'Death was everywhere,' a repost from local paper

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Richmond BC Canada
This is a post from our local paper today.

'Death was everywhere,' says diver who survived

Harvey Wallace was scuba diving in Thailand, admiring the tropical fish and huge coral formations when a current grabbed him and nearly slammed him into a vertical reef wall. The Victoria resident was 10 metres deep when the Boxing Day tsunami hit.

"The power of the current was amazingly strong and I remember feeling the sensation of how fast I was moving," he said. "I was kind of confused because I wasn't entirely aware of what was going on but I knew that something wasn't right. I could see it in my dive master's eyes when she looked at me."

The water was full of sand and you could see huge chunks of coral, the size of garbage cans, whipping by, and when I looked up I could no longer see the surface."

A dive boat had taken the 21-year-old Camosun College student and more than a dozen others to explore the waters around Ko Phi Phi, a small island south of Phuket.

This was his first time scuba diving.

Other divers who had been below him when the sea shuddered had disappeared, as had the coral reef.

"It had gotten really dark and my eardrums had begun to really hurt.

"My dive master started to signal for us to go up and we inflated our life vests with air and began to swim up."

The pain in his ears became almost excruciating. After inflating his vest, he noticed it wasn't getting any brighter at the surface. He later realized he was actually being sucked deeper.

"At the time it was a pretty terrifying experience because I could feel this depth change by the pain in my ears and when you're swimming up and the surface you're looking at only gets darker, it's hard to control your thoughts," Wallace said.

When he finally surfaced, the dive boat was more than 100 metres away --he had been swept that far in a matter of a few seconds.

Once all the divers were gathered up, Wallace stood on the boat's top deck.
"I could see these huge bright green upwelling currents about five to eight metres in diameter all over the place. It was sand being welled from the sea floor. I couldn't figure out what the hell would cause that. It was beyond me. I'd never seen anything like it."

They headed back to shore.

"On our way back, this guy in a long tail boat starts circling our dive boat saying there [are] 100 people dead on Phi Phi, killed by a big wave. Our captain started laughing and told us the guy was just messing with us." But they arrived at a bay full of debris. Wallace realized some of the debris was actually dead bodies, "some bent in ways they really shouldn't be."

More than 80 per cent of the village was wiped off the island, concrete foundations and all.

"My whole family was on that island," Wallace recalled thinking at the time. There was no sign of his mother, her partner, his sister or brother-in-law.

"The island was gone now, and my whole family was gone."

It took some time to sink in. "When you see something like this, it is just so unreal it takes time to process what exactly you're looking at."

He recalled another nearby dive boat was towing a dead body, "but the shore was too damaged to dock, so they cut it loose -- they didn't know what to do with it."
An Israeli on the same boat as Wallace grabbed a floating kayak and asked Wallace to help. They eventually pulled the body out of the water with a rope from an anchored motorboat. "That was one of the most horrific and traumatizing things I've done and hopefully will ever do. What angered me the most was that nobody would help us. I must have called to four or five other boats nearby for help and all they did was just watch us."

The scene on shore was worse.
In what was left of the village, there were people running around with knives and spikes and harpoons from the dive shops. Everyone was going crazy, people looting anything they could get their hands on, climbing over corpses to get at things."
Others were walking around in a daze, looking at the ground, mumbling, bumping into people and not even noticing.

"People with internal bleeding were throwing up everywhere. People who had been helped, by the very small percentage of people trying to help, were lying in a clearing made by the wave where the helicopters were now landing to take out the most hurt and to assess the damage."

Some people were maimed and impaled with fatal wounds. They were dying before his eyes.

"Death was everywhere. The village, or what was left, had turned into chaos."

One of the first aircraft to land on the island was a news helicopter, he recalled. "They landed and took some photos and video footage and then left. They didn't take anybody with them. Right there could have been two to three lives saved, maybe even seven to 10 lives."

The dive boat's captain, after putting it to a vote, decided to spend the night at a nearby place called Long Island.

"That trip to Long Island was spent in pretty much dead silence. Nobody spoke. Nearing 4 a.m. we arrived at a small fishing village of about 20 to 30 people and they welcomed us into their homes," Wallace recalled.

"The generosity of the Thai people throughout that day and the following days really became pretty heartfelt, amazing. We were all very thankful, since most of us had lost everything. Myself, all I had was my flip-flops ... shorts and hat."

They watched the news on the one television in the village at dawn the next morning.
"It was in Thai, but we all gathered around to see aerial shots of Phuket, Krabi, Khao Lak and Phi Phi. It was like another punch in the face, seeing these places, or what was left, one after another. After, we gathered our thoughts and figured out our next move, then got back on the dive boat and kept moving."

Wallace eventually returned to Phuket, where the Canadian Embassy provided temporary identification but little other help. "I asked them how I was supposed to get home and they told me to phone and get somebody to wire me money via Western Union ...

"I was astounded by their lack of effort for Canadians. I was in dire need. They really dropped the ball on this one."

All this time he had been searching for family members. He finally telephoned an aunt back home and broke down in tears when she said he was the first to call.
"I was overwhelmed with despair when she said that. I had delayed trying to contact home for as long as I could because that was what I didn't want to hear."
He went to a local police station and scoured the boards of photos of dead bodies.
"It was an extremely emotionally difficult thing to look through board upon board of dead bodies, trying to see if that was your sister or brother disfigured by something, and not sure because you can't make it out."

Days later, he ran into his brother-in-law, who was showing Wallace's photo to people on the street. He learned the rest of his family was alive.

Wallace, who flew to Vancouver on New Year's Eve, feels lucky to be alive.
"From what I know, there were some hundred other divers who died in an area near where we were diving. By all accounts, I really shouldn't have lived ... I don't know why, but I did.

"It feels really good to be alive."

Profile of and interview with Harvey Wallace.

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