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In Thailand

'There Were No Ambulances, No Cars . . . Nothing'

By Peter S. Goodman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 29, 2004; Page A11

KHAOLAK, Thailand, Dec. 28 -- All through the night after the tsunami hit, they huddled in the jungle covering the rise above this beach resort, fearing another lethal surge of water below. Thousands of people, many seriously injured, waited for help.

When dawn came on Monday, they heard the buzz of a helicopter. Some assumed rescue was finally at hand and waved their arms frantically. But it was only a television crew. The craft hovered over the beach, capturing footage of the carnage below -- bodies strewn across the sand, mixed with rubble from pulverized villas.

Police and villagers run in panic after rumors of another wave nearing Phangnga province. (Apichart Weerawong -- AP)

"They just made a movie, and then they were gone," said Tolga Kolba, a Turkish divemaster who lives here, in what had been a resort area that hosted about 10,000 tourists. "There were no ambulances, no cars, no helicopters, nothing. It was 24 hours before we saw any military or police help."

Two days after the coast of this Southeast Asian country absorbed a tsunami triggered by a powerful earthquake, Thais and tourists alike began to ask why it took so long for the authorities to marshal a rescue effort. They wondered aloud if a more concerted job might have limited a death toll that preliminary counts on Tuesday put at more than 1,500 in Thailand, with expectations of a far higher total. The deputy interior minister, Sutham Saengprathum, said more than 700 foreigners were among the dead, according to the Associated Press.

"We see on television that in America they have so many helicopters," said Supasate Opitakon, 30, who had three friends washed off the beach to their deaths. "In America, you use helicopters to save even an animal. Here there were so many people needing help and so few helicopters. If the army had come with more, they could have saved many people."

The Thai government has generally maintained that it has done what it could under intensely difficult circumstances, with little warning and limited resources. But a front-page story published Tuesday in a Bangkok newspaper, the Nation, reported that Thai officials were aware of the possibility of the tsunami early Sunday morning -- more than an hour before it hit -- but rejected suggestions of an evacuation, fearing the consequences for the tourism industry during one of the busiest weeks of the year. The report could not be independently confirmed.

In an interview Tuesday here in Phangnga province, the hardest-hit area in Thailand, Deputy Prime Minister Chaturon Chaisang acknowledged that rescue efforts have been slow and that people suffered and died as a result.

"It has not been very well organized yet because of terrible communication," Chaturon said, standing next to the helicopter that delivered him from Bangkok. Nearby rescue workers carried a body up from a beach.

He said he was "not very satisfied" with the time it took for the first help to arrive in the area, confirming that "in some spots" injured and displaced people waited without aid for 24 hours after the first waves washed in.

Thailand is by no means one of the world's poorest countries. Compared with most of its neighbors, it is a prosperous land of modern highways, reliable electricity and sophisticated telecommunications, much of it paid for by an enormous tourism industry and thriving exports.

Thailand is also a country of stark contrasts, in which rice farmers who subsist on several hundred dollars a year live near jet-setting tourists who spend that sum on a single night in a luxury beachfront villa. As the waves tore into buildings here, they laid bare the differences between these economies, while highlighting how unevenly government resources are sometimes distributed.

At a Le Meridien five-star resort that opened last month, the wall of water pushed down marble outdoor showers and an al fresco dining pavilion, as it stripped bare dozens of villas and drowned an estimated eight people. Amid the detritus left on the deserted grounds Tuesday was a bottle of 1997 Chateau Grand-Puy-Lacoste, a flat-screen television set and a computer monitor.

A manager there, Bernhard Ollman, said the authorities called to warn of the waves five minutes before they hit. "By that time, it was too late," he said.

Down the road in the fishing village of Namkim, 2,000 families were left homeless and as many as 200 people were reported dead. The survivors sifted through the wreckage of their far less affluent community, including the remains of power boats and fishing nets.

Mortality was distributed without respect to the cost of lodgings. At a Buddhist temple transformed into a morgue, Swiss and German tourists stood alongside villagers as they inspected the gruesome sight laid out in the tropical sun -- more than 100 corpses. The stench of rotting flesh was sickening.

On Tuesday, police manned a busy makeshift aid center set up in the driveway of a national park, dispatching rescue workers to newly discovered wreckage. Satellite trucks sat parked at the entrance, providing signals for a phone bank that allowed locals and tourists to place calls.

Along the coast, the Thai army operated heavy machinery -- front-loaders, dump trucks and excavators -- piling up felled trees and boards, and moving crushed cars.

The worst work was down at the beach, where rescue workers wearing surgical masks picked through the ruins of collapsed hotels for bodies. The arms of one man were wrapped around the base of a coconut tree, his legs splayed out away from the sea. The workers wrapped him in a sheet and deposited him atop a pile of other corpses in the back of a pickup truck.

As the deputy prime minister acknowledged, most of the rescue and relief resources have been aimed at areas with the most tourists, such as the resort island of Phuket, where crews have already swept up much of the debris on beachfront roads.

Many of those who survived the disaster here said they were stunned by how long they were left on their own.

Kaba, the Turkish divemaster, was in his house when he heard the rumbling of the water. He headed to the office of the dive shop where he works. The palm-covered soil between the road and the sandy beach had been remade into a death zone.

"There were people, 20 or 30 people, lying on the road close to death," Kaba said. He found 10 more lying on the path to what had been the beach, the sand now vanished. In the grass next to the dive shop, about 50 people lay on the ground writhing in pain or not moving.

He was about to stop and help a woman who was screaming in agony, he said. But people were shouting for him to run up to the hill, warning that more waves were on the way. "When I went back to look for her later, she wasn't there anymore," he said.

By midday, Kaba and dozens of other volunteers had established a makeshift camp on the hill. They went about collecting the injured. Those dead or close to it they left on the ground, concentrating on those with hope. They filled a bungalow at the top of the hill with hurt children. Everyone else stayed in the jungle.

Kaba took the first-aid kits from the dive shop to the rise. In them were bandages, painkillers, alcohol for surface wounds. But these were no good for the roughly 100 people with serious injuries -- punctured lungs, broken backs. About 20 were taken to clinics in town on the backs of scooters. The rest waited for ambulances that did not appear. How many died as a result, no one knows.

There were about 20 members of a special police force for tourists in town, witnesses said. But the police mostly stayed in front of a supermarket, guarding its locked gates against looters who were breaking into villas and making off with luggage and passports. "They were taking wallets and jewelry from dead people," Kaba said.

The supermarket had food and water, but it remained guarded and shut as people spent the night in the jungle largely without.

It was midday on Monday when the ambulances finally arrived and took survivors to hospitals to the north. Army trucks pulled up to dispense instant noodles, bottled water and bananas. Even then, the rescue work was slowed by chaotic and poorly regulated traffic, witnesses said.

Despite the chaos, some people said Thai authorities could not be faulted for bumbling what amounted to an unprecedented natural disaster.

"Everything was turned upside down," said Pom Massiratna, assistant manager at a now-obliterated resort here, whose elder sister remained missing on Tuesday. "The Thai style, it's a little slow. The relief effort is not enough. But this is the first time we have ever faced this problem."

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