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Tsunami: 'I'll never be able to erase those images of enormous killer waves from my mind'

Ten years on from the Boxing Day tsunami, Ivan Little reflects on his own personal expericence of its aftermath

Dozens of unspeakably bloated and twisted little faces sat side-by-side in a grotesque montage on that so-called "wall of death" in the midst of the total decimation wrought by the terror of the tsunami in the once-serene beauty spot on the coast of Thailand.

And, even though more than 3,650 days have passed since the world's greatest natural disaster cruelly killed nearly a quarter-of-a-million people in southeast Asia, the images of those tiny babies and toddlers on those obscene noticeboards are the memories of the hell that was Khao Lak and Phi Phi Island which still haunt me - even more so than the all-too-real spectacle of carnage I witnessed all around the devastated region.

In makeshift morgues in what would otherwise have been stunningly colourful and ornate temples across Phuket, thousands of bodies lay partially covered in white sheets for everyone to see in the unrelenting sun, waiting for someone - anyone - to come and claim them.

Outside, the endless rows of pictures of the dead, including those tragic little souls, were pored over by distraught relatives trying to locate the loved ones they'd lost on Boxing Day 2004, when the tsunami erupted in all its unstoppable fury from the Indian Ocean to destroy everything and everyone - apart from a lucky few - in its path.

Within hours, a new word had been added to the world's vocabulary and no one would ever have to look up its meaning again, or ever doubt that tsunami was a byword for monumental horror.

I'd travelled to Thailand just days after those shocking, sickening video pictures, taken by fortunate holidaymakers on higher ground and buildings, were broadcast around the globe.

Who could ever erase from their minds those images of massive killer waves flattening hotels and contemptuously swallowing up trains, cars and buses in all their awesome force as hapless local people and tourists clung desperately and often hopelessly to life on anything they thought could save them from the angry waters which threatened to, and probably did, overwhelm them?

It was nature and tragedy in the raw. And, within days, I found myself on the same beaches in Khao Lak and Phi Phi where thousands of people had perished and where for 25 miles driving along the once magnificent coastline, virtually nothing was still standing in a landscape that looked like a scene from an implausible Hollywood movie about a nuclear holocaust.

Only this was all-too-believable. Even the surreal sight of a Thai navy patrol boat, which had been flung several miles inland and where it still stands today as a testament to the frightening strength of a tsunami.

Nearby, the emergency services were draining a lake for cars and their stricken passengers after the tsunami picked them up and tossed them to their doom from the main highway.

At the water's edge, Thai people watched in blank despair with no sounds to shatter the all-pervasive and sorrowful silence.

Just up the road, the first sight of a temple which was a temporary resting place for the dead was a brutal assault on all the senses. And one of the only noises that pierced the surreal tranquillity was the never-ending hammering from local men making rudimentary coffins which they piled up close to the bodies that would eventually fill them.

Quite inexplicably, the visits to the temple became less upsetting as time went on. Watching the pain and anguish on the faces of Thai people and tourists as they surveyed those shocking photographs of the victims, or returned from identifying their cherished relatives did not.

I and my UTV cameraman, Albert Kirk, had gone to Phuket with the family of Cookstown man Connor Keightley (right), who'd been holidaying on Phi Phi, to report on their search for him and we crossed that normally unbreachable line between being chroniclers of a story to becoming part of it. The Keightleys' darkening despair in the next hours and days became our despair. Their rare flashes of optimism that Connor might somehow have survived the Tsunami on his last known base on Phi Phi island and was perhaps suffering from amnesia in an out-of-the-way hospital raised our hopes.

But what in normal circumstances would have been a breathtakingly magnificent boat-ride from the town of Krabi to Phi Phi cast everyone - from Connor's sisters, Darina and Michelle, his uncle, Damian Coyle, to his cousin, Gavin O'Neill - into a downward spiral of despondency.

Walking around the ruins of the world-famous hippy island was the ultimate reality check as we picked our way through a tangled mess of nothingness where trendy shops, luxury hotels, backpacker hostels and cosmopolitan cafes had once stood.

We found a debris-strewn beach, which looked like the one Connor had chosen to write a Christmas greeting to his family in the golden sand - little knowing that the picture of it he sent back to Tyrone was to be his last farewell.

Connor's tearful sisters clung tightly to each other for a few distressing minutes before collecting shells from the beach as treasured keepsakes of their brother and, in that brief interlude, they confirmed that they knew what we knew - that Connor couldn't have come through the total destruction of that dream island alive.

The Keightleys' search turned to a hunt for his body and officials from the Republic's Department of Foreign Affairs, who had been remarkably supportive for the family throughout, helped them liaise with the mortuaries.

The day before we were due to come home, the Irish ambassador, Dan Mulhall, arranged to meet the Keightleys in the drab Pearl Hotel in downtown Phuket and he broke it to them as gently as he could that Connor's body had been found in a morgue in Krabi.

It was bad news and relief all in one strange contradictory sweep of emotion. Darina and Michelle were naturally distressed at the realisation of their worst fears, but there was also a sense of consolation that they could bring Connor home to their parents back in Cookstown.

Connor's body - Number 467 - had been identified by Thai and Garda forensic experts, who'd been sent to Thailand from Dublin, from his dental records and from a tattoo on his back.

What ensured there was no room for doubt was the watch which the dead man had on his wrist - a Storm timepiece just like the family knew Connor wore.

In the years since the appalling horror of St Stephen's Day 10 years ago, members of the Keightley family have paid a number of visits to Thailand to hand over cash they raised in the talented artist's name, to attend anniversary services and just to feel closer to him.

Today, to mark the 10th anniversary of the tsunami, the Keightley family will do what they've done for the past decade: they will go to a memorial Mass for him in a Cookstown church and they will visit his grave.

Connor's mother, Theresa, will also light a candle in her window as a memorial to everyone who was affected by the Boxing Day disaster.

In a statement, the Keightleys said: "As a family we will be thinking of other families who also lost lovedones and had their lives changed forever."

This year, the Keightleys will also perform another act of remembrance for Connor and the thousands of other victims.

They will release 10 balloons with "messages of love on them as remembrance of a very special person who is gone but not forgotten".

In their statement, the Keightleys added: "We would also like to acknowledge the good people of Cookstown and beyond for their kind words and beautiful cards remembering Connor, especially during this time."

For my part, I will also be thinking of the Keightleys today and the other thousands of people who died all over south-east Asia.

I have never been back to Thailand. And I never will return.

Awesome power of nature ...

At around 8am local time (1am UK time) on December 26, 2004, a massive earthquake under the Indian Ocean just off the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, triggered huge sea surges which swept ashore in the following hours and minutes across large parts of south-east Asia and the surrounding islands. The energy released by the quake - the third largest ever recorded - was equivalent to over 1,500 times that of the Hiroshima atomic bomb.

Travelling at speeds of up to 500 miles an hour, the resulting waves - some measuring up to 30 metres in height - crashed into fishing villages and low-lying coastal resorts with devastating force.

An estimated 230,000 people were killed, and among the worst-hit countries were Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India. Indonesia alone lost 170,000 people in the disaster.

One father in Sri Lanka spoke of watching his entire family being swept away by the water. "It dragged my wife away, then my two-month-old twins," he said. "Then I watched my seven-year-old son drown."

Thousands of European and western tourists were also lost or missing in the disaster, including many from the Scandinavian countries.

Around 150 Britons lost their lives, among them the daughter and granddaughter of the late film director Richard Attenborough, and the mother and stepfather of television gardener Charlie Dimmock.

The events prompted a massive international response, with billions of pounds of aid pledged to help recovery and rebuilding efforts in the months afterwards.

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