Scotland

How living through tsunami 'changed our lives'

On 26 December 2004 a deadly tidal wave hit the coasts of 13 countries, with Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand among the worst affected. More than 250,000 people died and more than two million were left homeless or displaced. Scots John Chroston, Beccy Chroston and Emma Gillespie were caught up in the terror of the tsunami.


John Chroston, a teacher from Tillicoultry, Clackmannanshire, was in Thailand enjoying a festive holiday with his wife Sandra and 11-year-old daughter Beccy.

Having spent Christmas day enjoying a tour of the island, John expected to spend Boxing day relaxing at the beach with his family.

Little did they know that in less than an hour that beach would no longer exist, having been swept away by a 20m (65ft) wave.

Image copyright John Chroston
Image caption John Chroston, wife Sandra and daughter Beccy had spent Christmas Day at a beach resort in Thailand

It was only thanks to John's interest in geology that he recognised the signs that the tsunami was building and the family fled the beach.

John commandeered a shuttle bus and, in managing to outrun the wave he also spared the lives of the bus's 14 passengers.


What were the warning signs of the Tsunami?

Image copyright AFP

•John felt a strong undercurrent when swimming - a sign of the water starting to recede.

•He then noticed a large lagoon very quickly draining of water - had it been emptying naturally through seepage, the water would have draining slowly.

•Finally he saw the keel of a fishing boat wedged in the sand and sea-life (fish and crabs) left beached - signalling how fast the tide had gone out, and that there was likely to be a tidal wave.


Over the past 10 years John has thought about the tsunami almost daily.

He remembers the desperate moments as the wave closed in on the bus.

"Shortly before the wave hit the bus I remember taking my camera bag and lashing my daughter's wrist to my own with the strap," he says.

"I thought if we were going to go then we'd have a better chance of survival together."

Image copyright John Chroston
Image caption Travelling at speeds of up to 800km per hour, the force of the wave broke up coastal roads
Image copyright John Chroston
Image caption Such was the force of the wave, caused by magnitude 9 earthquake on the seabed, that it destroyed almost everything in its path

As they drove along just ahead of the wave, he remembers seeing a Belgian couple who had been beside them on the beach, being swept up while still in their deckchairs.

John says: "We had only managed to catch the bus that morning because the Belgian couple shouted to the driver to stop."

If they had waited an hour for the next bus they would have arrived at the beach just minutes before the wave hit, leaving little time to react to the imminent danger.

Image copyright John Chroston
Image caption The street in Kamala village Sandra and Beccy visited on a return trip, is unrecognisable as the same place that had been strewn with destruction six months earlier.

The family returned to Thailand six months after the event, and Beccy returned again seven years later to volunteer at a local school attended by many of the children orphaned by the tsunami.

Now a 21-year-old fourth-year medical student, she recalls her dad saying that he thought a tsunami was going to hit but she had no idea what the word meant.

She is still haunted by the scenes she witnessed as they sped away from the beach.

"Children and adults screaming, cars and scooters everywhere, even the wild dogs running manic," she says.

Image copyright John Chroston
Image caption John says returning to the sites where they had suffered the trauma of the tsunami six months later was "very cathartic"
Image copyright Rebecca Chroston
Image caption Beccy recently spent six weeks working in a hospital in Fiji as part of her degree course,

"The thing that has stuck with me was the sight of the wave advancing towards us relentlessly and us not seeming to get any further away from it."

Beccy says some of the mental scars have healed over time and working as a rescue diver has helped to remove the terror of the ocean.

After years of nightmares it is only since seeing a counsellor in April this year that her 'night terrors' have begun to ease.

However, Beccy says: "I'd be a very different person if I hadn't been involved in the tsunami."

"One of the main reasons I ended up applying for medicine was seeing the life-saving work of medics in the aftermath of the tsunami."

Having spent the past six weeks working in a hospital in Fiji as part of her degree course, Beccy plans to spend Christmas travelling around Australia, but the tsunami will be much in her thoughts.

"It's a shame I can't be with my parents on the 10th anniversary, particularly since if it wasn't for my dad recognising the warning signs I really do believe I'd be dead."


Emma Gillespie, an aspiring singer from Dumfries, was visiting the idyllic Andaman Islands off India's west coast when the tsunami hit.

The 21-year-old had spent Christmas on the beach on Neil Island with some friends around a campfire until the early hours. They had fallen asleep, but were woken by an irritating itch after being repeatedly bitten by sand flies.

Their decision to leave the beach and head to bed back in their hut further off the beach is one that probably saved their lives.

Half an hour later the wave hit.

Image copyright Full of Travel
Image caption Emma says that before the tsunami Neil Island was a hidden treasure but reconstruction has left it much more commercialised

She says: "I remember feeling the bed shaking. We thought it was an earthquake. There were big cracks in the road and pipes sticking up.

"We walked down to the beach but it wasn't there anymore. It was just the sea raging.

"It made you feel really small and very humble to be at the mercy of nature."

Partially protected by two miles of coral reef, which acted by a barrier, Neil Island wasn't as badly affected as many other areas. Nevertheless Emma says there was a definite sense that "something really had happened".

Image copyright Jayanta Shaw
Image caption Other areas of the Andaman islands chain, such as Car Nicobar Island, were more badly affected
Image copyright AP
Image caption An uprooted tree on a beach in Nicobar, in India's south-eastern Andaman and Nicobar Island.

She says: "It just didn't feel right at all. I couldn't stop crying even though as far as we were concerned everyone was ok."

It wasn't until a few days later when she took a boat to Port Blair, the main island, that she realised what had actually happened and how many people had lost their lives.

Emma now says her experience of the tsunami has made her realise how precious life is, and gave her a renewed sense of purpose about her career, prompting her to enter Sky's Must Be the Music TV show and win a recording contract.

Image caption After entering and winning Sky's Must Be the Music, Emma released music under the stage name 'Emma's Imagination' and had a top 10 single

She says: "It made me get my finger out with regards to music. Up until then I'd busked and I'd played at parties but there was no urgency. I was just floating along."

Calling her parents directly after the tragedy also made her realise what she had previously taken for granted.

"They'd been watching the worst pictures and hearing worst stories on the news. My mum just broke down in tears when she heard my voice.

"It was then I realised that in making decisions I need to consider more the people that love and care about me."

Re-reading journals she kept at the time still remind her of what she went through and of all the people who weren't so lucky.

Image copyright Willy Thaun
Image caption Annual memorials for the victims of the tsunami are held on the beach

But although she feels very fortunate to have walked away from it, she says the tragic aspect of what happened is not something she allows herself to dwell on.

"It's something that did definitely change my life and will always be with me," she says.

"But it's affected my life in a positive way because it's made me really appreciate what I've got."


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