From The Times
December 29, 2004
Luxury resorts where bodies of tourists litter the beach
Remote and exclusive location hinders rescue bid
From Andrew Drummond in Khao Lak, Thailand
THE shattered luxury beach hotels of Khao Lak began yielding up their dead yesterday as rescue crews battled their way through the debris to discover the full horror of the devastation left in the trail of the tsunami.
At least 770 corpses, mainly foreign tourists, were recovered in the area around Khao Lak beach, on the Thai mainland north of Phuket, a magnet for tourists from northern Europe escaping the long, dark winters at home.
Built at a distance from popular resorts to guarantee exclusivity for their wealthy guests, their remote location ensured that it would take almost three days for emergency services to arrive, too long for all but the strongest survivors.
Yesterday, as army helicopters with loudspeakers hovered over remote jungle peaks, coaxing people who had fled the massive tidal wave to come down to safety, rescue crews began retrieving the dead from the wreckage of what used to be Magic Lagoon Resort.
Here bodies still lay among the rubble, others on the beach. It was a vision described by Anthony Dufour, an hotel manager as 'apocalyptic'. There was no lagoon. Some 250 hotel guests are still missing, together with nearly as many staff. None was found in the surrounding hills. Some 350 guests are believed to have been staying at the hotel.
Colonel Pich Kindomsak, of the Thai Army, said his men had removed 30 bodies, including those of children, from the resort. Most were in the hotel dining room when the tsunami struck.
'They didn't know what hit them,' he said at the hotel, where the wall of water snapped concrete pillars in half and wrought destruction up to the second of its three floors. His men had many more cottages to search and they expected to find another 100 bodies.
Guests in many of the hotels and resorts along the route north from Phuket through the province of Pang Nag stood little chance. Many were on beaches surrounded by steep hills. The waves came in and just smashed the structures against the land, killing the occupants.
Those that did make it to the hills were the lucky ones. Donnie Spillage, 39, from Heathfield, West Sussex, was coaxed down from the hills above Khao Lak by the loudspeaker appeals.
He said: 'I was never going to go back until someone convinced me it was safe. I had been camping there two nights. Local people gave me food and water. We were all terrified it was going to happen again.
'I was living in a house a mile away when I heard the noise of the tsunami coming. It came with a rush at my house bringing, people, trees, motorcycles, televisions all sorts of debris with it. I was on the second floor and lucky because it was losing pace.
'When the waters receded I was able to catch the arms of a couple of people and pull them clear and I rushed after it to drag people back. I got several people out, but also some bodies. I pulled one young mother out. She was clutching her baby daughter. But the baby had died.
'Since I came down Thai people have offered me accommodation in their house, and food. They have been so kind. I want to stay and help other victims.'
The resorts at Khao Lak were devastated, reduced to matchsticks. Among the rubble outside the Khao Lak Paradise, Khao Lak Bay and Khao Lak Sunset resorts lay television sets, mattresses, personal belongings and plastic Christmas trees.
Covered with wet blankets and plastic in a blown out bungalow at Khao Lak Paradise was the body of one guest, a foot protruding from under the covers. Staff stood on guard against looters.
On the beach were some 30 bodies, some naked, some in clothes, some in swimwear. One had become entwined in strings of Christmas tinsel.
Yangon Kopeck, a local hotel owner, said he believed that half the estimated 5,000 foreign tourists staying at Khan Lack were killed when the wall of water struck on Sunday. The bodies of more than 100 of his 300 guests had been recovered, he said.
Chantima Saengli, the owner of the Blue Village Pagarang hotel, said she knew about sixty of her Scandinavian guests were safe. She feared the other 340 were dead, their bodies swept into the lush rain forest covering the hills behind the beach.
Up the road near the devastated Similan Beach and Spa Resort, where some sixty mostly German tourists had been staying, the corpse of a naked man hung suspended from a tree as if crucified. A police patrol boat lay beached more than half a mile from the sea.
By the side of the road to Phuket piles of bodies are wrapped in plastic, waiting to be collected and placed in plywood coffins delivered to local temples. Pick-up trucks operated by charities collect the dead. They roar past, sirens blazing, laden with corpses, limbs protruding over the sides.
Thaksin Shinawatra, the Prime Minister, has cancelled all new year festivities and flags are flying at half mast.
Thai officials conceded last night that the final death count was not predictable. But there cannot be many more now hiding in the hills.