Travel
5 min

Lovers survive tsunami together

It was like a movie where everyone gets killed and you're the last ones standing, they say

CALM BEFORE THE STORM. Jerry George & Ed MacMurdo enjoy the Thai coast, oblivious to what's to come. Credit: Ed Macmurdo

The Thai jungle air was silent. It was 3pm on Sun Dec 26 and the tsunami’s third wave was just slamming into Thailand.

“We were overlooking a bay,” says Ed MacMurdo, recalling the moment he saw the water turn to mud. “It went from blue and started getting browner and browner because another wave would come in and suck the water out again.”

Suddenly, boats that had been floating on the surface were sitting on the muddy bottom.

“We felt like we were in one of those science fiction movies where everybody in the world gets killed and we’re the last remaining ones, like in The Omega Man,” says the gay Maple Ridge dentist.

MacMurdo, 44, and his partner of seven years, Jerry George, 41, an IT consultant in downtown Vancouver, are still shaken by the phenomenon in the bay.

George shows a photo of people standing on a ridge overlooking the muddy water. “We wondered what’s going on in the world,” he says quietly. “You couldn’t hear anything; we were cut off.”

When the third wave hit, he and MacMurdo were on higher ground in the jungle on a half-day safari from their beachfront hotel. It was only by chance that they were there at all, and not on the beach that day.

They had been on Phuket Island, off the west coast of Thailand, for nearly a week. They arrived Dec 20 and spent the rest of week exploring the beaches and touring the smaller islands. “In any of those situations, if it had happened we would have been goners,” MacMurdo says.

They almost didn’t take the safari trip that Sunday.

“During the Christmas Eve celebrations, the tour director heard us saying we were going on the safari tour on Monday,” MacMurdo explains. The director told them they had their dates mixed up. Sure enough, the couple checked and found they were booked for the safari on Sunday, the day the tsunami came. “Originally, we thought we were going to be spending that day on the beach,” he notes.

At 8 am Sunday, they climbed into a Land Rover and headed out for their tour. “Around 8:05 the earthquake hit. The truck was shaking and Jerry thought that I was shaking the truck. It was bouncing. I thought it was him; he thought it was me,” MacMurdo says. “You could feel it pretty good but we didn’t know it was an earthquake. It happened just off the coast here,” he says, pointing to a spot on the map.

In 20 minutes they were on the sheltered side of the island, at a bay where they went river kayaking. MacMurdo recounts, “they took you in a longboat out to the mouth of the river in a mangrove swamp and they put everybody into inflatable kayaks and you had to kayak back. There were three groups and we were the second group. We decided to stay in the longboat so I wouldn’t get my camera wet. We got back to the pier and back in our Land Rover, headed up this hill to do elephant trekking.

“As we left, the next group got into the longboat and went to the mouth of the river. They were kayaking back and then the tsunami hit.

“The first wave hit around quarter to 10 and the biggest wave hit right after 10 o’clock. When the water hit, it overturned all the kayaks and the longboat that the third group was in. Everybody got swamped. One lady had three kids in a kayak and she lost one of her children,” MacMurdo says.

A few hours later, the tour operators tried to convey the magnitude of the situation. “They said there was a big tsunami and thousands of people are dead and there’s lots of destruction, all the roads are closed,” George recalls. “We were trying to think of what that’s going to look like and getting worried.”

“They kept us up there. They felt it wasn’t safe to go back,” MacMurdo continues. “We were on this vantage point-20 people standing on a hill staring down at this bay.

“Finally around 5:30 pm, they let us start going back to this side of the island. They didn’t know if they would get us home.”

When they got into the beach area, the roads were blocked with debris, “so they let us out and we walked through mud and boats and cars and scooters and taxis all piled up.”

The destruction got worse as they headed towards their hotel. The first beach had beach chairs strewn all across it. “It hadn’t been hit too bad. We thought that would be about it, and we got to the next one, saw a bus leaning up on the telephone lines. Only the front end was touching the ground. That kind of concerned us.

“Then we got to ours and it was a war zone.”

They walked along in shock, not seeing any bodies they realized later, “because all day they’d been carting bodies up the hill in the backs of pickup trucks,” MacMurdo explains. “Our porter had run for the hills and spent a couple of hours up there. He came back to protect the hotel from looters. So he took us by candlelight to our room and it was okay.”

But the first floor of their hotel was wiped out. Buildings on both sides were destroyed.

“It was just the weirdest feeling I’ve ever had in my whole life,” George remembers. “They kept saying ‘there’s more waves coming,’ so you’re not really sure what to believe. But after you’ve seen what’s happened, you just want to get out and get out fast.”

They walked nearly a kilometre and a quarter across the beach through the never-ending debris. The water reached to the main street but some businesses were open on the other side of the street.

MacMurdo pulls his map across the table again. “There’s a gay bar in this area over here. Jerry was very frazzled so I took him to the gay bar, put all our luggage down, sat him down, got him a Heineken, said, ‘you wait here I’ll find a hotel room.’ He found a room on the 15th floor of a 22-storey hotel.

“A lot of people were trying to find rooms. I lucked in, but they could only guarantee you for the night, so one night at a time we stayed there for the next five days.”

They notified family and friends by telephone and e-mail.

Air Canada didn’t want to change their return date “because nobody knew what was going on, yet,” George explains. Finally, a friend got the tickets changed for them and they came back on Dec 30, not Jan 3 as planned.

“We still had a few days there but it was really hard to have a good time.” he remembers. “You couldn’t go to the beach because it was devastated. The beach completely changed too. The sand was like hard rock sand, whereas before, it was beautiful white, fluffy talcum powder sand.”

MacMurdo recalls, “the day we were leaving, Thursday at 3 o’clock, the power went out and I said to Jerry, ‘I don’t feel good about this; there’s something happening.'”

The air was really hazy and the power was out for an hour. “They told us our taxi might not make it because the roads were all blocked. That was the day that India thought it was getting another tsunami and we thought we were getting one in Thailand. So everybody ran for the hills. Thousands of people ran up into the hills.”

They have since have discussed the possibilities ad infinitum: what if they’d been separated when the waves hit? “I would look for you,” George tells his partner.

“How long would you look for me?” MacMurdo asks.

“Until I found you… you don’t really know the answer to that question…” George makes a face at his partner.

MacMurdo lowers his voice. “I know you can identify dead bodies and I would know his teeth. I would have been coming back from the gym and he would have been on the beach reading…

“And he won’t look up from his books, so the wave would’ve hit him,” he teases.

His tone sobers quickly again. “I might have seen him float by. But then he would be missing and when do you stop looking for someone who’s missing?”

Their vacation destinations are now more limited. George counts them off on the fingers of his left hand: “Canada, United States, Western Europe and Australia are the only places we’re allowed to go for vacation from now on,” he says. “I still feel leery about the water.”