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Wales This Week: The Day The Wave Struck

On Sunday 26th December 2004, an undersea earthquake triggered a series of devastating tsunamis across the Indian Ocean. Waves up to 30 metres high struck 14 countries and killed 230,000 people. It was claimed to be one of the deadliest natural disasters in history.

The Rawlings family from Llanelli were holidaying in Phuket, Thailand when the Tsunami hit.

From left to right: Mike Rawlings, Rosie Rawlings, Ann Perry, Lilian Rawlings Credit: ITV News Cymru Wales

They had decided to spend Boxing Day morning on a boat trip to Phi Phi Island; a decision which, they believed, saved their lives. Half of the family had wanted to make the trip on Christmas Day but, Mike Rawlings had disagreed, wanting to spend Christmas Day on the beach in Phuket. If Mike hadn’t gotten his way things could have turned out very differently, as the beach where they would have spent Boxing Day - had they not been on the boat - was left totally devastated.

But, this was not the only dash of fate that was on their side. At 06:45, just hours before the waves hit, the Rawlings family had arrived at the harbour ready to depart on a convoy of boats at 07:30. What happened next left Mike annoyed but, it also saved their lives.

There were three boats there. One had gone and we thought well, we are definitely on the next one, so they called us up and we got up with your beach bags and everything and they turned us back and we were not very happy about that. The next thing then, they said no, no, you are on the next boat, well we said we were here before these people so why are we on the next boat? We were quite keen to go on that boat. No no, you are with this tour agency you will go, all the boats were the same, but you are with this company, you go on that boat. Lucky we did, because the other two boats didn’t return.

– Mike Rawlings

The two boats full of tourists that had gone before them were already enjoying themselves on the beach. But the boat that the Rawlings were on had stopped short of arriving at Phi Phi island, as the sea had begun to recede.

You could hear this sucking noise like pulling a plug out and the water was receding back and we just, the boat went sideways because obviously we weren’t floating anymore, we went sideways, the propellers were running and they stopped the propellers just in time before they damaged on the rocks.

– Ann Perry

The Thai crew piloting the boat told the Rawlings family to jump out and walk the rest of the way to the beach. Mike and Ann tried to explain to the crew that their mother was elderly and that Mike had a bad hip, so they were unable to jump out and walk, especially over rocks and mud. But as they were doing this, they were suddenly hit by a wall of water.

We could hear a rush of water, people were shouting and screaming. Look look look and we all saw different things. I know on the way in, I remember seeing this lady in a canoe, a kayak and her daughter and son and they were enjoying, there were people snorkelling, it was fantastic. These two little children, waving to me from their kayaks and once the water went, they went and everything was confusion and it was a bit disorientated as the water came in we just went flying up into the air.

– Ann Perry

As the waves hit, the boat the Rawlings were in collided with several other boats in the bay. But extraordinarily the Rawlings were left unharmed, and managed to make their way back to Phuket with just one hole in the side of their boat. Unable to book an earlier flight home, the Rawlings were forced to continue their holiday until after the New Year, when they were finally able to fly back to the UK.

From left to right: Lillian Rawlings, Ann Perry, Rosie Rawlings, Mike Rawlings & Michael Davis, in Thailand at the time Credit: The Rawlings family

They say their lives will never be the same again. Each Boxing Day they are reminded of their narrow escape and say that everywhere they go, they continuously look for an escape route.

It changed our lives mind, it did change us. We were in shock for 2 to 3 years afterwards and then we came around a little bit and it is frightening. When we go to a beach now we always look around.

– Mike Rawlings

Steve and Mai Massingham were also on holiday in Phuket, Thailand, with their two daughters Jennie and Mel. They were in their hotel room when the wave hit.

Steve and Mai Massingham, from Llantwit Major, were also in Phuket at the time Credit: Steve and Mai Massingham

They say if it were any other morning they would have been killed, because every other day of the holiday they had slept in late. But after a late night on Christmas eve they had gone to bed early on Christmas day, waking up first thing on Boxing day morning.

The rest of the holiday, every single morning, we hadn’t woken up until about ten o’clock. We managed to miss the hotel breakfast every morning but we woke up early on Boxing Day. So I say that was fortunate because the Tsunami happened just after 9 am, and we woke up before the Tsunami.

– Steve Massingham

It was their eldest daughter Jennie who first alerted them that something was wrong.

You just couldn’t see the sea anywhere because the sea obviously goes out before it comes in and there was no sea. And I told Dad and he was like yeah whatever, carrying on with his day. And then I had a look again and there was a jet ski coming towards the window along with the sea.

– Jennie Massingham

The Massinghams were in a hotel room which spanned two floors. Whilst Mai was in the bath upstairs, Steve went to the lower level to check on the girls, who were playing with their Christmas presents. Then, Steve says, the waves crashed through their balcony door.

All the water just came rushing through the room. The door to the hotel room as that came off with the water hitting it, it must have hit me.

– Steve Massingham

The Massinghams survived the Tsunami after clambering up onto the hotel roof where they saw many other guests do the same.

The view from the Massingham's hotel roof, moments after the Tsunami Credit: Steve and Mai Massingham

I can’t sleep. Everytime I close my eyes I see pictures, I see the tsunami, I see that woman, you know the woman. She would look at me and I would always see the eyes looking at me and we can’t help. It looks like she is there all the time. Every time you close your eyes and you think if the water comes in where am I going to go? Yeah, because we live near the sea. I think a lot, I think about water all the time.

– Mai Massingham

The family say it’s been hard to get over. Mai sought the help of a psychologist to talk through her experiences, and her daughters say it’s still raw. On Boxing Day last year, Mai broke down in tears as the memories came back to her. Mai says they are all fearful of water and even driving over the Severn bridge can be a trigger. The girls, who were 8-years-old and 5-years-old at the time, say they don’t like visiting the beach and wouldn’t dare go in the sea.

Mari Waddington was also holidaying in Phuket, Thailand, with her partner at the time.

Mari Waddington, from Pentyrch, relives her experiences of the Boxing Day Tsunami Credit: ITV News Cymru Wales

It was planned as a two week trip away, starting in Phuket for the first night and then heading out to the Thai islands. They were supposed to arrive in Phuket on Christmas Eve, but a delay to their flight in London meant that they arrived late evening on Christmas Day. After a long and tiring flight they went to bed as soon as they got there. The early night meant an early jetlagged start on Boxing Day, their first day in Thailand.

They rose at 7am and decided to take a stroll down to the beach to explore their new holiday surroundings. After a drink at a beach front bar, they felt they were struggling with the strength of the sun on their skin, as it had been a while since they had seen the sun. They decided to head back inland and visit a tailor’s shop, which had been recommended by a friend back home.

We literally were on the beach ten minutes before the wave hit. And there was like a coastal road going up towards the main part of the road, which was the back of the hotel on the beach, and then there was a tailor shop opposite there. We went in there because my friend had said it was a nice place to get dresses and suits done so we thought we’d go and check it out...The guy didn’t speak very good English at all, as you’d expect when you go away, but he started to panic, his face just went white and jumped up and down, we were like what’s going on? Turned around and there were chairs and water coming through the hotel opposite.

– Mari Waddington
Mari's photograph of Phuket, Thailand, moments after the Tsunami had hit Credit: Mari Waddington

Since the Tsunami, Mari says she has an “irrational fear” of the wind and elements. She says she kept the Tsunami “filed away” but, ten years on, she is finally able to speak out about her terrifying ordeal.

I’m grateful, obviously it wasn’t my time. You reevaluate, you realise how important people are to you, and I ended up a year later moving back to Cardiff.

– Mari Waddington

To hear more about their stories tune into Wales This Week, The Day The Wave Struck, tonight at 8pm on ITV Cymru Wales.

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