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'There were bodies all over the place, the smell of death was unbelievable' - Dublin family devastated by tsunami disaster

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George and Wan Smullen

George and Wan Smullen

George Smullen with photo of his late parents-in-law (Penit and Watcharee Thongphet). Glasnevin, Dublin. Picture: Caroline Quinn

George Smullen with photo of his late parents-in-law (Penit and Watcharee Thongphet). Glasnevin, Dublin. Picture: Caroline Quinn

George Smullen's late parents-in-law (Penit and Watcharee Thongphet

George Smullen's late parents-in-law (Penit and Watcharee Thongphet

George Smullen at his home in Glasnevin, Dublin. Picture: Caroline Quinn

George Smullen at his home in Glasnevin, Dublin. Picture: Caroline Quinn

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George and Wan Smullen

A Dublin family devastated by the tsunami disaster of 2004 helped to transform the lives of thousands of survivors.

As George and Wan Smullen prepare to mark the 10th anniversary of the tragedy on December 26, they know their lives will never be the same again.

Wan (48) lost both of her parents who were drowned as they worked in a family seaside business in Thailand.

Dubliner George (59), a native of Glasnevin, and Wan, who grew up in Thailand, set up a new Irish charity with friends, and spearheaded a regeneration project which restored the livelihoods of hundreds of fishermen and their families, assisted orphans, and helped rebuild coastal communities.

"I still remember the terrible scenes when we arrived three days later to look for Wan's parents. It was like an atomic bomb had gone off," said George.

More than 7,000 people were killed in Thailand - most of them losing their lives in the low-lying area of Koah-Lak, north of Phuket.

Wan's mother Watcharee and father Penit were working at Bangniang beach when they were swept away. Wan's uncle and his eight-year-old son were walking on the beach and they were also drowned.

Wan's cousin's wife, a female police officer, was on the beach protecting a 21-year-old grandson of the King of Thailand. She was drowned along with the King's grandson.

George and Wan, who were enjoying St Stephen's Day at home in Glasnevin with their children Siam, Shannon and Georgina, began receiving telephone calls from relatives in Thailand about "a big wave" that hit their country.

But it wasn't until the next day that the full extent of the disaster began to be broadcast on television. They could not contact Wan's parents. Wan's sister Lai, who lives near them with her husband John Perkins, shared her growing anxiety.

On the following day, the two couples flew to Thailand. They arrived on December 29 and drove to Koah-Lak.

"Bodies were all over the place. It was complete devastation. Cars were hanging off roofs. We passed buses stuck in lakes with the bodies still in them. The smell of death was unbelievable," said George.

Wan's father's body was identified three days later by a shark tooth gold ring he was wearing. They stayed for two weeks. Some days they attended as many as five funerals of people they knew.

But there was no trace of the body of Wan and Lai's mother. The two couples stayed as long as they could but had to return to Dublin to care for their children.

"Wan slept with three phones every night for seven months waiting for a call about her mother. She and Lai kept hoping she'd turn up alive," said George.

Finally, her body was identified in August. It was done with the help of Marks and Spencer labels on her favourite clothing and DNA testing.

"She had always treated me like a son," he said.

George, a director of the Benson Food Company which undertakes event catering, decided to help the devastated communities of Koah-Lak and set up a charity named Ireland For Koah-Lak Direct. Its directors were George, Wan, Lia, Jamie Conlon, John Coughlan and Charles McEvoy.

communities

With the help and encouragement of Jamie Conlon, a gala fundraising banquet at the Mansion House in Dublin raised €230,000.

A total of €450,000 was raised by communities across Ireland and the UK for the charity.

The charity paid for the building of more than 120 fishing boats, each manned by a crew of six fishermen. Groups in Ireland and the UK that raised significanat sums of money had their names painted on individual boats.

Water purification kits were installed in 300 homes. Electricity and water supplies were brought to 100 new homes. School books, clothing, and care for orphans were supported. No money went on administration costs.

"After 10 years, it's good to see the area blossoming again. I'd like to pay tribute to everyone who helped so generously.

"It will take generations for these communities to fully heal. The physical scars are mostly gone but the emotional ones will need more time," said George.

hnews@herald.ie


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