The 2004 tsunami: A Singapore perspective

December 28, 2009

“Where were you when the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami hit?”

For me, it is a day I will always remember. I had barely been working as a picture sub-editor on the Asia Desk for a month. I remember being asked to come in early to work that Sunday morning because “an earthquake had hit and it seems quite bad”.

Reaching the office, I watched my television colleagues collect their gear, make phonecalls and fly off on the next flight to Aceh, one of the places reported as being badly hit. The newsgathering process was still very new to me, so I watched with fascination as photographers were alerted, flights were arranged and notes were made to keep track of where each shooter was.

QUAKE INDIA

A man reacts next to a building that was destroyed when a tsunami hit in Cuddalore, 180 km (112 miles) south of the southern Indian city of Madras December 27, 2004.  REUTERS/Arko Datta

Would Bazuki Muhammad drive from his base in Kuala Lumpur all the way to Khao Lak in Thailand? How was Luis Ascui going to get to Phi Phi island from Phuket? How much longer would Altaf Hussain in New Delhi have to wait to secure a ride to the Andaman and Nicobar islands?

All this while the aftermath of the tsunami continued to unfold. I remember sitting, waiting for the first photos as updates of locations where the tsunami had hit and the resulting death toll kept rolling in.

While we were fortunate enough not to experience first-hand the devastation wrought by the 100 foot waves, we did witness the scale of the destruction across Asia as the photos started arriving.

From bodies strewn haphazardly across beaches, to survivors hysterically searching for relatives and children walking about dazedly in relief centers, we too on the desk had front-row seats to the disaster.

QUAKE INDONESIA

Clockwise from top: An Acehnese women covers her nose as she walks past thousands of dead bodies in the Indonesian city of Banda Aceh December 27, 2004.  REUTERS/Beawiharta

Submerged building near the pier at Ton Sai Bay in Thailand’s Phi Phi island, December 28, 2004.   REUTERS/Luis Enrique Ascui

Survivors look at the pictures displayed on a board identifying their relatives at Velankani beach, India, December 28, 2004.  REUTERS/Punit Paranjpe

Two of our editing staff, Luis Ascui and Thomas White, had flown off to reinforce coverage in Thailand and Sri Lanka respectively, leaving a skeleton crew of three working flat-out from seven in the morning to eleven at night daily.

We had constant discussions with Steve Crisp (my boss  who I couldn’t help but notice was too busy to shave) about what photos to transmit to clients – how much gore was too much? Did we need to show bloated and dismembered bodies – was that necessary or  gratuitous?

In the end we moved most frames, as gruesome as they were, because they were a true reflection of the situation and a reminder that sometimes life just isn’t that pretty.

QUAKE THAILAND

One-year-old Hannes Bergman of Sweden, whose mother went missing in the tsunami, is held by a caretaker at a hospital in Thailand’s tourist island of Phuket on December 28, 2004.  REUTERS/Bazuki Muhammad

THAILAND TSUNAMI
Robert Simmons from London and girlfriend Da catch a sunset from a shattered board walk on Patong beach in the Thai resort island of Phuket December 28, 2004.   REUTERS/Adrees Latif

Nonetheless, I appreciated that the photographers were able to balance such shots with others that were subtle, yet showed compassion and afforded dignity to the victims and survivors.

I learned a photograph of a toy bunny left on the tracks of a train tipped over by the waves along a Sri Lankan coast could tell the story as much as an aerial shot of bodies piled up at a makeshift morgue in Banda Aceh. One did not need to show an entire body to show death, a limb was more than enough as Arko Datta’s winning World Press Photo proved.

QUAKE INDIA

An Indian woman mourns the death of her relative in Cuddalore, some 180 km (112 miles) south of the southern Indian city of Madras December 28, 2004. REUTERS/Arko Datta

Stories of hope and survival became increasingly important as the days wore on, when rescue efforts turned into recovery work. Photographs of medical crews from around the world, who were chipping in to help the affected countries, were as well-received and sought after as those of survivors from foreign lands who had relatives eagerly awaiting news of their loved ones.

Five years on, there have been countless natural disasters, from Hurricane Katrina to the Sichuan earthquake, but none have impacted me as much as the Indian Ocean tsunami, perhaps because it was my first big disaster.

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