The cruel sea

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AS THE UK slept off the excesses of a crisply-cold Christmas, the normally quiet offices of the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh were about to witness the biggest natural disaster for a generation.

It was 12.58am, Boxing Day, and the office seismographs suddenly burst into life, recording the jagged forms of a massive earthquake 7,000 miles away.

In Thailand, it was 7.58am and Peter Heppell was enjoying a sun-baked holiday with his family, one of thousands of tourists who had flocked to the region for a winter break in this Asian paradise.

Heppell, an Australian businessman, was taking a morning stroll, pushing his six-month-old daughter, Melina, along the beautiful bleach-white sands of Phuket’s Patong Beach, a favourite destination for sun-seekers the world over.

Under the sea, 450 miles to the southwest, a terrible fate awaited as 600 miles of the earth’s crust began to move, triggering the biggest earthquake to hit the planet for almost half a century and with such force that it would tear the region apart.

A wall of water fanned out from the quake’s epicentre near Sumatra, Indonesia, across the Indian Ocean at speeds of up to 500mph - as fast as an airliner - and headed with deadly consequences towards the busy coastlines of countries around the Indian Ocean basin.

Heppell and his baby daughter were swept off the beach as a 30ft wall of water cascaded on to the shore.

Frantically clutching his terrified daughter, Heppell found an air pocket in a basement and sheltered for two hours as the idyllic resort around him was destroyed. But as he emerged from his hideaway, tragedy awaited. "He managed to get himself out and he thought he had the baby in his hands, but all he had was her clothes, the baby was gone," said Melina’s uncle Simon Illingworth.

Melina was one of thousands who would lose their lives that morning. As the days passed, the numbers rose dramatically, from 11,000 in early reports, to more than 125,000. Throughout the region, pristine beaches, bustling towns and breathtaking blue waters were turned into brown, foul-smelling, debris-strewn places of death. The bodies of local fishermen, sunbed sellers and hotel porters had been tossed into a watery grave with tourists from Europe, America and Australia who had been enjoying a luxurious seasonal holiday.

Traumatised survivors wandered among the wreckage, searching for loved ones, and speaking of how the sea had turned into a remorseless killer, sending wave after wave surging inland. The most heartbreaking stories involved the thousands of children plucked from the arms of their parents or swept away by rampaging waves as they played on the sand. There was little logic behind the stories of survival or death on Boxing Day morning. Many who ran from the water perished while some of those who stood still survived.

The chances of survival were lowest in Sumatra, just 160 miles to the north-east of the epicentre. About two minutes after the earthquake, the first giant waves battered the city of Banda Aceh. As many as a third of the city’s 150,000 people were killed as their families, homes, cars and possessions were washed away.

More than a mile away from the beachfront, Emi, who like many Indonesians only uses one name, began shouting: "The water is coming, the water is coming. Everyone get into the car."

Emi, 42, hitched a ride on a motorbike, while her husband, nine-year-old son Joanda and two grandchildren climbed into the family jeep. But the torrent of brown water, which was already flattening buildings, wiped out the jeep, drowning her grandchildren.

"The water kept rolling us, rolling us. I ended up on a roof hanging on, my husband ended up on a tree," said Emi.

Joanda hung on desperately to his father’s hand then slipped off into the raging waters. "How can I know the reasons for it? It is the power of God," said Emi.

On a field four times the size of a football pitch, more than a thousand people watching a sporting event were killed instantly as water the height of a two-storey building washed over them.

Mahmud Azaf, who was refereeing, survived, although three of his children drowned. "The waves suddenly came in and I was saved by God - I got caught in the branches of a tree," he said.

At first the Indonesian authorities tried to play down the incident, with the Meteorological and Geophysics Agency in Jakarta claiming it measured only 6.4 on the Richter scale and was 100 miles below ground. But it was soon independently assessed by the US Geological Survey as six miles below ground and measuring 9 on the Richter scale. This made it the world’s biggest earthquake since 1964, and the fifth-largest since 1900.

The shudders were so intense that buildings were shaken hundreds of miles away from the epicentre, from Bangladesh in the north to Singapore.

Hundreds of shops, homes and buildings were destroyed in the first few minutes, the telephone network crashed and electricity supplies failed. More than 200 prisoners took advantage of the chaos to break out of jail in Aceh.

Further down the coast in a village in the Meulaboh district, 50-year-old Meutia and her five year-old grandchild were washed a mile out to sea, but managed to survive a day and night in the ocean before being rescued 60 miles away.

The initial quake caused just a few walls in the village to collapse, but half an hour later 6ft waves pounded her house. Meutia fled with her two grandchildren to a mosque before being battered by the biggest wave of all.

"It was huge, as high as the tops of the coconut trees and it came so fast then crashed down on top of the mosque. We were washed about, left and right. We couldn’t help ourselves."

Meutia could only hold one of her grandchildren while the other was swept away along with her daughter.

Clinging to a large timber beam and desperately clasping her surviving grandchild, they were washed almost a mile out to sea where they clung on to life for a day and a half. When a boat picked them up on Monday evening, they were amazed to find they were in Gunung Gruteh, 60 miles from home.

As the mighty tidal wave spread out throughout the Indian Ocean, the remote Andaman and Nicobar islands to the north of Sumatra were next to be struck at just after 8am. As clocks in Britain turned 1am and millions slumbered, whole villages were wiped out. Five days after the disaster, aid agencies could only guess that up to 10,000 of the 350,000 population had died.

Around the same time, Thailand to the north-east of Sumatra, was next to feel the tsunami’s fury, again shortly after 8am. The famed white beaches of the western holiday islands such as Phuket were packed with thousands of European holiday makers who had jetted out to catch some Christmas sun.

Austrian Andreas Grugl described the awful moment his wife Brigit, 39, and son Sebastian, 10, drowned when waves burst into their first-floor hotel room in Phuket.

"I held my son with my hand and we were slithered on to the street and then I lost my son," he said. "I felt I was crushed against a wall, a sofa crashed on me, then a refrigerator. That was the one thing I could stand on. I looked around and saw nobody. There were no people. I was alone."

Fashion photographer Simon Atlee, 33, from London, was swept to his death when the tidal wave destroyed his bungalow in Khao Lak near Phuket, but his girlfriend, Czech model Petra Nemcova, survived by clinging on to a palm tree. Nemcova, 25, who is recovering from a broken pelvis and internal injuries, said: "It was horrible. This huge wave just pulled us out of the house. It was so powerful I could not get up. I am very lucky but I can’t find Simon."

In one of the iconic stories which was flashed around the world, Swedish toddler Hannes Bergstrom, who was found stranded by a roadside covered in mosquito bites in Phuket, was reunited later with his family after doctors at a hospital posted his picture on the internet.

His family in Scandinavia spotted the picture and contacted a relative in Pattaya who arranged for 20-month-old Hannes to be reunited with his father Carl, 40, and grandfather who were being treated at another nearby hospital. His aunt Viola Hellstroem, who was scouring the internet for pictures, said she "screamed for joy" when she noticed her nephew.

Dozens of desperate parents rushed to the hospital when they heard a white toddler had survived, but they left heartbroken when they realised it was not their child.

But Hannes’ survival is tinged with sorrow as his mother and grandmother are missing, presumed dead.

George McCready, 42, a marine biologist originally from Glasgow, who now runs boat tours in Thailand, was tipped off by local fisherman minutes before the disaster that a tidal wave was about to strike.

"I had been taking tourists in my boat visiting the small islands of Phi Phi and Koh Ratha and we decided to berth on the east coast of Phuket," he said.

"The next day I received a call telling me that the water was beginning to empty from the little bays and coastal inlets of that area. To the locals, that can only mean one thing: that a tidal wave was about to hit.

"I decided to stay where we were, on the ‘safe’ side of the island, and warned as many people as I could. Within a short space of time, the impact of the wave was making itself felt. If I hadn’t got the call we would have been caught up in the middle of it.

"This area is very popular with divers and the quake happened during ideal diving conditions. There would have been upwards of 500 divers out there who wouldn’t have stood a chance."

Simon Clark, 29, is a photographer from London who was on holiday on Ngai island. "Suddenly this huge wave came, rushing down the beach, destroying everything in its wake. People that were snorkelling were dragged along the coral and washed up on the beach, and people that were sunbathing got washed into the sea."

"It happened in cycles. There would be a surge and then it would retreat and then there would be a next surge which was more violent and it went on like that," said Paul Ramsbottom, a Briton on holiday in a Phuket.

"Then there was this one almighty surge. I mean literally this was the one which was picking up pick-up trucks and motorcycles and throwing them around in front of us."

Gaynor Johnston, 34, from Ayr, and Christopher Mullen, 27, from Richmond in Surrey, were on honeymoon on a beach in southern Thailand when they simply "disappeared" on Boxing Day morning.

Christopher’s father, Nick Mullen from Nottingham, was convinced the couple were dead. "They are the sort of people who would have called. It is inconceivable they would not have let us know they were OK by now. We’re looking at bodies floating in the sea on TV and wondering which ones are them. All the family is desperate. It is awful."

But in one of the few good news stories to emerge from the tragedy, the couple were later found to be alive and well. Gaynor managed to get an e-mail to her colleagues at Cardinal Health in Swindon, Wiltshire, but because the office was empty for the Christmas holidays it was not discovered until Thursday.

Next to be hit around 8.10am was Malaysia, although it suffered relatively little damage because Sumatra had taken the brunt of the tidal wave. Even so, at least 42 people were reported dead, including foreign tourists swimming and on jet skis in the resort island of Penang.

In the midst of all the death there were other amazing stories of children surviving.

A three-year-old Thai boy, Watanyu Pa-opas, was rescued after being stuck up a tree for 50 hours. It is not yet known if his family survived.

Baby’s cries heard

And a 20-day-old baby in Malaysia avoided drowning after floating on a mattress. His family were sleeping in a room in Penang when the wave crashed in.

Her father Suppiah and mother Annal Mary managed to open a door to try to escape and thought they had lost their newborn baby until they heard his cries coming from a mattress that was floating by.

After wreaking death and destruction in south-east Asia, the waves devastated massive sections of the Asian sub continent. The tsunami took around two hours to cross 1,000 miles of ocean, arriving at Sri Lanka at around 9.15am local time.

Sarah Balmond, 24, and her brother, James, 21, from Crouch End, London, described running back in panic towards the luxury Nilaveli Beach Hotel in Trincomalee as the tidal wave rushed into the grounds.

They ran to their first-floor cabin to fetch their mother Shirley, father Cecil, a building designer, and brother John before racing into the hotel forecourt.

"What really shocked me was that no one was helping anyone else," said James. "There were dozens of tourists all pushing and climbing over each other in desperation. There were no staff left, it was every man for himself."

His sister added: "We ran towards a high perimeter wall. The water was surging around us. It was above our waists and rising. Desperate people were trying to clamber up on the wall. At one point, I fell and people were trampling on top of me.

"Somehow I got up. James was fantastic. He was trying to help people up onto the wall but mostly people were just looking after themselves with no thought for anyone."

James helped Sarah onto a wall which was covered in glass, when part of it fell on top of her as the tidal wave tore through a gap."This is when I was sure I was going to die," said Sarah. "The terrible thing was that James was still on the other side and I thought I was going to die alone. But somehow, he got over and we ran up the path away from the hotel."

The rest of the family were trapped inside the hotel when water came crashing in once again. "My mother was crying and shouting, ‘I’ve lost my children, I’ve lost my children,’" said John. "I told her not to say that and we ran on into the front area. The water seemed to subsiding a bit at this stage but everyone was screaming. The worst moment for us was running up the road and seeing one of James’s shoes on the ground. We were sure at that stage we’d lost him".

The Balmond family were lucky to survive, but when they returned to the hotel, they were horrified to find corpses strewn across the forecourt and the bodies of two little girls in the pool.

Locals who lived near a naval base gave them clothes after they were left with nothing but their own drenched garments. They later made a gruelling trip to the British High Commission in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo, where they were given travel vouchers to fly home yesterday.

In one of the deadliest single incidents, more than 1,000 people were killed when a wave toppled a passenger train which had stopped near Colombo. Many of the dead were locals who had climbed on to the roof to escape the fast-approaching torrent.

Shenth Ravindra, 25, from Crawley, Sussex, is believed to be one of only five westerners to live through the carnage when the train was overturned. In a remarkable escape, he later clambered through a house filled with dead bodies after seeking refuge on the roof of a house.

"I heard lots of screaming outside and saw lots of women running towards the train. The next thing I knew this huge wave comes and hits the train, the train buckles and tilts at 45 degrees," he said.

"I climbed to the roof, there were lots of children everywhere grabbing hold of me and then I saw the second wave come and push the carriage towards a house.

"I managed to jump on to the house by which time there were lots of dead bodies everywhere, lots of children. The most frightening aspect was when I saw the second wave coming, there was a lot of screaming, the dynamics of the horizon had changed. I just saw this wall of water coming towards us.

"There was a little girl who was with me on top of the roof, then I decided to leave the house. I tried to bring her with me but she wasn’t coming with me. There were a lot of Sri Lankan people there as well.

"I stated my intention that I wanted to go off the house. I said, ‘I think another wave might come or the house might collapse’, but they were saying, ‘How do you know there’s another wave?’."

A Swedish woman, Karina, joined him as he climbed down from the house. "I went down the house. There were a lot of dead bodies at that time so I was making my way through the bodies trying not to make eye contact. Within a couple of steps I lacerated my leg quite badly."

They managed to walk two kilometres to the relative safety of a Buddhist pagoda where he met an American Sri Lankan whose uncle owned a farm a further three kilometres away.

Amid the mayhem, one British boy managed to surf the tsunami off the coast of Sri Lanka. Jamie Johnstone, of Chichester, West Sussex, was on his surfboard off the coast of Hikkaduwa when the wave struck but incredibly he managed to ride it out, dodging wreckage and the bodies of victims along the way.

India was one of the worst-hit countries with 3,000 killed and 700 missing on the first day as the tidal wave pounded southern fishing villages. In Andrha Pradesh alone, 400 fishermen were missing immediately after the first strikes.

Forty children playing cricket on a beach in Cuddalore drowned when a massive wave pulled them out to sea. One local man, who lost two sons playing on the beach, said: "I suddenly saw waves 30 to 40ft high. People just froze, they didn’t know what to do. I grabbed my daughters and ran. We have nothing left. I can’t trace my two sons who were playing cricket on the beach."

Selvi, 50, described how she lost her youngest son Jothi, nine, when they were hit from behind by the tidal wave on Chennai Beach in Tamil Nadu, southern India.

"Jothi held my hand as we started walking away from the shore. Suddenly, without any warning, a huge wave smashed into our backs. It was like a slap from a giant," she said.

"I was holding Jothi’s hand tightly but the impact of the wave tore us apart and we were lifted into the air. I rolled over and over inside the wave - more than 50 times I rolled over. There were broken bottles, plants, bits of trees, all sorts of debris, rolling round with me.

"I was separated from my son - that’s all I remember thinking about. And then I think I lost consciousness but I’m not sure. The next thing I knew I was lying on the beach. My body was aching and scratched all over. I pulled myself up and started looking for my son.

"I was crying, staggering around. Finally - I don’t know how long it took - I found his body close to the water’s edge. His head was buried in the sand. I knew it was him because of his striped blue and white T-shirt and grey trousers. I crouched by his side and wept.

"I don’t know how long I was there for. Finally, some people came and carried his body away. I don’t know how I will get over this. The pain is unbearable."

As the waves rippled further out, two were killed in Bangladesh to the north and a further 55 died further out west of India in the Maldives. Nine thousand people were made homeless on the idyllic holiday location and 13 of the 200 inhabited islands were evacuated.

Lisa Morgan, 30, a legal secretary from Chatham, Kent, clung to a tree for six hours, surrounded by human corpses and dead animals.

"I managed to cling to a tree and there were lots of other people trying to keep hold of the trunk," she said. "We were trying to spur each other on but we were all crying for our lives. It was as though someone had pulled the plug out to the earth.

"There was contaminated water everywhere, dead rats and bodies were floating around me and sewage was mixed in the water with sanitary products sticking to you.

"I was sick several times and absolutely terrified. I stayed there for six hours until we were helped to safety. We were all absolutely exhausted."

Apocalyptic scenes

As the western world woke up on Boxing Day, the tsunami was leading news bulletins. It was clear that south-east Asia had suffered a major disaster - there was, even then, talk of thousands dead - but no-one could have imagined the apocalyptic scenes and the obscenely-huge numbers of dead, injured, missing and homeless that would follow.

The European Union immediately pledged 2m for the disaster and Britain promised 1m. As the catastrophe unfolded in live television reports, there was no word from Washington DC on how much the world’s wealthiest country would donate.

Relief specialists from Britain and the EU flew out that day and the EU gave its first donation to help emergency organisations such as Oxfam supply water and food to the worst-hit areas of Sri Lanka.

By the end of Sunday, 11,500 people were confirmed killed around the continent with tens of thousands more missing, and more than a million homeless.

Reports of the dead in Indonesia varied from 2,435 to more than 4,400, with at least 30,000 people fleeing their homes. Some reports put the initial death toll in Banda Aceh alone at 3,000.

Sri Lanka reported 4,500 dead and 750,000 homeless. As parts of the rebel-held island were not yet accessible, the toll was to grow much higher.

In India, 3,000 were known to have been killed, including 1,700 in Tamil Nadu. Thailand had at least 400 dead and 5,000 were injured. Burma had 90 dead while Bangladesh was largely unscathed.

They were appalling statistics but few would have believed that, within days, almost every number would have be multiplied by at least ten.

In London, the Foreign Office set up a helpline for relatives worried about loved ones who had been holidaying in the area. The arrangements were hopelessly inadequate: thousands of panicked Britons flooded the helpline within hours.

As the morning sun rose above the disaster zones on Monday, the true human cost of the disaster began to emerge. Streets and beaches across the region were strewn with thousands of bodies already blackening in the intense heat and humidity. Corpses floated in almost every pool of water or lay under collapsed homes.

"It smells so bad. The human bodies are mixed in with dead animals like dogs, fish, cats and goats," said Colonel Buyung Lelana, the head of an evacuation team in Sumatra. Over the coming days, attempts to carefully recover, identify and respectfully dispose of the dead gave way to a frantic race against the spread of disease. In some cases, bodies were cremated where they lay; in many others, pits were hastily filled with dozens of corpses.

The final exact death toll will certainly be unknown and thousands of families will never know precisely what happened to their loved ones.

In Thailand, there were so many bodies that emergency services ran out of burial sheets. "We don’t have enough coffins, and those we have are too small for the bodies of foreigners," said a Thai official.

In Sri Lanka, Bala Karunakaran, a British-based medical student working in a hospital in a remote part of the country, said: "I have never seen such chaos. Our mortuary is overflowing with bodies. Most of the dead are women and young children. We also have many young children who have yet to be identified."

The first horrifying stories were beginning to emerge of bodies being buried before they were even identified.

Christine Conroy, from Machynlleth in mid-Wales, who was on the beach in Unawatuna in Sri Lanka, said British tourists were among the anonymous corpses which were already being buried.

By Monday, the number of known dead across the region had soared to 33,000 and the Red Cross said it feared the unburied corpses and lack of clean drinking water could spark an epidemic of water-borne diseases such as malaria and cholera which would cause as many deaths as the tidal wave.

Dr David Nabarro, the head of crisis operations for the World Health Organisation, warned: "There is certainly a chance we could have as many dying from communicable diseases as from the tsunami."

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said it may be the costliest natural disaster in history with a price tag of "many billions of dollars".

As well as the countless thousands beyond help, millions of traumatised survivors faced a hazardous future with no home, no fresh drinking water and health services, roads and buildings which had been decimated.

As a result, the simmering political row over claims the world’s richest countries reacted too slowly and were too "stingy" erupted on Monday with UN Undersecretary-General Jan Egeland launching a blistering attack on the efforts of richer nations.

That day, the White House offered 7.8m and put six C130 planes on standby in Japan to fly to Thailand. While the United States now joined a list of donors from Europe to Japan and Australia, Egeland complained that none of the world’s richest countries had offered even 1% of its gross national product to international assistance, with many giving just 0.1% or 0.2%, he said.

"We were more generous when we were less rich and it is beyond me why we are so stingy, really," he said.

Other harrowing tales of the tsunami continued to emerge. Now badly bruised and confined to a wheelchair, Christine Conroy described how her German friend Helga and her Sri Lankan husband Sunil lost their baby to the tsunami in a tragic case of mistaken identity.

"She threw the baby to him but it was snatched out of his arms by the raging water," said Conroy. "He swam around and emerged triumphantly with the baby. He saved the child.

"It was only after he had carried it to safety that he realised it was not his child. It turned out to be an Italian baby. Because I have medical training, I was able to revive it. Sunil and Helga later found their baby’s body and ran wailing through the village."

In Thailand panic soon gave way to looting and lawlessness. On Koh Phi Phi, cash machines were broken into and British tourists spoke of being duped by gangs into leaving their hotel because a second tidal wave was coming.

"They took everything that wasn’t screwed down to the floor - booze, money, everything," said Tony Smith, 54, of London, after thieves ransacked his hotel. "One British man returned after the waves had calmed down and found his fiancee’s wedding dress had been stolen."

Jan Gaynor, 35, from Croydon, said: "They hid stuff behind their backs and acted friendly, but ran away when I confronted them. A police inspector came round but he didn’t speak English. There is a complete breakdown of law and order."

But other survivors spoke of the warmth of the hospitality shown by the Thai and Sri Lankan people in the face of disaster.

The Rock House Hotel in Unawatuna, Sri Lanka, was the only building left in what was once a luxurious palm-fringed resort. Survivors converted it into a makeshift hospital for both locals and tourists.

Beds were made into improvised stretchers to carry the dead and dying. Sian Hughes, a Welsh-born doctor who now lives in Australia, tended the wounded. "I don’t know how many I treated; it must have been hundreds."

Jake Zarins, 27, and his brother Aleksis, 24, were among the western tourists who survived at the resort. "We are the lucky ones. We can get out of here," said Jake.

"The people here need shelter. They can’t rebuild their businesses. Everyone here had made a commitment that when they get back to their home countries they will do what they can to help. These people have lost everything but they gave us all they had."

In Thailand, along a 50-mile stretch from Khao Lak to Taklua Pa, there were further scenes of carnage on Monday.

Here the tsunami behaved in two ways: where resorts were set against a hilly background it took the buildings - and occupants - and smashed them to pieces.

Where the coast was flat, it penetrated up to a mile inland, bringing with it cars, television sets, beds - and people.

At temples along the road, hundreds of coffins were piled up waiting to be filled. Workers used pick-up trucks to collect bodies 12 at a time for quick cremation. Often one of the staff rode shotgun, sitting on the bodies. In some cases limbs dangled over the sides.

At the Sofitel Magic Lagoon, the situation was even worse. Of the 550 guests and hotel staff, half were unaccounted for. Bloated bodies littered the beach and lay among the rubble.

As survivors had fled to the hills for safety, army helicopters flew overhead broadcasting messages in English. "Please come down now."

Donnie Spillane, 39, from Co Kerry, who had been on a jungle hill being fed by local Thais, said: "I wouldn’t come down until I heard the loudspeakers saying it was safe."

Spillane had seen the tsunami approach and sweep past him carrying debris, people and bodies. He managed to pull four people into his house. One woman was holding an already drowned baby.

"The Thais have been magnificent," he said. "They have offered me everything. Free food, accommodation. They take me everywhere. There’s not many places like this in the world."

By the third day of the crisis, Tuesday, the rapidly rising death toll had reached at least 65,000, with the first, horrendous, warning from the World Health Organisation that it could climb to six figures.

In Sri Lanka and Indonesia, there were macabre scenes as relief workers buried bodies in mass graves to prevent the spread of disease from rotting corpses and contaminated water. Even then, there were not enough workers to complete the grim task.

Steve Aswin, an emergency officer with Unicef in Jakarta, said: "There is no one to bury the bodies. They should be buried in mass graves but there is no one to dig the graves."

Among those grieving, it emerged, was Lord Attenborough, whose 14-year-old granddaughter Lucy was killed in Phuket, while his eldest daughter Jane and her mother-in-law Jane Holland are still missing.

News also emerged of another British casualty, Lisa Jones, 31, from Berkshire, a conservation officer working on the tiny Thai island of Ko Phra Thong.

In scenes reminiscent of New York after the September 11 attacks, desperate relatives posted pictures of their missing loved ones on huge noticeboards in Phuket.

Piers Simon, 33, from Chilthorne Domer, Yeovil, was last seen when he was hit by a wave on the Thia island of Phi Phi.

Despite chasing down several false rumours that Piers was alive, his brother Luke was not prepared to give up hope as he continued to hand out posters to anyone passing by.

"We have lots of leads which you follow and you get excited," he said. "Then you will find some information which takes you off that trail but you have to remain positive; miracles do happen.

"If you start believing the worst has happened you start to crumble, so you have to be positive all the time."

By the end of the week, Luke’s brother’s body had been recovered.

Another taking part in the heart-rending searched for missing loved ones was Dominik Koller. "I came from Germany to look for my girlfriend, Susanne. She was on Khao Lak. Please, if anyone sees her, please contact the numbers," he said of the telephone number on the photographs he distributed to anyone who would take them. After a pause, he added: "Maybe there is a chance."

As the first of the British survivors began arriving back in the UK on extra flights put on from around the region, more incredible stories of survival emerged.

Optician Alasdair Stewart, from Dollar, Clackmannanshire, told how he and a group of friends on a diving expedition on Phi Phi island near Phuket, were almost killed when they were swept up onto rocks.

"We were fighting for our lives against an incredible force. Somehow we got back to our boat. When I saw our hotel I could not believe it - it had collapsed."

Disease concerns

For the vast majority of survivors, locals for whom a flight to Europe is not an option, aid had been too slow in coming. In Banda Aceh, fear was mixed with anger as residents lingered outside the few open shops guarded by soldiers.

"Where is the assistance? There is nothing. All the government are asleep," said Mirza, a 28-year-old resident.

UN emergency co-ordinator Egeland repeated his warning that the death toll from the tsunami could be overshadowed by the "second wave" of disease unless governments and aid agencies acted effectively.

"Drinking water for millions has been polluted. Disease will be a result of that and also acute respiratory disease always comes in the wake of disasters," he said.

The UN warned that epidemics of malaria, cholera and acute respiratory diseases posed a serious risk to millions, particularly in the worst hit areas of Sri Lanka, Indonesia and India.

"Hundreds of thousands of people fought to survive the tsunamis on Sunday. Now we need to help them survive the aftermath," said Carol Bellamy, executive director of the UN children’s agency Unicef.

British relief agencies launched an umbrella group, the Disaster Emergencies Committee, to appeal for money, food, clean water and shelters.

That day, the first UN Food Programme Aid began to arrive in Sri Lanka, including 12 truckloads of rice, lentils, sugar, medical supplies, water purification systems, tents, blankets, dry rations and medical teams. But Tamil rebels claimed the aid was not getting through to them.

The Sri Lankan survivors faced an additional threat after the tsunami dislodged some of the estimated two million landmines planted during the war between the government and the Tamil tigers.

Wednesday dawned with yet more stories of horror and suffering. Britain’s youngest victim at that time was named as six-year-old Taylor Howard, from St Ives, Cornwall.

But confusion reigned about the total death toll among Britons as the Foreign Office refused to release figures on how many were missing.

By that day, Britain’s original aid pledge of 1m had jumped to 15m. The US was still offering 18m, lagging far behind countries such as Spain and Japan.

Aid agencies on the ground continued to warn that millions across the region were without the basics of food and clean water. In the Trincomalee district of Sri Lanka, the scale of the battle to save the survivors was all too clear.

"It’s a mess," said Patrick Walder, who heads the office of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Trincomalee. "The problem is disorganisation. There are many agencies and they are not co-ordinated. The government is not co- ordinating. Some of the district offices are wiped out so we have nothing to work with."

John Punter, another Red Cross worker in Sri Lanka, was frustrated. "The first thing is, where do you start? It’s the whole country. And not only is it one country, it’s many countries over a massive area."

Along the hard-hit east coast of Trincomalee, small groups sheltered in schools, empty buildings, makeshift tents and temples, facing desperate conditions.

Wasantakumari Sridhar, 35, who was camped by the side of the road under a tarpaulin with two other women, three men and nine children, said: "What we need is clothes. Our homes have become mud. Everything we had is gone."

Another mother, Pasida Muhamad, said: "We only want food and milk. We are not asking for everything. But our babies have no milk to drink."

In many areas, health experts said the relief operation looked woefully inadequate with shortages of coffins, equipment and medicine, while emergency workers struggled with power cuts, destroyed communications and badly damaged roads.

Near the popular Khao Lak beach in Thailand there was a heavy smell of decaying flesh from a Buddhist temple which had been converted into a morgue.

"We have only cloth to wrap the bodies in and our bare hands and machetes to retrieve the bodies," said a Thai rescuer, Surasit Kantipantukul. "We want machinery and boats."

Thai officials said their lack of equipment was embarrassing. "Our workers have only noses to smell for foul odours," environment minister Suwit Khunkitti said. In Thailand, Sweden appears to have suffered the highest death toll among Europeans. Sun-seeking Swedes traditionally travel to Thailand for end-of-year holidays to escape the snow back home. An estimated 1,500 of the 20,000 there on Boxing Day are missing.

"Slowly it is coming to us that we have been hit by a tremendous catastrophe," said Lars Collmar, a Lutheran priest who addressed 100 worshippers at Stockholm’s Adolf Fredriks Church on Wednesday night. "We live in a world which is at the same time paradise and hell."

But in the midst of the tragedy, there were life-affirming glimmers of hope. A 14-month-old Swedish toddler was found wrapped in a blanket on a hill in Phuket, Thailand, by an American couple, while in Khao Lak a two-year-old fisherman’s son survived for more than two days after being swept into a tree top.

By Thursday, five million people around the region were awaiting supplies of food and fresh water, and it was clear at least 100,000 people had lost their lives.

Around 50 aftershocks had been felt around the region, and there was fresh terror in Sri Lanka, India and Thailand on Friday when authorities issued warnings that further tsunamis might follow. There were dramatic scenes in Tamil Nadu state, where 7,300 people died last Sunday, as thousands of residents and relief workers fled for their lives from refugee centres to seek shelter further inland.

But the warnings proved to be false and India’s science minister Kapil Sibal admitted fears of a new strike were "hogwash".

Meanwhile, in Thailand, the nation’s notorious nightlife was coming back to life, even as death filled the air. At Patong Beach on the infamous Soi Bangla, the street’s pubs, go-go bars, nightclubs and discos, were competing to outblast one another as music blared into the night. The bars were packed with girls and mainly male tourists.

Only the unmistakable smell of decomposing bodies in a massive mound of debris awaiting collection gave away Sunday’s disaster.

Utter devastation

While western governments were criticised for being too mean and too slow in responding to the disaster, Britons reacted with incredible generosity. Worldwide donations reached 280m, but in Britain, members of the public handed in 50m and rising. British call centres have been receiving donations of 15,000 a minute, almost 1m an hour. But the promised aid money is but a fraction of the estimated cost it will take to repair the damage, and Asian governments and international agencies have been left reeling at the economic devastation left behind.

For many coastal communities the infrastructure of their twin industries, tourism and fishing, have been destroyed. Entire fleets of boats lie broken far inland where the giant wave left them, while resorts have been demolished.

Tourism is vital to many of the countries, providing jobs for 19 million people in the south east Asian region. About 10 million foreign tourists visited Thailand alone in 2003, accounting for 6% of the country’s main income.

Juthamas Siriwan, the governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, gave an upbeat assessment that 70% of the damage could be rebuilt "within three months."

And in the Maldives, foreign tourists were already back in the water last week at some resorts, which due to a combination of luck and geography suffered little major damage.

But with beach-side locations taking the full force of the tsunami, some observers have estimated that between 5% and 10% of Thailand’s hotels have been destroyed, and that the outlook for the year ahead is "dark". Other countries fare little better.

Many fear that even if rapid repairs are made, tourists will continue to stay away in the longer term.

Conservationists say that large areas of the slow-growing coral reefs that made the resorts popular for divers may also have been severely damaged by the crashing waves.

World Bank president James Wolfensohn has said the agency is "only beginning to grasp the magnitude" of the disaster and its economic impact. Economists believe several countries in the disaster areas could see a slowdown in growth.

The World Bank said it has already started talks with a number of countries, including Sri Lanka and Indonesia, about redirecting existing loans to the rebuilding process.

The devastated countries are also set to now carry the bitter cost of installing an early warning system to predict future tsunamis - a scheme previously rejected due to its cost. India have already announced a plan to install a warning system costing up to 14m.

And still, the world receives grim, daily reminders of why such early warning systems are needed.

On Friday, Thailand’s death toll rocketed. Almost 2,000 bodies were washed up on a single beach in Khao Lak, north of Phuket. The 20-mile stretch of beach has now yielded 3,500 corpses and no one expects them to be the last.

But it is clearly Indonesia - closest to the earthquake’s epicentre - which has borne the brunt of the disaster Some 80,000 deaths were confirmed by Friday but the numbers are expected to exceed well over 100,000. Entire coastal villages and towns in remote areas were eradicated.

Rescue efforts have focused on Banda Aceh, but there are massive swathes of the south of the island which have not even been reached by aid workers. None are under any illusion about what they may find.

Among the endless litany of bleak statistics, it is the huge number of different nationalities killed and wounded that stands out - Britons, Swedes, Thais, Indians, Malaysians, Germans, Norwegians, Dutch, Somalis. The list goes on.

Tourists flocked to the paradise beaches of countries such as Thailand, transported there by more accessible long-distance flights, to spend the fruits of seemingly ever-increasing western prosperity.

Britons were particularly attracted to Thailand, travelling there in recent years in numbers which would have been unthinkable two decades ago. They were fed, watered and waited on by entrepreneurial locals determined to grab a share of the west’s bounty for them and their families. It was globalisation in action.

But British tourists and Thais share the coastline of the Indian Ocean with communities far poorer than they could imagine: Sri Lankan civilians in the north of that country battered by years of civil war, Indian fishermen scraping a subsistence living from the floor of the ocean, Somalis on the African coast which was last to be hit, and Indonesians closest to the epicentre of the earthquake which launched a devastating wave of water.

United by their experience of the horror which was the Boxing Day Tsunami, rich, poor, western or local: they were all there when nature reminded us of the wrath of the sea and our fragility in the face of its destructive power.