Sailors Ed and Helen Muesch were cruising in Thailand when the tsunami struck. Read Ed's terrifying account here
American sailors Ed and Helen Muesch are taking part in the Blue Water Rally in Tahlequah, their Hans Christian 43. They were anchored in Phi Phi Don in Thailand when the tsunami struck. What follows is their terrifying account, in which Helen nearly died.
We have had several other terrible reports, which we hope to publish in our March issue. A number came from yachtsmen who had taken great risks to treat the injured ashore.
Just a short but important digression before progressing with Ed and Helen’s story: In the last few days there has been much passionate discussion about the necessity – and the failings – of aid agencies on the Yachting Monthly Scuttlebutt forum page, Click here.
We asked fellow Blue Water Rally sailor Dick York, who was also in Phi Phi Don during the tsunami, and who helped with many injured people, what he believes to be the most effective way of helping. Here’s what he replied:
‘The Thais seem to be reasonably well organised here now. I do not think any direct aid here is something anyone could undertake more effectively than a good NGO. We have decided we should support the local Red Cross (Red Crescent in some countries), as the best disaster/refugee relief effort. They are good at this kind of disaster, and will be here a relatively long time to get people back on their feet.
‘Another effort you might think about is some NGO that could make small loans to business people and fishermen. I don’t know of such an NGO right now, but if you find one, would you please email their identity to me?’
If anyone knows of such an organisation, please email me
On to Ed and Helen’s report, as follows:
Twelve Rally boats gathered at Phi Phi Don Island, 15 miles off Phuket, Thailand to celebrate Christmas day together. On the morning of 26 December Helen and I awoke and decided to go to the island for breakfast, leaving our [21-year-old] grandson Michael sleeping aboard Tahlequah.
It’s important to explain Phi Phi Don is a small island with a beautiful beach on the north side, while the south side has many open restaurants, numerous shops and several luxury hotels catering to the hundreds and hundreds of tourists visiting each day. It’s the perfect picturesque island vacation get away, world famous as a popular Thailand vacation area. Each side of the island is connected by a narrow walkway.
Strolling the boardwalk we favoured a small bakery with tables and enjoyed breakfast together. This day I saw many small children in carriages, babies in back slings, and the usual teenagers and families on Phi Phi Don. I took special note of people’s faces and accents, especially fellow Americans. Ferries were arriving with hundreds of tourists emerging to enjoy Phi Phi Don for a day’s visit.
Following breakfast we made a last-minute decision to stop at one of many Internet cafes to respond to e-mails from family and friends. In each e-mail we stated: “Wish you were here”.
At approximately 1045 we returned to the south beach to collect our inflatable and return to Tahlequah. Arriving at the beach we were stunned to discover little water left in the anchorage, a phenomenon we were not used to. Helen remarked she thought Tahlequah might be on sand. I added this was impossible as we were anchored in 40 feet of water a short time before.
We began dragging our inflatable through the sand to reach water in the distance. I saw rental powerboats and longtails racing towards us, skidding frantically but unable to make progress because of the sand. I commented to Helen how people abuse boats and how furious it made me. The skippers of the Thai canoes motioned us back and began jumping from their canoes to anchor them in the sand.
Looking into the distance I saw a small foam line on the horizon moving towards us. Helen and I agreed to abandon the dinghy and run back to the island beach for safety. Running, I continued to look behind to see the wave gaining distance at an unbelieveable rate.
Seconds later I turned again to see the wave hit a rental power boat. It broke apart as it fell in the surf. I realized it was useless to run. I told Helen to stop and I bear-hugged her. I remember saying to myself: I’m going to forget I have to concentrate on hugging her; I can’t release her no matter what.
We saw a boiling froth of sea coming at us with an increasing loud swishing noise; it seemed to go on forever. Foolishly, I dug my feet into the sand hoping to withstand the wave. As it hit I felt us smacked to the sand instantly. As we hugged I could feel us tumbling like toy dolls head over heels along the bottom.
The pressure and force of the water prevented us from surfacing. As my hands were ripped from embracing Helen we both surfaced against two palm trees and were held there by ferocious current. Helen was in shock, staring towards the ocean motionless. I held her, repeating again and again: “It’s over, it’s over. We survived. You’ll be OK.”
At that exact moment we were hit by a much larger wave. I felt the palm trees give way and again we tumbled together along the bottom, rolling over the island. I continued to focus on not releasing Helen. I kept thinking” ‘We’re going to hit something; we have to,’ and waited for that moment.
We continued tumbling, seemingly forever. I was running out of air and knew I had to make it to the surface. Forcing us to the top, I had time to gulp a quick breath before being forced down again. When surfacing I saw I was passing through the palm trees on the south side of the island and knew we were now going out to sea. Desperate, I had to make it to the surface again and made a final effort to reach the top.
I tried to surface but couldn’t because of debris everywhere. I lost my grasp of Helen a second time. My hand grabbed a floating cushion and I pulled myself to the surface only to be forced below again and again.
Swallowing water, I knew the end was near and felt death all around me. I remember feeling a sense of peace I had never felt before; everything seemed to go into slow motion, quiet and very peaceful. I recall saying to myself: “I wonder how long it takes to drown?” and: “I wonder if it will be quick?”, then I thought: “It’s over now and it’s OK”.
My hand seemed to touch something ridged. It was a pipe. Grasping it, I pulled myself to the surface and saw Helen’s head below. I grabbed her neck and raised her above the water for air. She was unconscious, pure white and just staring, expressionless.
While slapping her face, I kept screaming: “Keep breathing, keep breathing! We can make it!” over and over again. I suddenly realised I had grabbed the long propeller shaft of a longtail Thai canoe.
Helen slipped and began to sink below the water, expressionless. Her face seemed resigned, as if to say ‘I’ve had enough, let me go.’ Grabbing her chin I raised her again and planted her chin into the metal framework of the adjacent upturned boat.
There was a man standing in the boat staring outwards, I screamed to him to help Helen into the boat. He seemed unable to move and continued staring. I attempted to raise myself into the canoe and I continued screaming at him, demanding he help raise Helen. Suddenly he reached out and grabbed Helen’s hand to help her into the boat. Although apparently lifeless, I knew she continued shallow breathing.
With all my strength I pulled myself into the canoe next to Helen. She laid over and whispered to me she couldn’t breathe and had awful pain in her chest. I continued to scream: “Keep breathing, you made it. Everything will be OK.” All she had to do was continue breathing.
Twenty feet away I saw a man raising a young naked woman into the canoe. I knew she was dead. Drowned people were floating past us everywhere. Looking towards the island I couldn’t believe the destruction: all the hotels had collapsed and were sliding into the sea.
I saw two large wooden upturned fishing boats moving towards us. Fearing if we didn’t move quickly we’d be crushed I got the captain to start the engine to move to a safer area and into deeper water clear of the wreckage. As I continued to hold Helen in my arms and comfort her I began to hear pleas for help coming from the water.
People were clinging to whatever they could with what little remaining strength they had. One woman begged me to help her and grabbed a board to stretch it towards me in an effort to reach us. Reaching out I realised it wasn’t long enough and gave up. I looked down into the water and I knew the only way of helping her was to jump back into the water but I feared I wouldn’t have the strength left to get back into the canoe a second time. And I was afraid of losing Helen – my hands were frozen cradling her in my arms.
I kept screaming to the woman it was over, just hang on, it will be OK, you’re safe now but I knew she wasn’t. A young man suddenly grabbed the side of our boat trying to pull himself up. He begged for my help. I told him he had to pull himself up.
Some time later the captain placed a ladder over the side for him to climb up. The man tried but didn’t have the strength. He continued pleading. I continued saying he had to find the strength to get in; my body couldn’t move. I saw the captain finally move toward him but couldn’t lift him alone. Putting Helen down I helped bring him aboard.
The Captain then found a rope to throw the woman nearby a line and dragged her aboard. I insisted the Captain had to move or we’d be crushed in minutes. He started the engine and managed to run it. We moved away slowly and I turned to hear the screams of people begging for help. I was so afraid if I stopped to help them I would lose Helen forever. I want to say all the strength in my body was gone but it wasn’t; I had to save Helen with what I had left and wouldn’t leave her.
I knew Helen couldn’t last long without oxygen as her lungs were filled with water and because of her pain didn’t know if ribs had punctured a lung. The screams faded as we distanced outselves. Other longtails were moving with us, every captain standing silently and motionless staring at the island waiting for the next wave. There was total silence; no words were spoken between the boats.
I asked the captain if he was OK. He just looked at me then responded faintly that he had lost his niece on the beach. Looking seaward I saw a wooden square-rigger racing towards the island. I told him we had to reach that ship and get Helen aboard for her to make it.
As we approached I yelled to the Swedish Captain my wife needed to get to a hospital. He responded: “My ship is your ship, where do we take her?” His crew immediately helped lift Helen aboard and laid her on the deck.
I requested oxygen and he told me he had a tank; unfortunately it didn’t have enough to make the four-hour trip to Phuket. I used his radio to call the Rally fleet in the North Bay. They informed me Tahlequah was safe; most boats had broken anchor and were headed to deeper water bracing for the next wave. I was told Michael had a bad gash in his arm and needed medical attention.
Our boat raced towards the north bay while a couple from another yacht, Regardless, raced toward us with oxygen and medical supplies. The woman was a nurse, gave us both injections for pain and administered the oxygen. They returned to their yacht to brace for the next wave. Another Rally boat brought Michael with a bandaged arm with Jesse (a paramedic from Gaultine 2), to travel with us to Phuket.
We raced towards a major port in Phuket only to be informed that it had sustained major damage. The captain suggested going north until we found suitable anchorage. Three hours later we transferred Helen to a hotel atop a hill and were immediately transported to the Phuket International Hospital.
Upon arrival we were met by a gurney and were rushed into the emergency room. Paperwork was put aside; they wanted to know only the patient’s name and injury. Within minutes X-rays indicated her lungs were filled with water but that there were no broken bones or organ damage. I was warned by the doctor that the body would slowly absorb the water but there was a high risk of serious pneumonia. She would have to be transferred to a private room for the night, then to the ICU Unit.
The following day Helen appeared worse, with more chest pain and pneumonia. The X-rays indicated her lungs were continuing to fill with fluid. Antibiotics and painkillers were administered every few hours and within two additional days the infection was under control and Helen was transferred back to a private room. Each day she continues to improve and has been informed she will be discharged after a week in the hospital, assuming all continues to progress well.
The faces and screams of the people I left behind in Phi Phi Don Bay continue to haunt me. I can never forget their screams and begging for my help and my turning away from them. I find myself walking the crowded hospital corridors among camera crews looking for people I might recognise from that day. They are never here and I will never know what happened to them.
Riding to the hospital one morning with people from the Blue Water Rally we made an unexpected stop at the University for a medical student to volunteer. They informed me the University was providing counselling for victims of the tragedy. After sitting in the car for five minutes I said I had to stay and walked into the building.
A woman named Vicki brought me to a private office closed the door and sat directly in front of me. I described what happened and said I wanted one person to listen to what really happened. It was the hardest truth I’ve ever shared about myself.
As I began to describe the people I abandoned I could still see their faces and hear their cries for help. I didn’t want to hear explanations, or forgiveness; I only wanted one person to know what really happened that day. I wanted Helen and I to survive the tsunami but I could never anticipate the cost of our survival.
Life suddenly seems so different. My drive for pushing life to extreme challenges is numb and now I regard myself as different. It was a day that changed many lives.
Talking to Helen about what to do next she stated she wanted to continue with the Blue Water Rally when healed. Another skipper volunteered to skipper our boat while his wife skippered his boat. We’ve agreed to stay in an apartment in Phukett to fully recover then fly to the next Rally port and rejoin Tahlequah.
Blue Water Rally friends at Phi Phi Don that day are responsible for saving Helen’s life and saving Tahlequah. They endangered themselves in the face of more waves to bring oxygen, medical supplies, and assistance to keep Helen live and even accompany us back to Phuket Hospital. These same people returned to the island that evening to assist those hurt in the face of the worst disaster of the century.
I will never know the man who unselfishly helped pull Helen from the water in his own grief. I will never forget his face and goodwill that touches only the surface of the Thai people.