. I felt lucky because a lot of people didn’t have the assistance I had. There were people who like me, lost everything. I gave people money for their passport photographs, which otherwise would have been difficult to obtain.
After I got my passport I went shopping for some clothes and shoes, the latter quite a chore since not many people in Asia have size 12 feet. I eventually found a cheap pair of flip-flops that worked. I was so relieved that I was going home the next day. It is hard to explain that feeling and was also hard to keep my emotions under control. I found myself on the verge of tears most of the morning.
The next stop that day was the hospital to check on my ankle. The ER doctor showed me the wound and it looked terrible. I was glad I made the decision to go there instead of waiting until I was back in Portland, Ore. They thoroughly cleaned my ankle and I went back to the hotel to relax. The flight home was long, but fortunately uneventful. I had survived again, leaving me with this thought . . . again: seize the day and live your life to the fullest. Be passionate about what you do because you never know when it’s going to end.
Editor’s Note: Chris Burke ’00 wrote this shortly after surviving the December tsunami. He currently lives in Sydney, Australia where he is a medical student at the University of Sydney, School of Medicine. Burke estimates he worked on about 300 patients in the aftermath of the tsunami. The fate of the couple on the balcony is still unknown, but the daughter of Canadian physician Nelson Ames and the daughter’s boyfriend were found alive. Burke reports physical injuries have healed but he was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result of his experiences and is receiving therapy.