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Tsunami - 10 years on: 'Survivors wept over photos of families dragged out to sea'

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Rescue and clean-up crew survey a flooded lobby at the Seapearl Beach Hotel along Patong Beach on Phuket Island, Thailand, after massive tsunami waves smashed coastlines Sunday morning.

Rescue and clean-up crew survey a flooded lobby at the Seapearl Beach Hotel along Patong Beach on Phuket Island, Thailand, after massive tsunami waves smashed coastlines Sunday morning.

An Acehnese man smokes a cigarette near a house on which a fishing boat landed after it was swept away by tsunami in Banda Aceh, Aceh province, Indonesia

An Acehnese man smokes a cigarette near a house on which a fishing boat landed after it was swept away by tsunami in Banda Aceh, Aceh province, Indonesia

Asian tsunami: This mountain top photo was taken December 26, 2004 from about 400 feet above the sea on December 26, 2004

Asian tsunami: This mountain top photo was taken December 26, 2004 from about 400 feet above the sea on December 26, 2004

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Rescue and clean-up crew survey a flooded lobby at the Seapearl Beach Hotel along Patong Beach on Phuket Island, Thailand, after massive tsunami waves smashed coastlines Sunday morning.

On December 26, 2004 I was in Switzerland on a Christmas snowboarding trip with friends thousands of miles away from the unfolding disaster in South East Asia.

Within 48 hours I had landed in Phuket, Thailand on assignment for TV3 News where up to 30 Irish people were initially feared missing.

Arriving in what had been an idyllic paradise where young Irish holidaymakers had drank cocktails, laughed and sunbathed just a short time before, was a raw and distressing experience.

The devastation was so widespread it felt like relief workers didn't know where to start.

I remember watching huge machinery slowly picking through the rubble of completely destroyed buildings searching for bodies trapped under piles of concrete, but barely making a dent in the wreckage that went on as far as the eye could see.

Decay

In the main streets of Phuket, weeping survivors clung to each other beside rows of bulletin boards overladen with photos of missing relatives and friends, smiling children, entire families dragged out to sea by the huge wave.

The smell of decaying, rotting water-logged flesh was so overpowering and nauseating, I had to block it by putting Vicks on my nostrils several times a day just to cope with it.

The most difficult part was every day seeing hundreds of bodies lined up at makeshift morgues wrapped in body bags beside stacks and stacks of coffins.

It was extremely painful to see the small bodies of children who didn't escape the tsunami and even more heartbreaking to witness the raw grief of the Irish families who had the grim task of identifying loved ones from images of bloated bodies posted on the morgue's walls outside.

Four young Irish people who were holidaying in Thailand at the time of the disaster lost their lives that St Stephen's Day.

They were: Lucy Coyle (28), from Killiney, Co Dublin; Eilis Finnegan (27), from Ballyfermot, Dublin; Michael Murphy (23), from Ballyconnigar, Co Wexford; and Conor Keightley (31), from Co Tyrone.

It still amazes me to this day that more Irish people didn't lose their lives in a disaster that claimed more than 280,000 victims. Maybe the death toll would have been higher if the tsunami hadn't happened so early that St Stephen's morning when many holidaymakers were enjoying a post Christmas Day lie-in.

I remember the sadness of meeting the family and friends of missing Irish victims Eilis Finnegan and Conor Keatley and interviewing Garda Detective Superintendent John O'Driscoll who flew out from Ireland to work in the Disaster Victim Identification Centre. I recall meeting an old friend from Limerick, Dee Corbett, on the beach who was extremely shaken to have just escaped the tsunami and the Nolan family from Dublin who also had a lucky escape when their apartment building collapsed.

One of my stand out experiences was visiting a school in Khao Lak, north of Phuket where many of the children attending were left orphans as a result of the disaster. It was incredible to see the results of the huge efforts of Irish fundraising being distributed in the school by aid groups like the Irish Red Cross.

Thailand is known as the 'Land of Smiles' and I was amazed how these innocent children could still smile with so much agony and trauma to face in their young lives as a result of losing both parents.

EERIE

In the week post-tsunami, it was eerie to walk on such beautiful calm beaches which were deserted apart from the odd brightly coloured sunhat or flip-flop, a reminder of more carefree times just a few days previous.

Throughout my 14 days in Phuket, it was sometimes overwhelming to stand in the middle of so much destruction.

What I experienced in Thailand will never leave me. I haven't been back and I also haven't been able to watch the movie made about the disaster, The Impossible starring Naomi Watts, but I hope to return to Thai shores some day.

Every St Stephen's Day without fail I think back to the time I spent in South East Asia and the horror and suffering endured by so many. This year won't be any different.


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