On December 26, a 9.3-magnitude earthquake off the coast of Indonesia generated a tsunami that killed more than 280,000 people in countries surrounding the Indian Sea. Southern Thailand was among the areas hardest hit; some 5,395 people were killed. The death toll is expected to grow, since nearly 3,000 are still missing.1


Some quick geographic information is needed to understand the scope of destruction and the challenges faced by rescuers.

1) This structure was part of a resort development within 300 feet of the shore in Khao Lak. (Photos by the Royal Thai Police and Royal Thai Army Engineers, unless otherwise noted.)

Thailand is situated in southeast Asia. It is 199,600 square miles and has a population of 62 million. In the southern part of Thailand is the island of Phuket, which has a population of 71,000. It is separated from the mainland by a small channel that connects the Andaman Sea (part of the Indian Ocean) on the west to an inlet of the sea on the east separating the island from the mainland. Its economy is based nearly entirely on tourism. On the west shore is the popular resort town of Patong Beach. Much of the news coverage of the tsunami came from here, but it was not the hardest hit area in Thailand.

(2) Initially, firefighters wore lifejackets for fear of the oncoming of another wave.

Up the coast about 62 miles from Patong Beach, on the mainland, is the small community of Khao Lak, with its beautiful beaches surrounding a bay. Numerous resorts and hotels were built along the shoreline. The greatest destruction and loss of life occurred here. The Thais refer to this area as their “Ground Zero.”


Tsunami is Japanese for “harbor wave.” The wave is created by a large landslide into the sea, a sea slide (underwater landslide), or an earthquake. A tsunami is not a true wave. It is more like an extremely rapid rise in the tide. The billions of gallons of water behind the wave front roll in and keep rolling, presenting the greatest threat. At the front of this, there is a wave that can be from several inches to tens of feet high. The main tsunami front that hit Khao Lak was reported to be nearly 33 feet high.

(3) The water flowed around strong trees with good root structures. These trees were among the very few things able to withstand the pounding of debris.

A tsunami can be a wave or a series of waves, called a “wave train.” Some areas of Thailand reported up to seven waves hitting over a period of an hour.

In the open ocean, tsunamis can travel up to 500 miles per hour (mph). Once on shore, the water moves inland at about 10 to 30 mph.

(4) Walls facing the wave were destroyed. In areas where the wave was higher than the building, the roof was lost.

Many factor contribute to the destructive force of a tsunami. The first is the intensity of the force that generated it. Distance from the epicenter is also important. A tsunami loses energy as it moves away from its generating source. The topography of the sea bottom in front of the affected shoreline plays a key role. For example, although Patong Beach was slightly closer to the epicenter than Khao Lak, it suffered vastly less damage and death because of the sea bottom fronting Patong Beach. Once the tsunami is ashore, the terrain of the land plays a key role. Long, slowly sloping inward land allows the wave to travel farther. At Patong Beach, the wave went about 980 feet inland. In Khao Lak, it went nearly 1.5 miles.


Outside of Bangkok, the capital, structure fires are extremely rare. With the type of construction in the country and other factors, this is truly amazing. The largest problems are wildland fires and flooding rescues. Because of this, whatever fire service exists is severely underfunded.

In the larger cities, there are volunteer rescue squads. They are known as the “yellow cars,” since that is their color scheme. The fire service’s equipment is totally red.

Training and the responsibilities of most of the Thai Fire Service are very basic at best. Rescue training is extremely limited.2

In Khao Lak, there is no fire department or volunteer rescue squad. The two nearest fire departments are in Takua Pa (about 22 miles north) and Tai Mueang (about 28 miles south).

The Takua Pa Fire Department has two stations. Twenty-five career firefighters, divided between the two stations, are on duty each day. They work a 12-hour-on/12-hour-off schedule. Their first-line apparatus consists of four large tankers with small pumps. In 2004 they had about 60 fires, two of which were structure fires. There were no fire deaths in 2004 in this town of 8,000.


The tsunami hit Khao Lak at 10:26 a.m. The Takua Pa Fire Department first learned about the tsunami after noon, when someone drove into the fire station and reported that a “big wave” came into Khao Lak and many buildings were gone and people were dead. The reasons for the late notification was that communications had been knocked out and many roads were blocked by debris. The person who reported the incident came by back roads and took almost an hour to get to the fire station.

(5) This large home, within 200 feet of the shore, survived because it was slightly elevated above ground level and was shielded from the pounding debris by surrounding trees. The wave was high enough to wash through the second floor. (Photo by “Si Deng.”)

Because of the report about the main road being blocked, it was assumed that the department’s large tankers would not be able to get through. Therefore, firefighters loaded up their private cars with what equipment they had and took off in them. Detailed maps of the small back roads were nonexistent, making getting into the affected area all the more difficult.

Once they reached the first edge of the disaster area, the firefighters were met by something they had never seen or planned for before-absolute total destruction! Hotels … gone. Homes … gone. Land surface … gone! Just a few scattered partial buildings remained, piles of debris were everywhere, and handfuls of civilian were trying to help each other.

(6) The cost to remove this large police patrol boat, carried inland almost one mile, would be prohibitive. It will be left in place as part of a monument commemorating the victims.

The firefighters quickly deployed to get out into this massive area and start searching for victims. To cover the greatest area as quickly as possible, they deployed as individuals. When a victim was found, they called for help or used civilians in the immediate area to help remove the victim. Victims were removed by any means at hand. Technical rescue equipment was extremely limited or not available. If a victim was partially buried, he was dug out by hand or by using pieces of debris as makeshift shovels. A large tree branch used as a lever was used to free a victim pinned under debris. What needed to be done was done by any means necessary. This was bottom-line rescue!

Victims removed from an entrapment were carried on a makeshift stretcher back to the road. Fatalities were placed on the roadside. Injured victims were put into a vehicle and taken to the hospital.

As more firefighters and equipment arrived, the more difficult rescues and body removals were accomplished. The primary tools used were ropes and hand tools. No hydraulic rescue tools were available.


Because of the late notification of the fire service, people initially had to fend for themselves. It will never be known how many owe their lives to the “kindness of strangers.” There ended up being three kinds of people on the shore that day: dead, injured, and an instant volunteer rescuer. It was Thai and Farang (Thai word for foreigner) working side by side in an effort to do whatever they could.

The nearby Royal Thai Navy Base was nearly totally destroyed, but it was able to launch a single helicopter within the first half hour after the wave hit. Over the next several hours, this helicopter crew rescued nearly 100 people who had been swept out to sea. Two days after the tsunami, a boy clinging to a piece of debris was picked up from the sea by helicopter. There are no records of how many people were rescued on the ground by bystanders, fire personnel, or other rescue services. Estimates run from “more than 10” to “over a hundred.”


Tsunamis cause damage in two ways. The first is the force of the wave and the water itself. Anything that faced the water (parallel to the shoreline) took the full force of the wave and flow. Most of the walls did not withstand this onslaught. Many sidewalls withstood the pressure. The second force, and in many cases the more destructive force, was the impact of debris carried by the water. As the tsunami moved through the area, it picked up everything: bricks from destroyed buildings, household goods (like refrigerators and sofas, for example), cars, and so on. This debris then acted as battering rams against everything in its path.

The damage came from two directions. First, as the water came in, it took out everything on the ocean side, and then as the water receded, it took out everything facing the land side.

Many building walls were wiped out, and the buildings were cleaned out of their original interior objects. The sidewalls and bearing columns withstood the pounding and held up the roof. The interior was then filled with water-borne debris.


The vast majority of the injuries and deaths were from blunt force trauma, not drowning. The victims were literally “beaten to death” by the debris. Buildings couldn’t withstand the beating from the rush of water carrying debris, let alone people caught up in the flow. Even good swimmers caught in the water were weakened by the debris bombardment or knocked unconscious and then drowned.

Hundreds of people were washed out to sea. Many were weakened but still alive. If rescued soon enough, they survived. Boats that were at sea when the tsunami hit and were able to ride out the wave in open water started to come back in and picked up survivors as they did.

Victims were found everywhere-in buildings, in the open, under debris, along the shore, and far inland. There didn’t seem to be much of a pattern that could be identified with regard to where large numbers of injured or fatalities were found.


• Know the difference between search, rescue, and body recovery. They need to be done in this order. Each discipline has its own distinct methodology and skills. In a situation like this, you have a vast area to search quickly. You have to find the victims first before you can help them. It will never be known how many victims died before they could be discovered. What the Takua Pa Fire Department did by dividing its forces into individuals goes against the “team concept” used in the West; but, in this case, it allowed the largest possible area to be searched in the quickest time.

Once a live victim was discovered, immediate care and rescue attempts could start. In many cases, one firefighter was all that was needed to help a victim to a waiting ride to the hospital. If more rescue work was needed to free an individual, it was called for.

You have to decide when you find a victim whether to stay with the victim until more help arrives, search farther in the immediate area while keeping in contact with the victim, or pass the victim by and continue searching for someone else you can help. In this case, the firefighters were faced with hundreds of victims in the immediate area. How much time and effort should be spent on an individual when two or more people might be lost nearby, if not found? It is a difficult decision that has to be made on a case-by-case basis.

• Initially, leave fatalities where they are found. Moving fatalities takes a lot of resources away from the two primary mission functions, search and rescue. You cannot “rescue” the dead. You have to find the living for rescue to take place. If a body’s location can be marked, do so, and then move on.

• Don’t underestimate the value of and need for bystander help. When you have many square kilometers to search and only your limited emergency service forces for rescue, you are going to need all the help you can get. Especially in the search phase of the operation, civilian assistance can make all the difference in the world. If possible, form small groups consisting of one emergency worker with two or three civilians.

Civilians should not be encouraged to respond to the disaster area. Set up roadblocks to keep out as many untrained personnel as possible. But the people already in the affected area can be useful. If you don’t use them, you are going to have to use your limited personnel to corral them and remove them from the area. This is a time-consuming and possibly counterproductive operation.

• Expect communication problems. Expect all the problems typically associated with a large multiagency operation. In addition, cell phone, radio, and repeater station towers might be down. Although the actual wave will have little effect on tower legs and telephone poles (the water will easily flow around and through them), the debris carried by the tsunami (cars, buildings, trees, and refrigerators, for example) smashing into them will take them out.

• Search high as well as low. People were thrown into trees, on top of buildings, as well as buried under piles of debris. In one case, a woman was found in a tree alive but refused to come down for two days for fear another wave might come.

• You can’t get your critical incident stress debriefing (CISD) people there soon enough. In a large (both in scale and time) operation like this, consider getting your CISD people out into the field to start working with your people immediately. They should be looking for any warning signs in the rescuers (emergency personnel and civilian assistants) and deal with them as soon as possible.

Thailand is 95 percent Buddhist. Buddhists have a different outlook on death and dealing with death than Western religions. The Thai government did send trained CISD teams to Takua Pa to assist the fire department when they could.

• Roads will be blocked by debris or washed away. Rescue vehicles may not be able to get far into the affected area. Expect to do a lot of walking, and remember that you will have to carry what you need.

• If it flies, GET IT INTO THE AIR! The sooner you can start searching the water, the more lives you will save. Helicopters are the best, but even fixed-wing aircraft can drop life preservers to victims. If you are lucky enough to get an abundance of aircraft, you will have to designate someone as local air traffic controller to handle the air traffic. But if the aircraft is not in radio contact with you and cannot be directed by the emergency service, it needs to be kept out of the area. Aerial support is the best way to get a handle on the total picture.


Body identification is still going on, and most of the debris has been removed and the damages repaired. The people are getting their lives back together. Phuket and the surrounding areas are “alive and well.” Even at the height of the disaster, only a small portion of this large area actually saw damage. Phuket City, the east coast of Phuket, and the rest of Thailand saw no damage at all. Many of the resorts in Khao Lak and the surrounding area are open; the rest are rebuilding.

Thailand’s operations during the tsunami and its recovery can best be summed up by a little sign on the desk of Deputy Chief Withud of the Takua Pa Fire Department, the first firefighter to reach “Ground Zero”: “Where the willingness is great, the difficulties cannot be great.”

Special thanks to Deputy Chief Withud of the Takua Pa Fire Department; Police Colonel Khen Marin, Commander of DVI Site 1; Steve Kinney, Ameri-Thai Marketing, Ltd.; and Kurt Apel, Phuket Hospital Emergency Room.


1. These numbers are the official Royal Thai Police figures as of March 15, 2005.

2. Since the tsunami, this is changing rapidly. A new Fire Service Training Center is being built in Bangkok; all chief officers will soon be trained here. Regional USAR teams are being developed for the north, south, east, and west regions of Thailand.

PAUL “SI DENG” FOX is the cofounder of the ARFF Working Group and the training liaison officer (Vol.) for the Hickam AFB Fire Department in Honolulu, Hawaii. In December 2004 he accepted the position of assistant chief of training for the Changpuak Fire Department in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

CHALONG “KULARB” BOONTEM is a former registered nurse and is presently assisting the Changpuak Fire Department with translation services.

Note: It is a Thai custom for everyone to have a nickname; this is the name that they primarily go by. “Si Deng” is Thai for Red, and “Kularb” is Thai for Rose.

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