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When the waves keep coming

Kimina Lyall had a different experience than did most journalists who reported on the tsunami disaster in Thailand.

Published on August 26, 2007

When the waves keep coming

The book tells of what became of the survivors.

Out of the Blue - Facing the Tsunami

By Kimina Lyall

Published by ABC Books Australia

Available at Bookazine, Bt850

Reviewed by Jim Pollard

The Nation

Lyall, a correspondent for The Australian newspaper, was caught by the Boxing Day waves on Golden Buddha Beach on Koh Phra Thong, northeast of Khao Lak.

She recalls a gentle morning on the beach - when she was "preoccupied with one of my articles" - being interrupted by bewilderment when residents of the tiny community spotted the first huge waves on the horizon. She describes a "mix of fear and fascination".


Some people ran down the beach to spread the warning. Others headed uphill. Water had drained out of the bay, which the village chief instantly knew meant danger. Nearly 100 people were killed on the island, including 13 Thai and foreign friends in the community where she and her partner, JP, were building a home.


Lyall's book tells of life there prior to the drama and what became of the survivors. What makes the account truly interesting, though, is her own struggle to understand her mixed-up emotions about what occurred.


Only many months later did she realise that the slow-motion reactions and incomprehension she and others displayed were symptoms of shock.


"The waves that hit our end of the beach were not that high, but they grew successively more powerful. Tsunami experts have since calculated the highest of them reached 11 metres at the point below where I was standing … but the waves' real impact came from their width.


"Even as people whizzed past our rock I was unable to comprehend the scale of the situation."


Survivors gathered on two hills and Lyall, armed with her mobile phone, "slowly became aware that the disaster was not ours alone". The local resort had been pulverised, with people swept away and families split up.


She called for help and sent text messages, but it was the following day before a helicopter and speedboats arrived to rescue them. Meanwhile there were rumours of more big waves coming.


Eventually she filed a story with her news desk in Sydney, and became aware she was missing amazing scenes in Phuket. The following day, straight after getting back on the mainland, Lyall had to head south to cover the biggest story of her life. In front of her were hospitals with hundreds of dead. Her editors wanted stories on victims - Aussie victims - yet, Lyall felt "completely overwhelmed" and emotionally drained.


She began hunting down the story of an Australian man whose baby was swept from his arms, but she soon "realised what going to work in this disaster meant. I would have to find grieving relatives, talk them into talking to me, listen to their stories, and then write them up coherently, all under the deadline pressure of a four-hour time difference…


"I wanted to curl up on the floor in the back of the car and pretend I wasn't me."


Hospitals were overflowing with corpses and wounded. Outside, notice boards were covered with photos of loved ones that families were desperately trying to find. And her friends from Koh Phra Tong wanted help locating those swept away.


Not long after, she found herself "failing dismally in all my newspaper's expectations" and desperately wanting to be with friends, searching for the missing. "I wanted to be with them… yearned to be looking at the bodies of my friends, not these anonymous masses."


Colleagues at her paper were sympathetic. She was allowed to return to the island to take part in funeral services. A few weeks later she went to Kuraburi and encountered the sometimes-farcical aspects of the relief efforts underway there.


Lyall writes well, and the aftermath of the tragedy and interaction with Thai officials and others are appropriately explained. She had serious personal issues to sort through, but those aspects are not allowed to become a burden for the reader.


Back in Australia she has trouble coping with normal news reporting. JP battles sleeplessness "and flashbacks of water sucking the air from her lungs" - signs of post-traumatic stress.


Lyall ends up seeing psychologists, travelling to the US to speak at a conference on journalism and trauma, and reviewing media coverage of the tsunami. She ponders God and why the disaster occurred, then becomes convinced she would have died if caught in the water like her partner had been.


Finally, she goes back to the beach on the anniversary of the tragedy and confronts her ghosts. There is a commemorative ceremony on the hillside. And, she sits down to write this book.


"Out of the Blue" is a personal tale of one correspondent's experiences during and after a horrifying event. It is not an overview of the devastation that occurred in Thailand and elsewhere, but it shows the deep impact the disaster had on so many individuals.


Kimina Lyall has written a book that is open and honest, and full of valuable insights. I enjoyed it.


Aside from the drama on Koh Phra Tong, this book is a strong case study on grief, the media and how journalists also need to deal with trauma.


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