Ten years ago, Tanya Barrow heard news that brought the tragedy unfolding half a world away to her doorstep.
The aftermath of tsunami in Thailand. Picture by AusAID
It’s weird going to a funeral when the person you’re all grieving for might not have died. That, by some miracle, he might still be alive. Unconscious in a hospital bed or up a tree drinking Jack Daniels and laughing about how he is going to wait long enough for people to arrange his funeral and then turn up at it alive and well.
That’s how it was with Sam. This is the man, after all, who would cook hotdogs in the office kettle and not change the water but sit and watch as people made coffee and said “what the fuck is wrong with this coffee?” and not own up. Who replaced somebody’s slimming meal replacement powder in the office kitchen with weightlifting muscle building powder. Who would send whole chicken fillets to colleagues in another office, second class, just for a laugh.
So, when we heard that he and his girlfriend, Debbie, were missing presumed dead in Thailand after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, we couldn’t believe they would have died. They couldn’t possibly be dead, could they?
‘All of us who knew Sam will be raising a glass to him on Boxing Day’.
A text message on December 27th made me realise the tsunami I had heard about may well have claimed the lives of two people we knew. Up to that point, while I had heard about this horrific event, I hadn’t put two and two together. It was pre-Twitter. It was before we could watch rolling news on our phones, and had to rely on TV. And if you weren’t watching TV, you didn’t really know what was going on outside your own front door, let alone half a world away.
We were due at my parent’s house in London on the 27th of December so having got the message while on the M3, I went straight to the TV when we arrived. I didn’t move for eight hours. When we got home I didn’t move for four days. Then my husband forced me to stop watching and go to bed. We knew in our hearts they weren’t coming home. They weren’t going to appear on the screen and assure us they were fine. Watching the news was futile, but I couldn’t stop.
Facts are hazy now. Our friend Nikki was in constant touch with Debbie’s parents, who were in touch with the Foreign Office. In early January, Sam’s family went to Thailand to see for themselves how devastating that wave had been. They knew in their hearts that Sam and Debbie were not coming home. Nobody could have survived that.
But for the rest of us, Debbie’s parents included, it was impossible to come to that conclusion. Miracles could happen, right? They would come home.
And they did. Eventually. But not until the authorities had got around to identifying their bodies. Debbie’s by her tattoo, Sam’s by DNA. DNA gathered by police officers in Surrey going to their flat and taking personal items to get a sample and shipping them to Thailand.
During this time, in the absence of a death certificate Sam and Debbie’s parents were in a bureaucratic nightmare. They were trying to sort out store card payments / mortgages / loan payments but nobody would talk to them, quoting Data Protection. You have to be missing for seven years before a death certificate can be issued in the absence of a body. So, as much as you want to sort things out when a loved one has been missing for two months and you know deep down they are not coming home, you are bound up in red tape, making the whole situation so much more painful.
I went back to work in early January. We were all numb. While the world was talking about it constantly, the office was in shock that Sam, our manager, was not at his desk and leading the morning meetings. Over in another office, the assistant manager was also absent.
In early January, Sam’s family went to Thailand to see for themselves how devastating that wave had been. They knew in their hearts that Sam and Debbie were not coming home. Nobody could have survived that.
I do remember the silence being broken when my phone rang. It was a tenant phoning to complain that his washing machine had stopped working. He was furious and wanted compensation. He wanted his laundrette bill of £8.90 reimbursed. He wouldn’t stop shouting at me. Something snapped and I screamed back at him, “Our fucking manager is missing in Thailand, presumed dead, and you are worried about a fucking washing machine? Fuck off, I am not interested”.
It’s not the most professional thing I have ever done, but nothing else mattered and the office cheered before we all fell silent again and tried to get on with the job of letting houses and moving people in and out.
Sam’s family needed to have Sam’s funeral as soon as possible, in order for them to grieve. So, despite the fact he had yet to be identified and flown home, that’s what happened.
For Debbie’s parents it took a while longer and they chose to have a memorial service for her when she had been missing for 100 days. It was held in the church near where she had spent many years, and we lit 100 candles to signify those 100 days.
By a bizarre twist, she was identified two days later and when she arrived back in the UK, her parents had a private funeral near their home in Gloucestershire. Debbie was buried there.
She was her parent’s only child and to say her death was devastating is an understatement. Margaret and Bryson threw themselves into fundraising, as we did too, and raised money to replace boats the fishermen in the village had lost along with their own loved ones and their livelihoods. Six in total.
It’s 10 years since they died. It doesn’t really seem possible that two people whose lives were lived at such a pace could just be gone. Gone while on the holiday of a lifetime. You don’t expect when somebody says “See you in the New Year” for that to not happen.
It seems such a cliché to say they are gone but not forgotten, but that has never been truer than when talking about Sam and Debbie.
All of us who knew them will be raising a glass to them on Boxing Day at 8pm and hoping they are not resting in peace but partying together.
• Debbie’s family have taken part in ITV Documentary Tsunami: Survivors’ Stories, which airs tonight at 9pm
On 26 December 2004, the Indio-Australian Plate subducted below the Eurasian Plate causing an earthquake with a magnitude of 9.1. As a result, the seafloor lifted up to two metres, displacing seawater above. By the time the resulting tsunami reached the shores of 13 countries, waves were up to 20 metres high.
Indonesia was the first country to be hit and sustained the worst damage. The wave crashed into Thailand 45 minutes later.
An estimated 230,000 people were killed in the affected areas (including 155 British citizens) and hundreds of thousands injured. Estimates suggest that approximately 5million people were made homeless and an additional 5million were left with no source of income or access to clean water.
The disaster promoted an unprecedented response from the general public around the world. In the first week after the disaster, UK citizens donated cash at a rate of up to £1m an hour. On 26 February, 2005, the Disasters Emergency Committee closed its appeal after raising £300m in the two months since the disaster struck. Other British charities raised a total of £50m.
An early warning system between countries surrounding the Indian Ocean has now been established.
T, never Tanya please, is a mum of three teens who is trying to live life to the full. @MummyBarrow