Some of my photos , images and descriptions may be upsetting and viewer discretion is advised.
The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake occurred on 26th December with the epicentre off the west coast of Sumatra. The shock had a magnitude of 9.1–9.3 on the Richter scale and triggered a series of devastating tsunamis along the coast, killing an estimated 230,000–280,000 people in 14 countries with an estimated 1.7 million people were left homeless. It was the 3rd largest earthquake ever recorded, causing the entire planet to vibrate as much as a cm and triggered other smaller earthquakes thousands of miles away. In some coastal areas the waves reached 100ft while many witnessed waves in excess of 30ft plus. The tsunami reached 1.2 miles inland with water depths as high as 20ft.
When the tsunami hit the southwest coast of southern Thailand , devastation was unleashed upon the coastline; one particular area was Takua Pa in the Phang Nga province where the tsunami was reported to be over 30ft in height. An estimated 5,400 people were killed and another 3,100 people were reported missing.
Two days after the tsunami I left the UK and arrived in Phuket Thailand to volunteer medical aid for those affected by this natural disaster. Using my skills obtained through nursing and the military I anticipated helping survivors with their injuries, grief and despair. However, when I arrived it was clear that the utter devastation and the colossal amount of dead meant getting involved with the most awful, tragic and horrendous things I ever encountered.
Wat Yan Yao, a Buddhist Temple was taken over by the Thai Military and the authorities as a temporary morgue and each hour that went by the body count went from hundreds to thousands. The resident Buddhist Monks were relocated nearby and soon the entire temple became the nerve centre for forensics, the Disaster Victim Identification Teams (DVI), Police, medical personal, military, doctors, nurses and the body collectors.
The unmistakeable stench of the dead was initially overpowering and unbearable, rotting corpses were systematically laid in lines forming corridors thus allowing ease of access to the now hundreds of dead that were arriving each day. They had been collected throughout the area by a the Thai Military and volunteer body collectors. Each victim was individually wrapped in thick plastic sheeting and massive blocks of ice were placed around the bodies to prevent rapid decomposition due to the heat and humidity. Coping with the sheer numbers minimised any dignity we could offer.
Within a week or so the Disaster Identification Teams (DVI) and forensic experts had set up an area within the temple where DNA and dental records could be taken from each victim , analysed and cross referenced with relatives reporting someone missing. Once a sample of DNA and / or dental records were obtained the victims were taken to be photographed alongside any clothing or personal belongs that may help relatives identify them. And finally they were unceremoniously stored in shipping containers, which had been arriving for days, each container simply labelled with the suspected nationality and the amount of dead the container held.
After 14 days or so I couldn’t take much more of retrieving the dead, especially the children and babies and I was asked by the Thai Military to help with security at the main temple gates. They had been heavily guarded to stop mostly Asian journalists and news reporters from taking photographs of the victims. Although the victims were beyond any recognition due to rapid decomposition, the suffering to relatives and loved ones of an image in the daily news papers would be too much to bear even by a remote chance association.
However, reporters and photographers were not the only concern. As I soon discovered upon taking my position as security at the main temple gates. I was tasked with specifically dealing with & liaising with Europeans and that meant bereaved and grief stricken relatives in desperate search for the missing.
For a while thereafter the awful task of collecting and organising hundreds of corpses paled into insignificance in comparison to the painful interactions at the temple gates. A mother looking for her lost child, thrusting a photograph at me and pleading for any information, however little, ‘had I seen her’, ‘is she in the temple’, hysterically begging for just that small glimmer of hope she truly believed I was holding. One Asian mother was so inconsolable with grief she laid on the ground and scrapped frantically at the road until her nails were torn completely from her fingers. I was powerless to help in anyway, overwhelmed with her grief and desperation there was nothing that I or anyone could have done at that moment in time and I made a decision to allow this to continue , only offering medical assistance and consoling some time later.
As time progressed more disorientated and numb relatives arrived at the temple gates with similar demands. Holding my composure and offering explanation was increasingly difficult and my daily task as security became less each day as I took time out to deal with my own emotions and ability to cope. I only ever found the strength to return to the gates after time out by that one simple fact, I hadn’t lost anyone and right now the relatives and loved ones needed people to be strong for them.
By this time the authorities had built a wooden boarding structure outside the temple grounds and they started to pin hundreds of photographs of the unidentifiable victims on the board in the hope that they may be identified.
There was an ID Number alongside the victim and a possible race and age range with any personal belongings such as clothing or shoes or jewellery. If a relative thought they recognised the remains and personal belongings they could approach the authorities for a DNA match. I had seen this before, as I arrived in Phuket and on my travels north to Khoa Lak. I passed boarding’s with photos of the missing. To think that someone had to produce that image of their child or family member and pin it to a board in the middle of nowhere , thousands of miles from home in desperation that they may be found alive. They mostly never were.
As the days passed more shipping containers arrived, more coffin racks and coffins were hastily put together, more European dignitaries visited and the body count increased to thousands.
After around 3 weeks at the temple I learnt of a refugee camp for the tsunami survivors some distance away at Ban Bang Muang and I made a decision to move on to the camp and help where I could there.
The military were erecting temporary housing for the family’s and temporary medical areas, schools, food and clothing distributions had already been set up. I had the privilege of working with a Japanese Medical Team in a large inflatable first aid tent, treating minor wounds and other non emergency routine medical ailments before lending a hand building the small homes, propped up on traditional Asian stilts. I found my experience at the refugee camp a much needed welcome and debrief from the Wat Yan Yo ‘temple of death’ as it had colloquially become known.
I spent some valuable time speaking with survivors, both European and indigenous and learnt a great deal from others with how people cope with a tragedy of such enormity, incredible acts of bravery and selflessness and wonderful stories such as reports that animals started to flee the area to higher ground prior to any evidence of the tsunami heading inland and backed up by very few dead animals being found after the tsunami.
Despite the lasting tragic memories the experience was without any doubt life changing. The vivid memory from it all , after seeing , witnessing and handling dozens of dead victims , children , babies , all in varying degrees of decomposition , was and still is the Asian women who was so inconsolable with grief she laid outside the temple and scrapped her finger nails at the road until they had all been pulled off.
All photos’ and images are Stephen Stratton and remain so in their entirety