Five Minutes

Mairin told me to watch the glass. We held hands. She was crying.

There was a large open area in the middle of the hotel on the third floor. I couldn’t imagine what it must have been used for before, but after the wave it had become the hospital. Around fifty people were lying in various stages of injury, with their loved ones holding hands and crying.
Black eyes, bone deep cuts caused by floating corrugated zinc roofs, scratches, broken bones; necks, ribs, legs, arms, backs, head trauma, punctured lungs, shock and fear. A mother held a bottle of water for her six year old. Our eyes met. She was pleading with me for some kind of answer, as if I could somehow turn back time and not allow her child to see what he was seeing. Beside her an older Japanese man held a bandage to his head, blood dripped slowly onto the ground where flies had grouped.

Now what? I tried to listen to what people were saying. Tsunami, started in the Philippines, destroyed Phuket and Krabi. We wouldn’t be evacuated for a while, because there was nowhere to go, the mainland had been hit harder than us. Others said that it had started in Indonesia.

From the roof I saw that everything on the island had been shattered. All the shops lay in a pile of rubble. Where was the woman who made the pancakes, where was Sky our boat guy, where was the corn lady? How could anyone have survived that? There was nothing left.

I wasn’t hurt or crying. I was thinking about my passport and other things. Here were people lying on the verge of death, entire families who had survived and I was wondering if our snorkel gear could be salvaged. I felt guilty and avoided eye contact, feeling my eyes may betray my thoughts; every person seemed to accuse me of not suffering, with their eyes. I felt a strong urge to smile. As if that simple act could help assuage their pain. Occasionally some one would offer back a weak attempt to show understanding, but most of the time I caught myself looking around with a ridiculous expression on my face. Then I looked to the ground and noticed the blood.

Mairin was on the verge of tears, so I hugged her. I didn’t know what else to do. We found some shade, a bottle of water and sat down. People were screaming in pain, trying to use their cell phones and escaping the sun. Children had begun to play some sort of game. Their parents watched them attentively. Time passed.

I couldn’t just sit there. I had to move.

“Let’s go back to our room and see what is going on over there.” It’s not that I was still occupied with getting our things, I just couldn’t sit there and watch people die. I had to move. Down in the lobby I walked carefully, Mairin walked behind me, holding my hand. Debris and fallen buildings had replaced the familiar roads and alleyways back to our hotel. It was difficult maneuvering. I noticed a fish struggling to breath, it looked so absurd and out of place I wanted to laugh, but than I heard Mairin cry out.

“Oh my god, oh my god. Look over there to your right!” She sounded hysterical, what could she have seen?

Then I saw her. She couldn’t have been more than seven. She was wearing a yellow polka-dotted dress and one shoe. Someone had covered her face, but her tiny arms and swollen legs were exposed. Her skin was dirty, scarred and beginning to turn yellow.

I looked away and realized I was about to trip over another body right in front of me. This one was a man. Much bigger but just as still.

“Let’s go back, where are we going?” Mairin was pulling on my arm.

“Just keep moving! We have to keep moving.”

I didn’t know why I needed to keep moving, but I couldn’t turn and go back to the hotel. I was determined to just make it some place else. We crawled through some apartment building and made our way to the next three-story hotel. Two bodies lay in the lobby.

Upstairs people were lying in the hallways and in rooms sobbing. We made our way to the roof and noticed that the area where our hotel had been was now clear of anything standing. There was no point in going back there. It was gone. I had seen that the island was devastated.

We walked back to the first hotel; on the way I grabbed a pair of shoes from one of the piles of rubble that had been a store. The scene was absurd. I was trying on flips flops in the midst of devastation. To my right I noticed a small kitten, shaking, to its right a fish lay dying and further a small girl already dead, beyond that, the sea.

“There is another wave coming. We have to move to the mountain.”

I am not sure who said it first, but the statement made people panic. It was around four and the sun was less intense. We were beginning to feel comfortable and safe, sitting in our corners waiting; some for rescue, some for death. But now, we had to move again. I had seen that there was no hope. There was no place left undamaged. Now I wanted to sit still. The children’s games stopped as the parents were the first ones down the stairs. A few would stay with the injured that couldn’t be moved, but the rest of us were to make a run to high ground. This second wave may knock the hotel down and there was no point in waiting for it to attack. The living sacrificing the injured, we ran.

Like a line of ants we moved. The path looked like the set of Full Metal Jacket. We moved quickly, gathering up stragglers.

“Watch out for the barbed wire!”

“Look out for that hole!”

“Keep moving!”

“Do you need shoes? We have extras….”

We moved. Always looking to the bay, to see if it would rise again. The bay was still. It looked warm and thick, like soup left out over night.

People made a line and slashed their way though foliage, on a small trail, moving up. A small group had stopped, determined that they were high enough, so we stopped with them. A group of about twenty locals sat to the left and to the right, the tourists.

“Do they have to smoke at a time like this?” A woman spit angrily to no one at all. The word “they” reverberated in my mind. This woman was safe, alive. She would go home, be showered with support, money and love. Her life would be back to normal within weeks. But “they”, what would they do?
A tan small man, missing an eye, and wrinkled walked around offering everyone some dried fish. It was the first thing many of us had eaten all day. The woman, who had made the cigarette comment, took some fish and smiled at the man. We sat there chewing on dried fish, waiting.

“If any kind of boat comes, we will be all the way up here.” I said to Mairin.

“We should be at the hotel. There isn’t another wave and if there is it isn’t going to take out the Cabana. Let’s go back before it gets dark.”

It was about to get dark and the thought of spending the night out there was ridiculous. I couldn’t just sit there anymore. We walked down a bit and stopped to talk to a group of guys. They had to get their friend to the Hotel turned Hospital. He was laying on a mattress with a broken back, ribs and leg. He was going into shock. Next to him a Danish kid with a broken leg and deep lacerations was gripping onto a bloody sheet. They had to be moved.

“All right, let’s get go down to the Hotel and see what’s up,” I told Andrew from New Zealand, “We’ll get something to use as a stretcher and come back for them.”

Andrew and I walked back to the Cabana. The water murmured, behind the bay the sun began to set. The injured had been moved down to low ground and helicopters were on their way. A single chopper would take four to six people at a time. The most seriously injured would be the first to be evacuated. The others, meaning us, would have to wait till morning. That’s okay, I thought, we have contact with the mainland, things are moving, we are acting. We are alive, we are living! I felt a jolt of hope and I was ready to move.

“Let’s go back and get those guys, and tell everyone else it’s okay to come down.” Andrew looked at me, nodded and we moved. This time not loaded down with panic, but with purpose.
We made the announcement and said we needed at least eight people to help move, Tommy, the Irish kid, down to the triage area the doctors had set up. We stood by the mattress his friends had put him on and waited for the volunteers to run over. A group of men smoking cigarettes didn’t move. Another said he couldn’t leave his family.

“Look, my friend will die if we don’t get him on one of those helicopters,” his friend pleaded to no one at all. The men looked up our way, but no one moved. I couldn’t understand why they were just standing there.

“Hey this guy is in a lot of pain and could not make it unless we move him. Put your cigarettes out and help us move him.” I tried not sound to angry, but I wanted them to move on their own. Why did we have to ask twice? I looked down and Tommy thanked me. His face had turned yellow and the only thing that differentiated him from a corpse was the fact that he smiled and was talking.

“Hang in there guy. You’ll be some place safe soon. Just hang in there.” I said almost laughing. How did I know? He could have died in a matter of minutes at worst, or spent the next twelve hours in the most pain he had ever known. There I was not a scratch on me telling him to be strong. It was preposterous.

Finally a group of men came over and we lifted the bed and made our way down toward the beach. The sun had set and the full moon sat like a stale muffin in the sky.

“Big Hole.”

“Fallen tree.”

“Watch out, watch out!”


“We have to put him down.”


“On three, one two three.”

“Hang in there Tommy, we are almost there.”

“Okay let’s go! We don’t have all night.”

“Look at the moon!”

“Is the beach safe?”

“It looks like the water is receding again.”

“Just keep moving.”

“Can some one take the front, I can’t feel my arms.”

“How ya doin’ Tommy?”

Tommy grunted.

My arms hurt, I had stepped on a nail and I still didn’t have a shirt. We put him down, the doctors said he was critical and would be on the next chopper, we went back for the other one. We told the others to go back. There was food and water. The Thais refused to move. We grabbed the Danish kid and made the same trip back. This time Mairin led the way, yelling out warnings, moving obstacles. We had to cover their faces when the helicopter landed. The sand would blow in circles and sting my back as I turned away and covered my own face. They were scattered on the ground among the garbage and supplies. Piles of white sheets, covering broken bodies, and plastic water bottles shone out bright in the darkness. We moved from body to body, like bees, to make sure they were still alive. We offered them water and stroked their heads. Some would smile, or pee, or cry. Some were dead.

We were asked to talk to an older Dutch lady. A doctor said she could fall into a coma if we didn’t keep her awake. She had suffered severe head trauma and was not all together with us. I stroked her hair and we gently talked to her about her grandchildren and trips she had taken to the States. She had loved Florida and Las Vegas. Her brow knit when she mentioned her husband. He had been with her on the beach, but she hadn’t seen him since. We talked of simple things: her children, the weather, holidays and leisure. She mumbled mostly and seldom made sense. I was worried that I had yet to cry. Here was this woman, a body among bodies hanging on to life and I was concerned with my own emotional well-being. The whole night was a vicious cycle of emotion and guilt. Even as I stroked her hair, my mind drifted to myself. How could I not, even then, give myself to her fully? The human experience is too difficult for human beings to handle. We have not been prepared for what it entails. I covered her face so as to guard it from what I do not know. The chopper was back.
Suddenly she started to shake. She stopped talking and looked as if she was in pain.

“Help, this woman needs help!” I yelled. Where were the doctors?

“I was told to talk to this woman and tell someone if her situation changed. It has changed. She is shaking! She needs help!”

“I’ll be there in a sec, ” the doctor replied.

I thought she may not have a sec. She has grandchildren and a house in Rotterdam; she has to get back there. She can’t die here, not now. Please, please hurry. After the doctor felt for her pulse and examined her eyes with his flashlight, he moved her from number 4 to number one. The doctors had a ranking system of who would go on which chopper in order of importance; the lower your number the closer you were to death.

We lifted her shaking body and moved it to the waiting area for the next flight. We moved her body on the next chopper, the air was warm and the moon was now high in the sky. The air smelled of sewage and death. I have never smelt death before but there was nothing else that could smell that bad.

It was around midnight when the last of the injured had left the island. We had made a human chain and moved several boxes of food, water and medical supplies from the landing area to the third floor of the hotel. We stood speechless taking one box from the person behind and handing to the person in front. We had become the ants. Working for a common purpose. My arms were sore, I still didn’t have a shirt, I still hadn’t cried. I was exhausted but afraid to lie down to sleep.

Finally when everything that needed to be done was finished Mairin and I found an empty room, with clean sheets and lay down to rest. My thoughts, the heat and mosquitoes made it difficult to sleep. A single man slept in the bed next to us, crying the whole night. We only saw the aftermath; he must have witnessed the entire episode. In the middle of the night someone panicked and started screaming there was another wave coming. We all jumped out of bed and ran outside to see the bay smooth, like black vinyl. He must have been dreaming, we wearily made our way back to bed and wrestled with our own traumas.

As the mosquitoes buzzed in my ears, I began to make some vows. Treat the next stranger you see as if he is one of the dead. Why do we only love strangers when they become victims? I had tried to give so much love to the Dutch woman, but would I, could I do that to the next person who cut in front of me in line? I knew nothing about the people I helped, but I helped them unconditionally because they were on the verge of death. Would it not make more sense to help people fully living, as well? Is that not the lesson to learn? Don’t simply walk by a beautiful flower or ignore the clouds, because they are just new manifestations of the people we grieve for. We must see that nothing “is” on its own. There is no such thing as a single sided coin. We are what we love and what we hate. Therefore we must love what we hate, before any change can be made. I swore to be less angry that night. The body isn’t a thing; it’s a process. My brain drifted in and out. Then it was dawn.

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