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A father’s solace

Cookstown man Dermot Keightley lost his son Connor in a tsunami off Thailand. Ivan Little reports how working with orphans there has helped him cope with his devastating loss

The overwhelming temptation for most people in Dermot Keightley’s tragic position would probably be to curse the very name of the place where their child died.

But remarkably, the still-grieving Cookstown man has developed an astonishingly close affinity with Phi Phi island.

So much so, that Dermot has actually considered moving to live on the tiny island, off the coast of Thailand where his free-spirited son Connor perished in the devastating tsunami on Boxing Day, 2004.

Dermot, a softly-spoken school caretaker, has visited Phi Phi no fewer than seven times since the tragedy which claimed nearly a quarter of a million lives over South East Asia — and he’s preparing for his eighth trip at the end of July.

At first, Dermot went to the shattered island with his daughters Darina and Michelle to bring aid workers thousands of pounds raised for Phi Phi by family and friends and to help with relief work and repairs.

But now the work is, by and large, complete. However Dermot still finds solace on Phi Phi.

The 62-year-old says, “I love the island and Thailand in general. I would settle there tomorrow.”

But Connor’s mother Teresa can’t bring herself to visit the place where her son died, though she has worked tirelessly to raise money for the people of Phi Phi.

Dermot says his strong bond with his son is reinforced even more every time he visits the island.

“Wherever I am, there’s not a single day goes past without me thinking about Connor. But I find that on the island I feel even closer to him and I can get a sense of why he fell in love with Phi Phi in the first place.”

And while he may have lost a son on the paradise isle, Dermot has also ‘gained’ 13 new children — orphans whose futures have been assured by the money raised by the Keightley family.

At the last count, the family had collected a staggering £54,000 for Phi Phi and for the upkeep and education of 13 of the 101 children on the island who were orphaned by the horror wave.

Every year a foundation who look after the children send the Keightleys a progress report on them together with pictures and messages from them.

And during his trips to Phi Phi and to the Thai mainland, Dermot Keightley visits all the children to see them for himself.

“They are spread out all over the region but a member of the foundation takes me to see all the youngsters.

“Sometimes the travel can include boat trips to remote areas, but I find it very rewarding to see what the money raised in Connor’s name is doing for those children.

“They all know who I am. Every year they are told in their own language that I am the man whose family and friends are paying for their uniforms and their education.

“It’s surprising just how far the money can go — it won’t run out for years, certainly not before the foundation stop looking after the children at the age of 18,” says Dermot.

It was during one of his earliest trips that he realised how much help the orphans needed.

His wife Teresa had packed one of his suitcases with soft toys for the children.

“Every one of them came up to get a wee toy and they went away crying. It was heartbreaking. I will never forget it.”

None of the orphans has ever returned to Phi Phi island. Their carers say it would be too upsetting for them to go back.

Dermot is convinced that his son, a talented and promising artist, would approve of what he and his relatives have done in his memory.

With a huge team of helpers behind them, the Keightleys raised £32,500 for the tsunami victims in the weeks and months after Connor’s death.

The following year, the money-raising focus switched to the Holy Trinity College where Dermot works and where Connor was educated.

Two teachers Deirdre Gilvary and Paula Coleman urged teachers and students to put their loose change into buckets.

Over £6,000 was raised.

In 2007 Cookstown songwriter Andy Ruck penned a powerful tribute to 31-year-old Connor called “Postcard from Heaven”. It was recorded by local singer Minty and the CD sales brought in over £11,500 — largely due to Teresa Keightley going all over Northern Ireland to sell the record door to door.

In 2008, the Keightleys banded together to form a relay team to take part in the Belfast marathon, collecting £4,000 in sponsorship money.

The family have now stopped fund-raising. Dermot says, “Essentially all the repair work is done. You wouldn’t know Phi Phi any more. There are three massive new hotels on the island and the shanty town of shops has been replaced. “Plus the trees which were all destroyed by the tsunami are starting to grow again.”

On his first visit to Phi Phi in August 2005, Dermot was accompanied by his daughters, who had gone to Thailand shortly after the tsunami to search for their brother.

Along with an uncle, Damien Coyle, and a cousin Gavin O‘Neill, the sisters eventually found his body in a temple.

But during their visit to Phi Phi, they had been unable to find where Connor had been staying.

Seven months later however — and totally by chance — the girls and their father were able to pay a poignant visit to the exact spot where Connor lost his life.

Dermot says: “When I went out for the first time, I just wanted to be where Connor had been.

“We were walking down a narrow passageway when two Thai girls spotted a photograph of Connor on a key-ring hanging from Michelle’s belt.

“They shouted ‘Connor, Connor’ and when we asked them how they knew him, they said he had been staying in their sister’s home.

“They took us down to see where the house had stood before it was demolished by the tsunami. I couldn’t believe it — it was quite something to find it like that.”

Dermot says he intends to keep going to Phi Phi “as long I am able and as long as I have the money”.

He adds, “Obviously it is a long journey — it takes over 24 hours to get there. But it is worth it. It is a beautiful country and it is summer 12 months a year. When I am not visiting the orphans or touring about to see somewhere new, I just chill out.”

In recent times Thailand has been plunged into chaos by anti-Government protests which have led to deaths and widespread destruction.

But Dermot Keightley won’t be deterred. “The violence is all happening in Bangkok. I can’t see too many folk rioting on Phi Phi island,” he says. However Dermot has revealed that one of the worst experiences of his life came on the way back from Thailand in 2006.

“We were just about to land at Belfast City Airport and at the last minute the pilot took off again blaming a gust of wind,” he says.

“We circled for half an hour before we touched down. You could have heard a pin drop.”

“I thought it was all over ...”

A legacy of destruction

  • The tsunami that wreaked havoc across Thailand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka was caused by an underwater earthquake in the Indian Ocean
  • Thai Government estimates over 8,000 people died, though exact figures have been debated in Thai press
  • Thailand has made considerable progress in rebuilding its tourist industry. With European investment, schools and orphanages have also been built and developed
  • In some areas, elephants were used to clear debris and lift heavy wreckages
  • Before the tsunami hit, people reported seeing trekking elephants trumpeting, breaking free from their chains and running to higher ground
  • Over 120,000 lost their livelihoods in the tsunami
  • Almost 1,500 children were orphaned
  • The cost of the damage to Thailand was around £250m

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