Bill O’Leary is busy on Boxing Day. While back to business in Phuket, Thailand, by midday, he attends first a Muslim ceremony on the beach, and then a Buddhist service in a hotel to remember the 5,500 tourists and local people who were swept to their death by the tsunami of Dec. 26, 2004. Three thousand are still missing.
On that ill-fated day, Bill — an Australian professional USL code mariner — was motoring out of Boat Lagoon, a marina on the east coast of Phuket. “I was onboard Blowfish, a 38-foot-long (11 1/2-meter) speedboat I’d built 10 years before. I was with its owner and his family, another family also with two kids, and three of my own children.”
Suddenly his mobile phone went off.
“It was Richie, our Australian beach boy back at the Amanpuri Resort on the west coast,” Bill recalls. “He was terrified because the sea had receded suddenly. All the boats were dry, the swim platform was dry, and fish were stranded on the sand. Immediately I knew we were about to be hit by a tidal wave, tsunami.”
Bill knew such warning signs because he had narrowly missed being hit by a 26-meter-high wave on the northeast coast of Flores in December 1992. “As a result, we put in a tsunami warning system in our Aman hideaway hotel, Amanwana, the tented camp on the north end of Moyo Island.”
This time, Bill turned his boat seaward, because he knew that the deeper the water the safer. “We could have turned back, but we didn’t know when the tsunami would hit. Instead we found shelter between Koh Yao Yai and Koh Yao Noi Islands, and Blowfish jumped the wave there after it had hit the north end of the islands.
Bill first arrived in Thailand from Australia in 1987 onboard the famous racing yacht Stormvogel after working on the movie “Dead Calm” starring Sam Neil, Billy Zane and a very young Nicole Kidman.
The following year he joined Amanresorts at Amanpuri on the west coast of Phuket, working with Adrian Zecha to set up the cruising arm of Amanresorts. Since then 19 more boutique Aman resorts have been built around the world, with Amanpuri the No. 1 celebrity hideout in Asia.
In 1992, Bill married his Australian girlfriend, Carolyn, and the couple now have four children: a boy age 12 and three girls, 11, 7 and 3. “We all have Thai resident status as expats living in Surin Beach near the Amanpuri.”
Bill worked hard over the years, pioneering development of the Thai marine leisure industry as a founder, director, manager and shareholder of many Phuket-based companies, both with Amancruises and outside. Also finding time to write, he coauthored (with Andy Dowden ) “Sail Thailand” (now in its fourth edition), and recently published a sailing guide, “The Andaman Sea Pilot.”
But the last 12 months have been a nightmare. The tsunami wiped out Bill’s entire office and workshop in the south end of Bang Tao Bay. “The wave came through at about 4 meters, retreated, then came back about 15 minutes later at 5 meters and stayed up for about 45 minutes, churning like a washing machine.” It swept inland about 1.5 km, stopping just 12 meters short of the O’Leary family home.
Between the waves a few of the local villagers who had found safety on higher ground ran back to their homes. “A few days after, there was this terrible smell at the back of our house and officials found a woman’s body, the mother of one of our captains, buried under rubbish. Having returned for money and land title deeds, she was so disfigured that the documents were the only way she could be identified.”
The effect on Bill, family and colleagues has been, he says, like a low-grade depression. “You know — irritable and restless, sullen and lazy, then overemotional. Pretty much run-of-the-mill PTSD: posttraumatic stress disorder. Many of our captains have been ‘spooked’ and now they can’t go to sea anymore.”
Business was terrible but is now coming back, Bill says. “You can’t keep Phuket down for very long. It’s such a wonderful place — easily the best beach destination in Asia. Anyone, everyone, who has traveled a lot knows this.”
He decided to write a book about the tsunami because he was so stuck in his own head for the first days and weeks that he gave little thought to anyone else.
“I didn’t think about or do much for anyone else. I was more concerned with fixing up all my own responsibilities, etc. But then the depression started to sink in, and most of my businesses were really going to the dogs because of the zero tourism. I was stuck in this lethargic depressed state for most of 2005. My son also.”
Since writing has always been an important way for Bill to gain clarity in his life, he began to tell his own tsunami story, and then started asking friends to write their own down too. Soon there were a few really good stories and he got the idea to keep collecting and make a book to help kids who had lost their parents in the wave.
“I knew that people would be interested because the tsunami was such an amazing and rare phenomena, possibly never to be repeated in our lifetimes. This would make any collection timeless. The idea took hold and now the end product — ‘Tsunami Stories Thailand,’ published just last week — is better than I ever imagined.”
All proceeds from the book will go to a fund set up to care for and educate a group of children orphaned by the wave. “We’re still working on where best to offer the book without having to pay the usual 40 percent to bookstores. We want all the proceeds to go to the kids.” For now, though, the book can be bought throughout Thailand at all Book-a-Zine outlets and Marriott hotels as well as via the Internet.
Asked if Phuket is ready to welcome tourists again, Bill is full of renewed vigor. “Sure. It’s fantastic. Of course, the people who lived through the tsunami will never be the same again, myself and my family included. But for holiday-making, Phuket is fully recovered.”