The Phuket tsunami and a coffee machine

Dr John Collum


Our life is full of decisions — we make dozens of small decisions everyday: what to wear, where to go, what to do. Usually, these decisions pass without much consequence — yet on 26 December 2004, the small, seemingly insignificant decisions made by hundreds of thousands or men, women and children determined whether they would live or die that cataclysmic day. As an American working in Nepal for the past 13 years, I made a decision a few years ago to retire in Phuket, Thailand. I bought a condominium in the only high-rise building right on the mile-long Karon Beach — just one beach south of Patong — the tourist hot-spot. On December 17, my fiancée and I left a cold Kathmandu for a warm month of vacation in Phuket.

From the day we arrived, our routine remained the same — up around eight, walk the beach, and then a nice, leisurely breakfast at one of the many small restaurants near the beach. Some mornings were spent on Karon Beach - some on Patong. But on Christmas Day, I decided to give myself a gift I had always wanted — an espresso machine. A visit to my favourite Starbucks Coffee shop on Patong Beach solved the problem. I left with my machine, and a good supply of fresh, whole coffee beans. The next morning abruptly began at 8 am with the room swaying and the bed shaking enough that I had to hold on. It was immediately apparent that a large earthquake had occurred somewhere. We both made the decision to eat in and try out the new coffee machine. At 10 am, as we were sitting on our eleventh floor balcony, enjoying our latte and looking out over the emerald green Andaman Sea, we saw the sea go out so fast that a few boats were grounded as water was pulled from under them. I looked at my fiancée and told her that this was bad. In only minutes, the first wave hit. There are usually 5,000 beach chairs and umbrellas on Karon Beach-7000 or more on Patong. The first wave destroyed every single one of them and began to carry them out to sea. As the first wave receded, we were spectacle to a rare sight — a large wave breaking in the wrong direction as it went back out to sea — chasing other boats in its path. In the ensuing minutes after the first wave, hundreds of people decided to go to the beach to see what had happened. On Patong Beach, dozens of people made a quick decision and ran for safety down into the Ocean Plaza shops, which were below street level. These turned out to be fatal decisions, for within minutes, the second, much larger wave came ashore. The people on the beach were caught up in not only in the huge surge of water, but in the debris and wreckage created by the first wave. In Patong, the second wave, demolished all the shops along Beach road (including Starbucks) and completely filled the lower level shops of Ocean Plaza, trapping and drowning all who worked or sought shelter there.

In the days after the tsunami, as the death toll mounted, a feeling of guilt hung over those who survived. How could we have been so lucky while so many died? Is there really such a thing as luck… as karma? Or… are our lives simply a product of the small, seemingly insignificant decisions we make everyday?

(Dr Collum is Regional Expert, HRD/ Training, Occupational Skill Development at wissContact. In his spare time, he plays tennis, reads and undertakes South Asian sojourns)