Journalists share indelible memories, images from tsunami

AP News
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Posted: Dec 26, 2014 12:22 AM
Journalists share indelible memories, images from tsunami

Some 230,000 people were killed in the Indian Ocean tsunami set off by a magnitude 9.1 earthquake on Dec. 26, 2004. A dozen countries were hit, from Indonesia to India to Africa's east coast. Scores of Associated Press journalists covered the disaster, and as the 10th anniversary approached, the AP asked 10 of them to describe the images that have stuck with them the most:

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Jerry Harmer, AP's editor for video in Indochina, based in Bangkok, reported on the tsunami from Khao Lak, Thailand:

Forty-eight hours after the tsunami, I was on the beach at Khao Lak, where thousands of holidaymakers and locals died. I recorded rescue workers retrieving the corpses that were still strewn across the sand.

As I followed one squad toward an outcrop of rock, I saw a man's body dangling from a jumble of uprooted trees. A trunk was wedged under his shoulders and his arms were spread across it. He looked as if he'd been crucified.

The image has stayed with me. It seemed extraordinarily emblematic of the suffering that had engulfed the coastline not just of Thailand, but many other countries too.

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Dita Alangkara, a photographer based in Jakarta, Indonesia, viewed the worst of the tsunami in the country's Aceh region:

When my plane made an approach to land, the view from the window was shocking. It was even more jaw-dropping from the ground. As far as I could see, the city was totally flattened. Almost no buildings were spared from the killer waves. Dead bodies littered the street, stuck on tall trees. Some were eaten by dogs. It was so depressing.

The image that stuck with me most was the mass grave.

Not until the following week did the crippled authority start to get organized and collect the bodies to bury them in the hastily dug grave. No matter how hard they worked, there were just too many bodies. There was only one helpless excavator that couldn't keep up with the flow. This left the bodies piled up untouched for days, maybe even weeks. It reeked of rotting flesh.

As far as I can recall, it took a month for enough help to arrive to handle the bodies properly.

Seeing hundreds of dead bodies every day just made me appreciate life more, the air that I breathe and also the sun that I always complain about because it's too hot here where I live. That assignment brought me back to the reality that I have everything I need. ... After that assignment, everything looked so precious.

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Tassanee Vejpongsa, a video journalist based in Taipei, Taiwan, covered the disaster in Phuket, Thailand:

We had just finished our last feed as the sun started to rise. It had been a long night of coverage of what was appearing to be an incredible natural disaster spread over South Asia. One day had passed since the massive tsunami waves crushed the famed beach resorts of Phuket, when we started to hear about the quiet beach town of Khao Lak just to the north.

As my car drove down toward Khao Lak, I stared out the window at the vast stretch of beach. This normally dreamy beach of white sand and saggy coconut trees was lined with colored debris and wreckage as far as my eyes could see. Such a colorful mess, I thought.

Our driver slowed the car, seeming to realize as I was, that this color was not garbage or wreckage, but bodies. The bodies of tourists, wrapped in the festive colors anyone might wear to a beach holiday. Bright yellows and deep reds, swimsuits and sundresses.

The silence was deafening. No other living soul was near us.

That image, and the shocking moment I realized the scale of the catastrophe, has never left me.

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Wally Santana, a photographer based in Taipei, Taiwan, covered the tsunami from Palai, Sri Lanka:

We had spent three days driving up from Colombo, and another three days to negotiate permission to enter the then-rebel Tamil Tiger group's northern occupied area. Through areas marked with land mines now floating in the flooded pastures, we slowly moved out to the devastated shoreline on pieces of the former road.

As I worked through the sand down the beach, I came across a small group of survivors. It looked like a scene from a deserted island: castaways lost at sea for weeks.

The men, former rebel soldiers, were scavenging wood. The women were sheltering the crying children from the noon sun. There was no food. Everyone was starving. We came with nothing to offer.

Later that day, Sri Lankan volunteers, in conjunction with a Christian missionary, delivered some bread to the suffering group by truck. I saw a boy holding his father's hand as he tearfully bit into a piece of bread, his first food in who knows how long.

I have often thought of this boy and the other children I met there, and how strong they had to be to survive.

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Jim Gomez, the AP's chief correspondent in the Philippines, was deployed to the worst-hit area, Banda Aceh, Indonesia:

I accompanied a body-collecting team as it plumbed wrecked villages in Banda Aceh. The body collectors followed swarms of flies, and the stench, to find bodies hidden under collapsed buildings. Once their rickety van was filled with bodies, it would dart across the city to a mass grave at the outskirts, siren wailing.

I rode beside the driver, who unlike me wasn't even wearing a medical mask. Behind me was a small window through which I could see the pile of rotting human remains in the back.

Everywhere you looked, the sights were simply graphic. But the images that lingered long in my mind were not the terrible scenes of massive death. What moved me were the sights of people along the street as the van drove by with a smell so strong there could be no doubt about what it contained.

Most people turned their backs and walked briskly away. Some did not, including a despondent, unkempt man who looked like a father by his lonesome, and a downcast woman with a child. They covered their noses like everyone else, but examined our passing van as if whoever they were looking for might be inside. I watched them as we rolled away. Their eyes stayed fixed on the van until it vanished from sight.

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Photographer Richard Vogel covered the disaster from Phuket, Thailand:

I arrived in Thailand on the second morning after the tsunami and went to the French Embassy, where children were showing up from Phuket with no clothes, no shoes or anything, just in underwear. Expats had gathered there to bring them something to wear.

The following day I arrived in Phuket and made my way before sunrise to Khao Lak beach, a resort area.

I couldn't imagine what had happened. It looked like the beach had been carpet-bombed. Stuff was strewn all over the beach: luggage, clothes and the sheer destruction of buildings. A few still stood but were just shells of themselves.

As I walked around taking pictures, I would find body parts, pieces of clothes and luggage in trees — and silence. The silence is something I'll never forget.

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Hrvoje Hranjski, a writer and editor based in Bangkok, covered the disaster from Aceh, Indonesia:

I was embedded on the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier and was on a Seahawk helicopter that picked up boxes of food, blankets and water from Aceh town. From there, we flew high up along the lush green mountaintops flanking the coast of Aceh, and suddenly descended into a small village that had been hammered by the waves.

There, people waved their hands and used flags to indicate they needed help. As soon as we touched down, chaos erupted. Some of the villagers rushed the aircraft. The sailors on the chopper were very nervous that someone would get hurt. They were quickly pushing out those boxes and crates with water. People would snap them up.

Later, after we returned to the ship, we were told that an Indonesian soldier fired a gun in the air to control the crowd and narrowly missed the rotor.

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Muhammad Farooq, a camera operator based in Karachi, Pakistan, reported on the tsunami from Hambantota, Sri Lanka:

I did a story about a man called Hassan, about 30 years old.

The tsunami washed away virtually his entire neighborhood. All wood-made houses were destroyed. Hassan had lost 25 family members and relatives in the area, including his wife, who was nine months pregnant when she drowned.

Hassan might have died as well, but he was not at home when the tsunami hit. He had gone to Colombo to purchase some clothes for his new baby.

The giant wave hit a day before the baby's due date.

I saw Hassan, upset and gloomy, sitting on the remains of his destroyed home. He was holding the baby clothes.

I cannot forget the pain reflecting from his eyes and face.

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Eugene Hoshiko, a photographer based in Tokyo, covered the disaster in Banda Aceh, Indonesia:

There are three photos I remember most — I recall even the smell of the air when I see them.

The first site before the plane landed was the image of a mosque still standing in the devastated area. My first impression was, 'This is unreal.' How do you explain it?

After a few weeks, schools in Banda Aceh reopened even as evacuees were taking shelter in the buildings. In classrooms, evacuees were waiting outside so that the students could finish their lessons. Only a thin wall divided children learning new things and others thinking how to survive.

In the third photo, for me the most memorable moment in Banda Aceh, I saw a chopper hovering over a place not far from my position. I asked my motorcycle driver to take me there.

In the distance, I saw a bunch of kids stuck in the mud in a rice paddy, waiting for a chopper to drop aid.

The children were covered in mud, but they did not care. They were so desperate that their only concern was getting food from that chopper.

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Christopher Torchia, the AP's bureau chief for southern Africa, covered the disaster from Galle, Sri Lanka:

The hospital didn't have enough room for the bodies. They filled the morgue, a large ward, the walkways and the grass outside. Standing among the tsunami's victims, I received some news that made me want to celebrate.

This was the awful dissonance of the Indian Ocean catastrophe, which strained the imaginations of many of those who witnessed its power, in the moment and in the aftermath.

Survivors' accounts of a monster wave surging ashore seemed fantastical. The scenes of destruction were hard to process. A train lay in a marsh after the tsunami swept it off the tracks like a toy, killing hundreds.

For me, it began like many other urgent assignments. The phone call, the next available flight from my base in Singapore, the hotel room in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital.

This time, it was difficult to focus on the job. My brother had been vacationing in the Maldives, a low-lying archipelago that was hit by the tsunami. My family had lost contact with him.

Much of the Maldives had been inundated. The death toll was relatively low at about 100 in the archipelago, where tsunami waves didn't gain height and break with the same force they did on the coastlines of other countries.

In those early hours, worried about my brother, I drove to the devastated Sri Lankan city of Galle. At the hospital entrance, a tractor arrived with bodies piled on a cart.

Hundreds lay in rows, swelled up but mostly without visible injury. Sometimes, I studied them. Sometimes, I averted my eyes. From one angle, they didn't seem so distant from life; from another, they were alien and remote. I felt shame, fascination, pity and disconnection. An awful dissonance.

Then came a text message. My brother was safe. I paused among the dead, quietly elated. Nearby, townspeople searched for missing relatives, scanning the rows of faces on the ground.