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A decade on, tourist survivors revisit tsunami-hit Thai beaches
by Staff Writers
Khao Lak, Thailand (AFP) Dec 27, 2014

The devastating 2004 tsunami
Jakarta (AFP) Dec 26, 2014 - On Sunday, December 26, 2004 at 7:58 am local time, a massive earthquake measuring 9.3 struck off Indonesia, unleashing a devastating tsunami which left more than 220,000 dead.

The strength of the quake -- the biggest in the world since 1964 -- was such that the Earth shifted -- unleashing a multi-metre wave which 30 minutes later devastated the Indonesian province of Aceh, to the north of Sumatra.

Aceh was the most affected region: dozens of villages were wiped from the map and the strength of the tsunami went so far as to shift the islands. An estimated 131,000 died on the west coast of Sumatra.

The wave also swept the whole of the Indian Ocean's shoreline, hitting the coasts of Sri Lanka, India -- especially the Andaman and Nicobar islands -- Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia, the Maldives and Bangladesh.

Around six hours after the start of the disaster the coasts of East Africa -- Somalia, Tanzania, Kenya -- were reached by the tidal wave.

In the space of several hours at least 220,000 people died, of which nearly 170,000 were in Indonesia, 31,000 in Sri Lanka, 16,400 in India, and 5,400 in Thailand, according to an official count.

Two hundred people were killed in other Asian countries hit by the wave, while 300 perished in East Africa.

The entire international community was affected by the disaster. Out of the 5,400 casualties in Thailand, nearly half were foreigners representing 37 nationalities.

European countries, including Sweden (543 dead), Germany (537), Finland (180), Britain (150), Switzerland (110), France (95), Denmark (50) and Norway (80), lost 1,700 people, mainly tourists seeking Christmas sun.

The deadly waves particularly hit the young, but several thousand children found themselves orphans too, while tens of thousands suffered from psychological problems.

There was countless material damage and more than one million people were left homeless.

The tsunami ravaged the Indian Ocean coastline's ecosystem, including Aceh's mangroves and Thailand's coral reef, and unleashed chemical pollution.

Record amounts were collected in aid for the victims, with more than $13.5 billion (11 billion euros) donated, representing more than $7,100 for each person affected by the tsunami.

Ten years after the Indian Ocean tsunami, foreign tourists who survived the crushing waves still return to the Thai beaches where thousands lost loved ones, seeking recovery and solace.

"As soon as I could walk properly, we came back," said Steve McQueenie, a detective for London's Metropolitan Police, explaining the powerful urge to revisit Thailand just six months after the December 26, 2004, disaster to make sense of the unfathomable.

On Boxing Day this year the 46-year-old Glaswegian again returned, joining hundreds of other survivors at a candlelight vigil in the resort hub of Khao Lak, southwest Thailand, to mark a decade since the tsunami claimed 220,000 lives across 14 nations.

Memories of the calamity are never far away for McQueenie and his wife Nicola, who survived waters that killed 5,395 in Thailand alone -- half of them foreign holidaymakers celebrating Christmas.

Sitting before a tranquil Andaman Sea, just a few metres (feet) from where they had stayed, he recalls the sudden "huge brown wall of water" that ripped apart their bungalow and plunged him underwater.

"When I reached the surface, everything I could see was water. I couldn't see any buildings above it, I couldn't see inland really, and it just felt we'd been dropped in the middle of a really rough ocean."

Flung further inland by the colossal wave, he kept afloat long enough to latch onto a palm tree until the water retreated.

In spite of a severe leg injury the policeman limped towards the road and was eventually transported up into the hills by Thais who feared more waves would strike.

He was reunited hours later with Nicola.

McQueenie's voice breaks as he remembers the "selfless" help of local Thais, aid that spurred the couple to raise $15,500 for ravaged communities around Khao Lak once they returned home.

"There's always going to be part of us that kind of belongs here," McQueenie said.

- Unlikely connection -

There are other survivors for whom the disaster is too painful to revisit, including many residents who would prefer to focus on the future.

Yet many foreigners share a desire to return to a place with which they share a bond forged through tragedy.

Swiss national Raymond Moor returns every year with his wife to remember the dead, especially the Thai hotel worker who hauled him out of the water to safety.

The 58-year-old breaks into tears recounting the moment.

"The Thai people helped us so, so much. They gave us food, clothes," says his wife, picking up where he stopped, as they visited a memorial in Ban Nam Khem fishing village north of Khao Lak, virtually erased by the waves.

Returning to Thailand has helped the couple reconcile the tragedy and also allows them to visit the local orphanage they support.

Andy Chaggar survived the tsunami that killed his girlfriend, Nova Mills, after the first 10-foot-high wave propelled him out of their beachside bungalow onto a higher storey of a resort under construction.

The British electronics engineer also returned to Khao Lak after months of rehabilitation for his injuries, but this time as a volunteer to rebuild a decimated village.

Chaggar, 37, said it was an integral part of his recovery, going on to co-found the charity International Disaster Volunteers, which has run projects in Haiti as well as Manila and typhoon-hit Tacloban in the Philippines.

"After going through the tsunami, my previous job felt meaningless," he said, finding new purpose through aid work and two years ago marrying his American wife Emma, who he met while volunteering.

A small white lighthouse a few metres from the shore is the only recognisable landmark Chaggar can recall on Nang Thong beach, as hotels reduced to rubble have been rebuilt in greater number and size in the years since the waves struck.

But perhaps longer-lasting changes are found in the survivors now revisiting beaches where they escaped death, drawn back, for different reasons, year after year.

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A decade after being orphaned by the Asian tsunami, British brothers Rob and Paul Forkan are successful entrepreneurs who are giving back to the Sri Lankans who helped them by building an orphanage. The brothers, their two younger siblings as well as their parents Kevin and Sandra were relaxing in their hotel complex on December 26, 2004, when the giant wave crashed through their bungalows. ... read more

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