'Everything is gone, everyone is dead'

The devastation left at Phi Pih Island off the coast of Thailand

“Three hours, that’s all I’m doing, then I’m off to Patong,” I told my colleague over a leisurely breakfast in a café in Phuket City.

We’d been particularly busy – we were one desk editor out of four short and the editor was 10 days into a fortnight’s holiday. An afternoon at the resort of Patong would be a break.

In the event, I ended up spending more than 12 hours at work, and Patong – so it seemed to the outside world-had practically been washed to me.

I thought I’d felt a tremor as I got out of bed, and I planned to check it out when I got to work.

As I walked in, though, the chief reporter, Oy, told me: “My friend says there’s been a big wave in Patong, and I’m trying to check.”

Not knowing Oy’s friend’s definition of “a big wave”, I called a regular contributor – an American expat who lives in Patong – and he confirmed this was no ordinary wave.

Then one of the reporters came in, crying. Her home, on the south-east coast of the island, had been hit too.

“Everything’s gone, everyone is dead,” she said, over and over again.

As jai yen, “cool heart” – never showing emotion, no matter how good or bad the situation – is fundamental to Thai culture, her reaction was an indication that we were facing something unprecedented.

It was decided not to re-do the pages already completed for the next edition, which was due in another six days, but to concentrate on getting tsunami-related news onto our website as quickly as possible.

Phuket attracts more than three million tourists a year, from all over the world. Many of them return to the island year after year, and our website is as much a part of their lives as their local print paper back home.

We knew they would turn to us for news.

Without making light of the death and suffering here, the tsunami has caused much less upheaval on Phuket than it has elsewhere.

Only a small percentage of the island – which is around 40 miles long and 10 wide – was directly affected. Outside of those areas there was power and a water supply. The phones, if not as reliable as usual, still worked.

Even so, the reporters struggled to get reliable information. There aren’t any press officers as British journalists would understand them, so for information they had to go straight to the horse’s mouth. As most of the horses were busy with the rescue effort, the reporters were a bit stuck.

By lunchtime on Sunday, the phones had started ringing, and they didn’t really stop until Wednesday.

Even though the calls ate badly into our already short time, we felt we had to respond to them, as people all over the world wanted to know what was happening here.

On Monday we started to get calls from members of the public, anxious about friends or relatives. The hospitals were putting lists of the injured and dead on a website.

We debated the wisdom of enabling someone to learn from the internet that a loved one was dead. It was decided to include the link, on the grounds that the only thing worse than learning that someone is dead is going through days of hoping they’re alive, before learning they’re not.

We also added as many contact numbers -for consular officials, hospitals and the newly-established shelters -as we could. We invited visitors to post missing persons adverts, then watched as the numbers rose above 1,000 and kept on climbing.

Between Sunday and midnight on Wednesday the website, which usually receives between 18,000 and 28,000 hits per day, was receiving 100,000 to 150,000.

We had countless calls and emails from people on the island thanking us for telling the story pretty much as they saw it. Practically everyone I have ever met in my life who doesn’t live here has emailed or phoned to ask if they should send food or water. I felt like such a fraud, because something like 95 per cent of the island is totally unaffected.

As deadline for the first posttsunami edition of the paper approached, we decided that most readers would already know as much as they wanted to about the death and destruction of Boxing Day, either through personal experience or from the media, so we should offer something positive.

The story and picture about Hannes Bergstrom, a Swedish toddler reunited with his family, might already have appeared around the world, but we used it anyway, as the reunion happened because of our website.

For the splash we decided to look ahead, to the relief effort that was just getting under way and the plans already being laid for repairing the damage.

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By Alison Winward, Phuket Gazette

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