|The House of Random Crap
A clearinghouse for my crazed, deviant, trivial, irreverant & occasionally reflective thoughts.
Wednesday, January 26, 2005 My blood runs cold
My memory has just been sold
My angel is the centerfold
Angel is the centerfold
"Centerfold" by J. Geils Band
Any last shred of childhood innocence I had just went out the window...
Debs is back - and bare!
Debbie Gibson, the Britney Spears of the 1980s, is launching her pop comeback by shedding her togs for Playboy. Take note, Christina.
No, there's none of that Kylie-esque targeting of the gay market for Miss Gibson.
Gibson, who is unbelievably still just 34-years-old, has decided that dropping her knick-knacks is the best way to promote her comeback tune, Naked.
We're not sure what came first, the song title or the desire to be photographed in the buff.
Back when Britney and Christina were still in nappies, Debbie was belting how hits like Shake Your Love and Only In My Dreams.
Without wearing chaps or a tight air hostess outfit or anything.
Now it seems she's got with the programme and learned from Britters and Xtina that a bit of flesh-bearing shifts records.
According to the New York Post, the Playboy pics are "very sexy, feminine".
Not grubby and attention-seeking? Shame. posted by someone bearing a striking resemblance to Paul | 9:59 AM |
Monday, January 24, 2005 It came as a pleasant surprise that a producer for the Pacific Time radio segment at KQED, the San Francisco affiliate of National Public Radio, has been following my blog for a while, and even more of a surprise when she requested a phone interview regarding relief efforts in Phuket. I'm not much of a media hound, but given the enormous respect I have for both NPR and KQED, I couldn't refuse.
KQED posted 2 media clips of the interview on their website (click here), a shorter segment that aired last week (halfway down the page), and a longer file that looks like everything I said on the phone (near the bottom). They pretty much strung together all my answers to their questions into a continuous clip without including the actual interview questions, so it may be a bit hard to follow in some places. posted by someone bearing a striking resemblance to Paul | 11:21 PM |
Friday, January 21, 2005 It has not been lost on me that what little blogging I've done since Christmas has really focused on just one thing: the Asian Tsunami. And while my next several posts will likely be about the same topic, I want to take a brief break from all this doom and gloom and celebrate several momentous events in my brother Don's family.
On January 15th he welcomed the arrival of my twin nieces (identical): Natalie Anne, weighing in at 4 lbs 13 oz and measuring 17.5 inches, and Vanessa Kay, weighing in at 4 lbs 5 oz and she measuring 16.25 inches. Though they look a bit slimy and completely whipped, you can tell that they are beautiful beautiful little girls.
(Natalie looks like she needs a good long vacation from this whole pregnancy thing)
(Vanessa is up for a role in Ghostbusters 3. "I've been slimed!")
The score among the Ark Boys is now:
Don Ark = takes the lead with 3
Pete Ark = will be going under the knife, so has now capped his score at 2
Paul Ark = needs to get off is lazy and take some Viagra, lest he get shut out of the game
I also want to take this moment to wish my nephew Jadon (Natalie and Vanessa's big bro) a Very Happy 2nd Birthday! Have a good one, little man!
posted by someone bearing a striking resemblance to Paul | 10:09 AM |
Relief Workers Still Needed in Phuket
I've received numerous enquiries from visitors to the Bangkok Metroblog about going down to Phuket and lending a hand. I haven't really responded to anyone, partially because I've been extremely busy with work, but mostly because I didn't know of any organized resource or network to turn to before now.
Anyone who is still interested in helping out with relief efforts can contact Khun Kate or Khun Oy at the Mirror Foundation at any of these numbers: +669-882-8840, +669-882-6187, +669-882-5615, +661-018-3004. They can also be reached via e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org), and this webpage (http://www.tsunamivolunteer.net/action.php) contains information on the types of assistance needed. Volunteers will need to travel to Phang Nga themselves, register at the center near Khao Lak National Park, and are asked to pay Baht 100 (US$2.50) a day for food & accomodations. posted by someone bearing a striking resemblance to Paul | 10:06 AM |
Phuket Disaster Relief: Day 3 (or Let's Kill All the Bureaucrats!)
Despite visiting a fishing village in which most of the inhabitants had lost their homes, all their worldly possessions, and their entire means of livelihood, it was a pretty damn good day. I would say that any day in which I don’t have to see, smell, or touch dead people scores pretty high on my list.
Our band of merry men (and women!) started the day without a clear idea of what we were going to do for the remainder of it. Half the team returned to Bangkok either that morning or the night before, having already put in several days of hard work. The rest of us were ready for more body work, but none of us would have complained vigorously if we took a break for a day from our ghoulish duties. We decided to swing by city hall to see if things had gotten any more organized over the chaos that had reigned supreme for the past week. Ha! Wishful thinking…
It was a general consensus among many of the survivors (local and foreign alike) that the sympathy, sincerity, and generosity of the Thai people knows no bounds. Of this, I have no question. The one thing very few ever heard about or discussed however was the remarkable organization and efficiency of the Thai people. That is simply because where the Thais’ capacity for compassion is abundant at the grassroots level, their sense of order at the local bureaucratic level is embarassingly non-existent. For example, I couldn’t help but notice how much larger the donation piles were at city hall on my third morning. The only problem is that they were just that: piles. Unsorted, unmanaged piles of clothes, water, medicines, and anything else one could think of donating. There was absolutely no system of distribution; it was generally up to victims & survivors to make their way via their own means to city hall to help themselves to needed supplies. It never dawned on the bureaucrats that many survivors lacked the means to make their way to city hall, or couldn’t afford to leave their few remaining possessions unattended for fear of looters. Or that perhaps people who weren't affected by the tsunami just might stop by and help themselves shamelessly to free hand-outs.
(Photo: piles of unorganized donations, dumped wherever people found space)
The conglomeration and dissemination of information was even more a catastrophe. When many of the volunteers I was working with had arrived almost a week earlier, they found a laggard local government that had made little to no effort to centralize the lists of dead, injured, or missing. The several major hospitals in the region were hording their precious data and government officials were in full-fledged cover-your-ass, grab-your-five-minutes-of-fame mode, leaving survivors few options to search for lost loved ones other than to visit each hospital, day in and day out, multiple times. Our administrative team barreled their way through one level of bureaucracy after another, cobbling together some sense of a website that people could refer to without having to repeatedly visit and leave empty-handed from every hospital in the region. It didn’t take long, however, before various civic agencies and departments got into the act, as did every independent splinter volunteer group like our own, and by the New Year, there were as many as 20 separate websites, each jockeying for position as the leading repository of casualty data. It was like watching fast food chains fighting for market share, as if each were trying to position itself as the Official Website of the 2004 Asian Tsunami. I joked that the really enterprising ones will start selling t-shirts, programs, and commemorative plates & key chains. By the end of the day, many of the government sites had consolidated into a single webpage called CSIPhuket.com, which I found immensely curious since natural disaster zones don’t much resemble a crime scene. Perhaps the webmaster is a fan of the shows.
(Photos: the missing persons boards grow with each passing day)
(Photo: a board of unidentified but certainly identifiable corpses)
The real tragedy of the whole scene was the sheer number of volunteers milling about. There were many people, both Thai and foreigners, who had shown up at city hall, eager to lend a hand, but with no direction or guidance. If only a sub-mayor or some senior assistant vice-toady could have gotten off his of her ass and set up a central volunteer resource table, the resources that could have been marshaled would have been phenomenal. Instead, it was like looking at ants scrambling around after someone had stomped on an anthill, with energetic volunteers hoping to find any group with space in a van or car for one more. More often than not, most never found a worthwhile outlet through which to donate their time. By this point, our admin team was sick of dealing with the bureaucratic BS, and opted to join the field teams instead. Before we left city hall, we did spot a brigade of Taiwanese rescue workers arrive, marching in cadence and lugging boxes of supplies. A lot of pomp & circumstance, but I hope they were put to good use.
(Photo: volunteers looking for something to do)
(Photos: Taiwanese search & rescue. Everyone loves a parade!)
While the other carload of our colleagues headed straight for the Bang Muang temple, my group opted to spend most of the day in the Phang Nga area to survey the damage at the smaller resorts and fishing villages, picking up supplies along the way for donation. Our first stop was a naval radio station, where the DJ seemed to have a rather good idea of the extent of the damage in the immediate vicinity, and had spent much of the previous days directing volunteers and aid to areas of greatest need. While my colleagues conferred with the DJ, I was able to pass away an idle 15 minutes of time helping a volunteer load a military truck with hundreds of large bottle of drinking water. My one good deed for the day.
The truly amazing thing about the Muslim fishing village that we visited near Bor Dan was that amid all the destruction, there was only one casualty. Unlike the many tourists and resort workers who ventured out into the surf when the tides first began receding, the fishermen were able to properly read the waves, and raced back to the village to warn their family & friends. Those not able to run for high ground scaled the palm trees. A village elder told me that the quick-acting fisherman were able to give the villagers 10-15 minutes of warning.
(Photo: the coastline in front of the fishing village near Bor Dan)
Unfortunately, that was the extent of the village's luck. Hundreds of homes that had taken many years of scrimping and saving to build were wiped out in minutes. Almost all of the village's fishing boats and equipment, the very basis of their subsistence and livelihood, were likewise demolished (as were the local fish stocks). As we wandered along the main thoroughfare (basically a dirt road wide enough for a large truck or two), we were amazed to watch the villagers sift through the rubble and remains of their homes, not sadly or stoically, but cheerfully and optimistically. Here were a people literally washed out of house & home, living in tents, their ability to feed themselves and their children in question, little capability to attract the attention, sympathy, and funding of a government more interested in supplicating foreigners and hell bent on rebuilding the tourist industry, and they were cheerfully giving us a guided tour of their village. They explained their plight and needs and their long-term hopes to rebuild without a single trace of bitterness or despair (worry, yes, but negativity, no). The fortitude of the human spirit can be an inspiring thing.
(Photos: a fishing village in ruins)
I left the village wondering if we were able to make any difference at all. Sure, we were the sympathetic ear when most outsiders couldn’t be bothered, and I have no doubt that our persistent and well-connected team leaders will pursue every avenue of aid for these villagers, but at the end of the day, they need fishing boats & nets and material to rebuild their homes, and our trunkful of bottled water just wasn’t going to cut it.
After surveying damage at several small resorts, we decided to head over to the Ban Muang temple in the mid-afternoon and see if we could catch up with the other half of our group. We arrived to find that the temple was no longer accepting any more corpses, and that after the remaining bodies on scene were processed, all forensic operations would be consolidated at the Yanyao temple a half hour down the road. We left for Yanyao, not realizing that our friends were on site at Ban Muang, building coffins and lending help where they could. I wouldn’t have minded lending a hand, but I was curious to see the situation at the other temple, which was the de facto center of search & rescue and forensic activity in the Khao Lak region.
As soon as we arrived at Yanyao, I noticed a key difference from my experience at Ban Muang: operations here were a bit more organized. There were numerous reasons for this. The first was that Dr. Pornthip Rojanasunan, Thailand’s celebrity pathologist, was on the scene and directing & coordinating the medical staff and volunteers. Being Thailand’s most experienced and capable forensic examiner, she has worked on practically all of the country’s headline-grabbing homicides over the past few years. That alone would have been enough to cement her acclaim, but she is also highly-regarded for her integrity, straight-forward candor & bluntness, complete disregard for petty politics, and not least of all, her flamboyant peacock-like punk hair-do. All of this has helped elevate her to an almost cult-like rock star status. When I first spotted her, it was apparent from her tired and ragged appearance how relentlessly she had been working over the past week. Yet there she was, stressed out, worn down, and taking a break to autograph the name badges and armbands of the flock of admiring volunteers obviously enthused to have the opportunity to work with and for her.
Another reason why operations were more streamlined was due to a small group of MBAs and executives who had taken the time to map out a logistical and supply chain process. We were each surprised to find numerous friends and acquaintances at the temple. Even I encountered a friend I hadn’t seen in a while, who had arrived a day earlier and (no doubt drawing on her business school operations courses) worked with others to design a rudimentary set of processes and procedures for directing volunteers, allocating resources, and handling data, DNA samples, and personal effects. It made me think that if I were a bit more fluent in Thai, I could have drawn on my own experiences and similarly helped establish a more organized work flow at the Ban Muang temple. Oh well. Shoulda, woulda, coulda…
While Yanyao benefited from a relatively more organized operation, it likewise suffered from an increased amount of political infighting and stupid mistakes. Despite Dr. Pornthip’s undeniable expertise, she didn’t have free reign to manage the Yanyao operation unimpeded. Not only were numerous glory-hounding groups on site jockeying for the limelight, but a woman of Dr. Pornthip’s stature, integrity, and candor is bound to make many enemies, and several of them were out in full force doing what they could to undermine her authority. Volunteers who had been there from the beginning told us of a woman who appeared after the new year, introduced herself as the person in charge, had a photographer she had in tow snap several pictures of her "hard at work", and disappeared, leaving the volunteers scratching their heads and wondering who the hell she was. Turns out she was a bureaucrat in the Justice Ministry looking to oust Dr. Porntip as the head of the ministry’s forensics team. In addition to fending off the petty games of people within her own ministry, the good doctor also had to contend with both the national police force (who to this very day is still fighting her for the right to transfer the corpses to Phuket and take charge of the examinations) and the tourist police (one of Thailand’s main interfaces with its foreign tourists). Throw into the mix the numerous teams of medical examiners and embassy staffers sent in from each country looking to speed up identification of each of their own citizens. Each country’s medical staff couldn’t be bothered to cooperate with any of the others, but none hesitated to dictate to the Thai team how operations ought to be conducted. Dr. Pornthip vented her frustrations perfectly: “Each team is looking out for their own people. I need to care for all the bodies, Thai and foreign.” Damn right.
Despite everyone’s best efforts, it was to be expected that the ad hoc logistical process and petty squabbles would result in horrendous, egregious errors. One of the coordinating volunteers invited one of my colleagues Chris and I to visit the local cemetery, where workers were busy exhuming 225 bodies that were either misidentified or incorrectly labeled [Note: as of a few days ago, this number had climbed to over 800]. Deleting autopsy photos was one thing; this was a fuck-up of epic proportions. So Chris and I jumped into the back of a police pick-up with the volunteer and sped off for the cemetery 25 kilometers away.
I need to take a moment to say that of all my experiences working disaster relief, sitting in the back of the pick-up was far and away the scariest. Not knowing exactly what the truck might have been hauling the past week (particularly one that was shuttling back and forth from the temple-turned-morgue and the cemetery), Chris and I opted to sit high up on the edge of the truck bed. So there I was, white-knuckling any handhold I could find, hunching over to keep my center of gravity low, and praying to every known deity not to be hurled out of a truck taking turns at stock car speeds. I had seen enough of the dead that weekend, and I certainly didn’t want to join them.
The sun was setting rapidly when we arrived at the cemetery, and within the purview of the many flood lamps we saw row upon row of deep ditches, marked with numbered flags where each corresponding corpse would eventually be deposited. And then we spotted the back hoes. Like the army and medical personnel on site, the machinery would be running all night to dig up bodies for re-examination and re-identification. It was then that we learned that only 25 of the 225 bodies had been dug up thus far; the work had gotten bogged down when it was realized that the cemetery team had inadvertently dug up many of the bodies that have lain in peace for the past 15 to 20 years. If there was ever a better illustrative definition of an utter clusterfuck, I’ve yet to come across it. Forget “three steps forward, two steps back”; these guys have reversed direction and were running flat out towards the wrong goal line. I was flabbergasted.
Sitting in the back of the pick-up on the way to the cemetery was the scariest experience of my trip, until we had to make the return trip back to the temple. The same “hope I don’t die”, heart-thumping ride, except now we had a corpse-filled body bag riding in back with us (and confirming what we suspected the truck had been hauling all along the past few days). And it’s not like the body had been strapped down or anything. It was unceremoniously dumped in the back, under the expectation that the high speeds, sharp turns, or any random bumps wouldn’t cause it to slide out the back (the rear panel was kept folded down so that the body would fit). I couldn’t help but think about the climatic scene in the movie “The Naked Gun”, and the image of Ricardo Montalban plunging onto the concrete at Angel Stadium, run over by a steamroller, and trampled by the USC marching band replayed in my macabre, twisted mind, over and over. I had a good laugh, one of my few for the day.
It was very late in the day when we returned to the Yanyao temple, but the petty politics had only begun to escalate. The foreign medical teams were issuing warnings that non-medical volunteers were at risk of catching cholera or typhoid, incorrectly, as it turns out. A quick on-the-spot call to a physician friend taught me that these epidemics are spread via poor sanitation among survivors; most pathogens die as soon as the host body dies, rendering corpses unable to spread anything beyond TB or GI tract infections. However, the tourist police were in full cover-your-ass mode; even though Dr. Pornthip was scrambling to enlist every single volunteer she could recruit, the tourist police was attempting to expel all non-medical personnel, and we found ourselves arguing with a lieutenant over our right to stay and help out. We signed statements affirming that we were inoculated for the whole host of diseases and gave the police our cell phone numbers, but left the temple uncertain whether we would be welcomed or turned away the following morning. It was very discouraging, to say the least.
We arrived back in Phuket in time to grab a midnight dinner at the nearby Subway chain, and meet up with the one remaining teammate from the other half of the team, the three others having left earlier that afternoon, spent and burnt out. We were down to five, with one day left in our long holiday weekend. The home stretch…
(Again, many thanks to Mark K. for many of the photos accompanying this blog entry) posted by someone bearing a striking resemblance to Paul | 1:33 AM |
Tuesday, January 11, 2005 Phuket Disaster Relief: Day 2 (Warning: graphic content)
I was hoping that if I let them air out overnight, my clothes would stop smelling like dead people. No such luck; everything I had worn the day before was rank. Not just my clothes, but also the wallet and cell phone I had been carrying with me. Even the money I carried stank. A change of clothes would definitely be in order, and I gave serious thought to discarding yesterday’s outfit altogether, if not setting it ablaze.
As the field team piled into the minivan and geared up for a second day of "body work" as we began calling it, we realized that our second day wouldn’t be any easier than the first. Yes, we were now grizzled, steely-eyed veterans, and we no longer held the fear or anticipation of the unknown, but now we had a crystal clear idea of the specific sights and smells that we would be dealing with and how draining that experience would be on the body and mind, and that filled us with dread. It didn’t dampen our passion or enthusiasm for the day’s work; we just weren’t approaching it like it would be a cakewalk.
The road to Ban Muang was a bit more crowded this day, as much heavy machinery had been deployed throughout the various resort villages to clear away rubble and debris, and traffic would periodically come to a crawl as large cranes and backhoes blocked highway traffic. The slower pace gave us a chance to examine damage in greater detail. I was able to pick up on small things, like how high the water levels had risen based on mud stains on roadside shop houses, the direction the waves had struck based on how palm trees had been felled (or ripped up from the roots). A second day did nothing to lessen the incredulity I felt witnessing the sheer destruction the tsunamis had wrought.
Ban Muang Temple itself was also a bit more crowded, and was simultaneously more organized and more chaotic. Organized in the sense that someone had set up a more formalized pavilion of tables near the photo boards where visitors can make enquiries, where donated supplies were organized, and where medical gear was distributed to volunteers. Additionally, on the pathway leading to and from the back of the temple where the corpses lay were a gauntlet of soldiers; no one coming out of the examination area was allowed to pass without first having their boots and hands thoroughly sprayed with disinfectant. I also noticed that the army had shipped in huge railcar-sized refrigeration units for the cold storage of foreign bodies that would eventually be repatriated. All-in-all, not quite the well-oiled machine that the operation should have been, but a vast improvement over the previous day.
The whole scene was also more chaotic in the sense that there were a much larger number of people wandering aimlessly about. One pair of Europeans scouring the photo boards had wandered into the medical processing area in back, clutching photos of their loved ones, looking to consult with the examiners and wander amongst the bodies, and hoping to make a positive identification. This was a common dilemma among the many survivors who refused to leave Phuket without their lost loved ones, dead or alive. My heart went out to them and the countless others in a similar position, knowing that the condition of the bodies made physical identification nearly impossible, and that it would take months to process DNA samples and determine matches. The “lucky” few would go home with their dead; most would have to wait months for any sort of closure, and for far too many, loved ones swept out to sea may never be found.
What I found truly galling were the posers: those bureaucrats who would appear, gear up, stand in front of the corpses (sometime even pose as if doing any real work), have the media take photos for the papers and the high society rags, and then disappear. Not only was this disruptive, but it was a waste of scarce protective gear (the day before, we had run out of medical robes and had to resort to cutting head and arm holes in heavy duty plastic trash bags; if I was a sweaty pig wearing the robes, I was frickin’ Niagara Falls wearing a plastic bag). Goddamn worthless posers. I wanted to knock their collective asses in the dirt to wallow amongst the rotting bodies and maggots.
(Photo: saying a quick prayer for the dead before beginning the day's work)
(Photo: a truck delivering more bodies)
Did I say that operations were becoming more organized? Scratch that. Though the processing of corpses was relatively streamlined, the logistical process was an utter mess, mistakes being made left and right. No one can fault any of the doctors who volunteered their time; separated from the infrastructure and support systems of their hospitals, they had no way to ensure that their data would be properly handled and processed. Case in point: a significant number of the digital photos of the corpses and personal effects taken over previous days had been inadvertently deleted before they could be stored or backed-up. Therefore, it was critical to determine which series of corpses had photos deleted, and determine where on the temple grounds those corpses lay so that examiners could go back and take new photos. So I joined one of several teams of volunteers deployed to map out where each corpse lay and indicate its corresponding identification number. Sounds simple enough, except for a few complicating factors. One, many of the corpses in the very back of the temple (presumably the older ones processed based on location and the number sequences) were not laid out sequentially, and in many cases were scattered at random. Two, many of the coffins and body bags were not clearly marked, meaning that we would have to open up body bags and coffins to scour the bodies for sign of a tag or wrist band. My reaction to the whole job was decidedly mixed: while our task clearly needed to be done, it was only valuable because someone else had severely fucked up. Instead of gaining headway in processing and identifying new bodies, I was helping clean up someone else’s mess. Compounding the problem was that bodies were constantly being moved, either shipped out to other locations, or to make room for the stream of new bodies being unloaded throughout the day, making accurate mapping an almost hit-&-miss exercise. These would not be the only snafus we would witness in our time as volunteers. I would catch myself muttering "three steps forward, two steps back" many many times over the next few days.
I joined with my two friends who flew in the night before to form our own mapping team. As I was the more seasoned of the three (an almost laughable, empty characterization at best, since I was still reeling from the sights and smells, and was only marginally less shocked than my friends despite my previous day’s work), I agreed to handle the bodies, while Kevin did the mapping. Unfortunately, I would need help, which meant that Mark would, like me, be getting “hands-on.” It took us several drafts before we had a mapping system that we were comfortable and efficient with. It didn’t take long before Kevin had to strip off his gloves completely; it was so hot out that large quantities of sweat were accumulating in the fingertips of his gloves, and a small leak was soaking all of our maps.
(Photos: the quadrant of corpses that my team mapped out)
It also didn’t take long before I dirtied my gloves. We had only managed to map out a few bodies before we came across a body bag without a number. I gritted my teeth, grabbed the zipper, and opened. And almost immediately, I choked back bile. If the odor of bodies decaying in the open sun had sickened me, the one accumulating in the body bags nearly floored me. I spent the next 10 seconds choking, coughing, and gagging, tears bleeding through squinting eyes. And then my vision cleared, and my eyes focused. On the bodies. On the maggots. Millions of them. All over the body, all over the inside the bag, and now crawling on the zipper and my hands. I shook them loose, and with Mark’s help on the other side of the body, we unzipped the bag more to look for the number tag.
With each new body bag, I learned a few new “tricks of the trade”. The most important: a quick jiggle on the zipper before opening the bag would shake the maggots loose and prevent them from getting on my hands. We learned how to read wrist tags with minimal direct contact with the bodies. However, experience with each successive body bag did nothing to stop my gagging and heaving. The layers of skin on my upper lip and nostrils were being gradually stripped raw from the huge burning globs of tiger balm I had been applying, but the strong menthol was no better at withstanding the stench than many beachfront bungalows did against the 30’ waves.
We were at least fortunate that opening up the coffins were considerably more bearable. We also contemplated mapping out the corpses lying on the concrete underneath an open air pavilion, until we realized that the liquid stew that had oozed off the bodies was literally simmering atop the warm concrete, and the roof covering effectively trapped those fumes in that compact space. We stepped into the pavilion only to step back out a second later, dry heaving uncontrollably.
(Photo: consolidating all the maps)
By the time I needed to take a break, my gloves were covered in a film of unidentifiable, hideously unthinkable crap, some brownish-green mixture of dirt and decomposing, maggot-eaten flesh, with a smell as sticky and disgusting as the residue on my hands. It wasn’t heat or fatigue that necessitated a break though. The reason I needed a few minutes off was that one of the coffin lids I was opening had slipped, ripping off a section of my right glove and leaving my thumb and palm exposed to the filth that coated my hands. In hindsight, I’m surprised that I was neither panicky, nor even paranoid. I simply excused myself, properly disposed of my gloves, and scrubbed and thoroughly disinfected my hands. Then I grabbed an iced coffee. I think I was beginning to detach myself from the macabre surroundings I found myself in.
(Photo: fellow volunteers taking a well-deserved break)
After the day’s work, the three of us decided to swing by Le Meridien’s brand spankin’ new Khao Lak resort, where Kevin and his family had stayed up until just 3 days before tsunamis demolished it. While much of the hotel superstructure still stood, anything and everything at the ground level was tossed about and smashed. It was a brutal before-&-after experience for Kevin, who walked about incredulously, remarking about the leveled veranda where his family had their breakfasts, the overturned sailboat his kids rode, and the swampy pit that was once the pool where they swam. The resort grounds and beach were completely littered with ripped up palm trees, deck furniture, minibars and televisions from the rooms, mannequins from the tailor shop, crushed luggage. It was a stark reminder of why so many of those corpses were so battered, bruised, bloody, and mutilated: it wasn’t just a wall of water that killed them, but a lethal blender that crushed them to a pulp and sliced them to ribbons. If the main hotel structure looked bad, the beachfront bungalows were horrific. Seeing the force with which the waves punched out the back walls, I could only pity the poor souls inhabiting those bungalows who were pulverized in that first crush of water. As we wandered about the resort surveying the damage, I spotted a bed sheet tied from a second floor balcony railing. Though it was possible that it was used to scale down to the ground level if a stairwell had collapsed, the more likely hypothesis was that it was a lifeline extended to those caught in the maelstrom 12’ below. We stood in awe of that simple yet heroic gesture, and could only pray that it wasn’t in vain.
(Photos: even before Le Meridien could officially launch its newest 5-star resort, it gets thoroughly walloped)
On the 2-hour ride back to Phuket, we stopped off at a convenience store to buy a 6-pack of Heinekens (which we promptly drank as soon as we got back into the car) and handfuls of snacks (which we promptly devoured as soon as we began drinking our beer). As the beer attacked my tension and dulled my senses, I had ample opportunity to reflect on the experience that I lived through the past two days, and how I had been affected because of it. I have always been a bit of a smarmy, jocular wiseass, but over the course of the past few days, my sense of humor had taken on a dark edge. All of our senses of humor, actually, a habit that we had adopted from the doctors we had worked with. A few days earlier, most of us would have been grossly offended by such wildly inappropriate and tasteless humor. But as we stood amongst the corpses and listened to the doctors joke about which brands of watches they should buy based on those that survived the waves and outlived their dead owners, we could only hope that we could erect similar mental, emotional, and psychological defense mechanisms before we burnt ourselves out bearing witness to such carnage. Making jokes over the next few days (and no doubt for weeks thereafter), would become not a means of masking our pain, anguish, and frustrations, but rather a means of breaking them down and dissipating them. We would banter in public tastelessly with shameless disregard for the sensitivities of those around us. We began referring to the maggots that had repulsed many of us as “dancing rice”, followed by endless jokes about making and eating rice dishes, and numerous references to the vampire movie “The Lost Boys.” We began paraphrasing “The Sixth Sense”, with “I smell dead people” becoming our oft-repeated catchphrase (not least because of the lingering smell that clung to our clothes). Actually, it wasn’t just our clothes that smelled of death. Many of us found that almost any sharp odor could trigger a sensory flashback of our time in the temple. Burning tires, bad cooking, stale waste water, our noses would employ some sort of olfactory “exchange rate” to convert any unpleasant aroma into one that smelled exactly like rotting corpse. Joke or not, real or imaginary, many of us did begin to smell dead people. Everywhere.
One oddity worth mentioning: as we rode home, drinking beer and munching on snacks, we opened a can of Blue Mountain Smokehouse Cashew Nuts, passing them around and chewing away. As much as I adore cashews, this particular flavor was downright peculiar. I wrote off my errant thoughts as my senses playing tricks on my imagination, until Kevin broke the silence:
Kevin: “Is it just me, or do these nuts taste like that smell back at the temple?”
Me: “Holy shit! I was just thinking the exact same thing. I just thought it was my nose playing tricks on me."
As I turned to Mark, I noticed that his jaw dropped: “You guys taste it too?!?”
No more smokehouse cashews; that can was getting junked the first trash can we see. “I taste dead people” soon became our second catchphrase, and no meal became complete without jokes about dancing rice and smokehouse cashews (we also joked that someone could experience our temple ordeal virtually and vicariously by watching rice boil and chewing on smokehouse cashews).
We got back to Phuket early enough for me to take a long shower and meet up with half the team to start drinking ourselves silly before we met up with the other half to have dinner. The mood was much more relaxed than in dinners past, much because we had effectively integrated our macabre senses of humor into our informal support-group-masquerading-as-dinner-conversation, much because we were digging into a much needed feast washed down with much needed lagers and cocktails. Where we anticipated our first day of body work with much fear and insecurity, and dreaded our second day, we looked forward to our third day with a steely resignation.
(Many thanks to friend and fellow volunteer Mark K. for the many fantastic pictures accompanying this blog entry) posted by someone bearing a striking resemblance to Paul | 11:44 PM |
Sunday, January 09, 2005 Phuket Disaster Relief: Day 1 (Warning: graphic content)
“It’s horrible beyond belief.”
That was the SMS I sent to my wife in the early afternoon on New Year’s Eve from Ban Muang Temple in Khao Lak, the region north of Phuket hardest hit by the tsumanis. Ban Muang was one of two temples in the region designated to receive and process the dead. At several hundred (possibly upwards of 1,000) corpses, this was the smaller of the two staging areas.
When I accepted my friend’s offer to connect me with other volunteers in Phuket, I had a fairly clear idea what I was about to get myself into. My ability as a translator is nil, and though in hindsight my training in management and organization would have been useful, my key contribution would be to help with the physical labor, and definitely in the least desirable but greatest area of need: working with the dead.
Emotionally, I needed this. I spent the first few days after the tsunamis glued to televisions and Internet news sites. The lingering feeling of grief and helplessness made it impossible for me to get anything done in the office other than to make financial donations. So when the opportunity to actually do something presented itself, I saw a way to shake off my depression and malaise, and perhaps even make a small difference.
(Photos: a small handful of the flyers posted at Phuket city hall desperately trying to locate missing friends and loved ones)
One of the other volunteers and I arrived too late in the day on Thursday to be of any use, and having an excess of passion and energy, as well as time to dwell upon the next day’s activities, left an opening for my insecurities and apprehensiveness to seize hold. Would I be hauling bodies? Would I have to cut off fingers for DNA samples, as we had heard? Would I have the courage and fortitude to handle the sight and smell of decomposing remains? To go ahead and do it straight-away would have been better to mull on it continuously over a sleepless night. No matter what I would ultimately face the next day, I knew that I had never faced a personal test of character like this before in my life, and would likely (and hopefully!) ever have to again.
We joined with several other members of the team that night over dinner and post-dinner brief. Though several among this group of over a dozen volunteers knew each other well, most had only a passing familiarity with each other, or had met for the first time. What truly impressed me was that I was among a group of people who were so willing to give of their time and energy for nothing more than the satisfaction of seeing their efforts making some small difference. No thanks necessary. I knew I would be in good company.
Our rag-tag group of volunteers was divided into two teams. The first was the administrative team, led by a pair of feisty, politically-connected, and well-organized women. They spent days barreling through a largely apathetic, incompetent, and disorganized Phuket civil bureaucracy to try and coordinate the flow of information (particularly in consolidating the lists of casualties that the region’s numerous hospitals and departments would aggregate, yet refuse to share out of some misplaced sense of territory). The admin team also secured us hotel rooms and critically scarce cars & mini-buses, and determined areas of need to which the field team would be deployed. The field team was comprised of the grunts like me, looking to get our hands dirty (literally).
Though the Phuket resorts suffered significant damage, it was in the Khao Lak area about two hours north of Phuket that suffered the lion’s share of devastation, and where its two largest temples were converted into makeshift morgues. Though much of the ride was uneventful, we eventually came across several of the villages and resorts that were hit by the tidal wave. How many superlatives can I use to describe the carnage? Obliterated, annihilated, destroyed, razed, leveled, gutted, erased, wiped-out. Any and all apply to what we saw that first day. Even in areas along the highway where we could barely see the coastline, the buildings were demolished, large vehicles were overturned and crushed, and anything that was once green was poisoned by the acidic salt water and stripped away by the force of the waves, leaving nothing but a large field of mud and debris. On the other side of the road, the swath of mud, debris, and destruction stretched several hundred meters to a tree line at the base of some hills. In one resort area, we spotted a 50’ military-style coast guard cutter grounded near a grove of rubber trees, over a kilometer inland. This scene of destruction stretched on for what seemed an interminable period, but was stark indication that we were soon to arrive at the temple.
As we entered the city limits, we began our preparations. The first order of business was to break out our face masks and smear the insides with tiger balm. Tiger balm is a Chinese camphol and methol-based topical analgesic cream used to soothe aches & pains, as well as open up sinuses. It’s your basic cure-all (imagine a cross between Vicks Vapo-Rub and Ben Gay cream). Normally, inhaling so much tiger balm would give me an unbearable migraine, but today we would be using it to mask the stench of bodies that have been decomposing under 90 degree F heat for the past five days. Those who had gloves and bought boots (or picked up a pair from Phuket city hall) took them out for our arrival.
It wasn’t as crowded as I was expecting. The entrance of the temple became both a parking lot and an administrative area. The bodies lay in the rear of the temple grounds. But other than a few cars parked on the grounds and the few tables and bulletin boards situated in front of the main temple, there was a distinct lack of buzz: little flurry of activity, and even less infrastructure or organization.
The lack of people and activity on the wide-open temple grounds made it easy to spot the rows of bodies in the back of the grounds, even from a hundred meters away. And from our vantage point at the front of the temple, we could smell the bodies, from the very moment we open the car doors. It isn’t easy to describe, since nothing I’ve ever experienced even remotely resembles the smell of death, much less rotting death. While something like an open latrine might smell dank and acidic, the smell of death was almost sweet. Not a chocolatey, velvety sweet, but a subtle sweetness that initially infiltrates your consciousness before unleashing a foul, putrid, brutal assault on the senses. Some of us put on face masks straight away; some of us opted to wait, hoping to acclimate ourselves to the stench and take the edge off somewhat. I was among the latter.
It was at that point that one of the more veteran (i.e. 24-48 more hours of experience) volunteers imparted the most valuable piece of advice of my trip: take a long, hard look at the photos of the dead (posted on bulletin boards in front for identification purposes) before working up close with the bodies. What I saw was terrifying beyond comprehension. Horrendously bruised, bloodied, and mutilated bodies, twisted and contorted into grotesque death postures. Men and women, and most heartbreaking, the children. Open staring eyes, giving me an unequivocal idea of the terror and suffering they faced in their dying moments. They looked inhuman, like some monstrous alien race of the undead. All were bloated and swollen, and many were waterlogged and more than doubled in weight. What was most shocking was that I couldn’t discern Asian from Causasian, or any other ethnicity. Each body was similarly black & green, the features similarly swollen & bloated. No matter who you are, rich or poor, black or yellow or white, in the end we were all nothing more than rotting meat. It was a humbling revelation.
I steeled myself. No breaking down, no tears, no convulsions. I had a day of work ahead of me, and I needed to maintain my focus and composure. I knew I wouldn’t be able to speak to my wife without choking up, so I SMSed her my message, and shut off my mobile phone. It was time to work.
Nothing can ever truly prepare you for the sight of the dead, row upon row of corpses as far as the eyes dare look. The sheer number of dead in one place was staggering to see. The few trees that dotted the courtyard offered shade to a small handful of bodies (the lack of which would have made the temple quite beautiful and serene), but most of the bodies and volunteers wouldn’t be spared from the oppressive heat of the sun. As we made our way to the medical staging area in back, we passed by stacks of empty coffins, waiting to receive bodies. We gave wide berth to the bodies, averting our eyes, not yet ready to literally stare death in the face. More masks went on as the stench became thicker, more palpable.
There was a sense of urgency, as many of the doctors who had flown in from the country’s various hospitals to volunteer their skills were due to report back to their hospitals by the end of the weekend, leaving fewer and fewer doctors to process a growing accumulation of bodies. As the doctors started to finish up their lunch break, we began gearing up, hoping that the doctors would be able to leverage us to split themselves into multiple teams and get through the corpses much quicker. In addition to the rubber boots and face masks we already wore, we tied on white throw-away robes, a head cap, and two layers of surgical gloves.
As I was waiting to get assigned to a team, a crush of people plowed their way through the crowds of volunteers, brusquely brushing us aside. After all, there was a Very Important Person approaching: Health Minister Sudarat Keyurapan. How inconsiderate that we grunts didn’t show her and her entourage the same deference that we accorded to the deceased! After 15 minutes of asking questions, looking concerned, and recording her photo op on film and video, she shot out of there like a bat out of hell, allowing the others to get back to the real work.
Walking amongst the mass of dead bodies, up close and personal, will not be an experience I forget. Ever. But it was then that I realized the value of having looked at the board of photos earlier. To see decomposing bodies up close while simultaneously bearing the full brunt of the god awful, rancid stench would be enough to thoroughly hammer any person’s psyche. While seeing photos the bodies beforehand didn’t completely desensitize me to the horror of seeing them at my feet, it took off just enough of the “edge” to allow me to focus on adjusting to the overpowering smell.
Every person I talked to has told me that of all the imagery they have taken away from this experience, there is always one, singular image that is seared into their memories forever, that one image that encompasses the full scope of everything they have seen, smelled, touched, and anguished over. For one of our teammates, it was the sight of a person’s limb caked with maggots (much like a plaster cast, as he described it). It didn’t take me long that first day to find the image that will haunt me every day after that. It was a baby, swollen to over twice its normal mass, its skin a blackish bronze. It’s eyes and mouth were wide open in a gesture of horror that no child should ever have to go through. That child’s eye sockets, where eyeballs should have been, and its mouth, where a gaping hole should have been, were filled to the brim with maggots and larvae, squirming about in a hideous dance. I couldn’t help but picture my beautiful nieces and nephew, but such images quickly faded away, leaving me only with my Maggot Baby. How I managed not to break down right then and there, much less completely freak out, is beyond me.
The procedure for processing corpses was quite methodical, employing a division of labor reminiscent of more a modern industrial assembly line than any hospital environment. Each new body was to be assigned a number in a sequential series (e.g. K-151, K-152, K-153 and so on). One person would carry the number tags (about the size of index cards, and slipped into plastic sleeves to withstand the elements) and matching wrist bands to hand to the photographer, which he placed on the body to photograph. While two volunteers measured the length of each corpse, a medical examiner began dictating a physical description of the body (gender, ethnicity, noticeable scars & tattoos, etc) while another volunteer wrote down the description. The examiner would also describe articles of clothing down to color and brand, as well as personal effects, such as the shape of earrings, brands of watches, types of belt buckles, and so on. One volunteer held bottles of water, while another held several tools, including a toothbrush. Occasionally, the examiner would ask the Water Girl to rinse a mud-encrusted watch, pendant, or patch of skin, while the Tool Boy handed the examiner the brush to scrape away the grime for easier identification. The personal effects would be photographed next to the number tag and then sealed in a Ziploc bag (one volunteer was writing the corpse number on the bag, while another would hold open the bag for the examiner to deposit items, which was then sealed). And then, the examiner would take a DNA sample. We were told that the corpses were too far gone for hair or nail clippings to offer a clean DNA reading. We had heard stories that in the previous days, doctors were cutting off fingers for the sampling, but we saw no evidence that any of the bodies had been mutilated in such a fashion. At Ban Muang, there were two means to take a DNA sample. Our Tool Boy would hand the examiner a sharp knife. The doc would then make a cut into the body’s inner thigh, about 2 inches deep and 4 inches long. He would then make 2 more quick cuts, and the Tool Boy would hand the doc a pair of tongs to pull out a piece of muscle (which looked like any piece of raw meat you can find in meat section of any supermarket), and deposited into a properly labeled bag held open by the volunteer we took to calling the Meat Man. The second means for taking a DNA sample, and supposedly a superior method at ensuring a clean read, is by slicing into the chest and taking out a piece of cartilage from the ribcage. The volunteer with Meat Man duties with one of the other teams told me that the ungodly whiff that emanated from the chest cavity when the doctor made his cut was enough to keep him gagging for the entire afternoon, and that he came too close on too many instances to vomiting into his face mask. After the bulk of the team had moved onto the next corpse, the volunteer with the wrist bands would hand the appropriate one over to the last team member, who would affix it to the corpse, which often required that volunteer to move the corpse so that he could grab the arm and attach the band (similar to those handed out at over 21 bars and clubs). All in all, at least 11 members per team.
At first glance, it appeared to take an inefficiently large number of people to process bodies, but as the day wore on, I realized that such large teams offered several benefits. For one, the division and specialization of labor meant that each person focused on just one or two key tasks, and it wasn’t long before we each found our optimal position around the corpse and in relation to other team members. Additionally, such a system minimized the number of people that actually had to handle the corpses. One unintended but key effect of this system is that everyone had a job to do, no matter how seemingly trivial. My job consisted of carrying the numbered tags and wrist bands and handing the photographer a new number with each new corpse. As we neared the end of a sequence, it was my responsibility to make sure that I had another one on hand to minimize disruption and ensure efficient processing of bodies. At first, it was easy for me to feel that I wasn’t having much of an impact or making any tangible difference. After all, I was just running back and forth between the guy writing numbers onto slips of paper, and the photographer to whom I gave those numbers (I would joke afterwards that I was literally and figuratively “running the numbers”). But as I watched at how furiously those few teams worked to process the seemingly endless line of bodies, it dawned on me that no task was too small when no one else was willing to do it. As small as my job was, I would do it well. I would do it efficiently. I rushed about, helping make sure that the tags came at a rapid clip, lending a hand producing tags as quickly as the teams were ripping through them. No task I could do to ensure that we processed as many bodies as sunlight would allow was an unworthy task.
As we sat around the medical stations in the late afternoon, disposing of gear, scrubbing hands, drinking iced coffees, smoking cigarettes, we began swapping stories. We weren’t bragging about our exploits, or trying to outgross one another. We had all done the same menial tasks, and seen the same horrors. I think we just needed to reaffirm that others had experienced the personal hells we all went through that afternoon. We were dripping with sweat, stinking of death, physically exhausted, and emotionally shell-shocked. I sat with an East German volunteer, and we lamented about the tragedy. As we swapped our stories, I came to the revelation that one of the worst aspects of making any sort of an identification was that these husks, these beat-up pieces of rotten meat had names. And a name meant a family, a job, loves, hates, hobbies, lives. I described a necklace that one corpse had been wearing. After a little water and scrubbing, the examiner discovered that the scratches on the back face spelled a word: Agatha. This girl was Agatha. Such a lovely name for such an ugly thing as a corpse. My German friend told me that his team had found a body wearing a bracelet, the back of which said “Gary and Christine. September 17, 1993.” At that point, the floodgates holding back every pent up emotion and frustration that had been building up the past few days and past few hours were smashed open, and I broke down sobbing.
After a long and eventful ride home (a story for another time), we each took long showers, met up with a pair of my friends who had flown in that evening to pitch in the next day, and we grabbed a beer. We continued to swap stories, which not only allowed us the opportunity to have our own cathartic, peer group-style confessional, but also prepare our new rookies for the unthinkable that they would face the next day. At the stroke of midnight, we sat somberly, nursing our lagers as fireworks exploded all around us and people whooped it up in the streets. We toasted the new year, knowing that tomorrow would be another long, taxing day, but that the rest of 2005 could only go up from there.
(Photo: an updated list of the dead, injured, and missing by region, as of 6 pm, New Year's Eve) posted by someone bearing a striking resemblance to Paul | 10:05 PM |