How I survived the Boxing Day tsunami

On Boxing Day 2004, Lizz Hills was enjoying a scuba dive in Thailand alongside her father, Dan Martin. Then, the sea started boiling...

The father/daughter Christmas holiday was supposed to be part of Lizz Hills’ recovery process. One year earlier, the then-21-year-old had gone on her first ever solo holiday to Thailand. But just 48 hours into her adventure, she fell from a local train, suffering a traumatic head injury and breaking over 30 bones in the process.

For six weeks, she became lost in the Thai hospital system, her family completely unaware that anything had happened – in 2003, it wasn’t uncommon not to get in touch when backpacking. It was only, she says, when she failed to return home that they realised she may be in trouble.

Finally coming back to Australia, what followed was a long recovery process, ongoing amnesia and consistent pain.

“I spiralled into a very deep depression and my dad went, ‘Let me help you get back on that horse, let me take you back to Thailand,’” she tells The Weekly today, as she prepares to reshare her story in ABC docuseries I Was Actually There.

Lizz Hills on beach in Thailand in 2004
Taking in the ocean ahead of disaster striking. Picture: Supplied.

“We arrived on Christmas Eve and went to the beach. We were trying to decide, do we stay and have a beautiful Christmas lunch on the beach? Or do we go scuba diving? We both laughed and went, ‘yep, we’ve got to get under the water.’ My father and I are both dive masters, so we went out to the Similan Islands for a three-day scuba diving adventure.”

A beautiful morning

They departed from Khao Lak early on Boxing Day, journeying out to a wreck that was a popular diving spot, known for its colourful fish and thriving reef.

“The water was crystal clear, there was 15 metres visibility,” Lizz recalls, But when we pulled up to the wreck, there was nothing there. Dad and I were like, ‘They’ve taken us to a dud reef.’ So we decided to go back up to the boat and give them a piece of our mind.”

As they clambered back on board, derigging from their gear, Lizz says, “the ocean looked like it started boiling. And at that exact moment, the boat started to be dragged underwater.”

A quick-thinking crew member cut the anchor, and the boat quickly headed out to deep water.

“We were a dive boat of about 16 and in the end, there were only about 10 of us on board,” Lizz says, recalling the mayhem. “I got very upset because there were divers in the water (left behind). It was an awful predicament because nobody could speak English. Everybody was yelling and running about the boat and all the Thai nationals looked incredibly scared.

“It wasn’t until we were picked up by a Navy frigate boat that we learned there had been a tsunami. And it wasn’t until we got back to shore and saw the devastation that we could really understand what had been going on.”

Navy Frigate approaching dive boat
The navy frigate boat approaching was a welcome – if frightening – sight. Picture: Supplied

Coming back to chaos

Having been on the frigate for around five hours, they finally docked near Phuket where Lizz and her father Dan were confronted by horrifying scenes. “A huge army frigate about the size we’d been on had been washed inland,” she says now.

“That really struck me as how big and overwhelming it must have been.

“There were also lots of broken houses, broken people. We saw lots of body bags. And I guess because I had just come so close to death myself it really landed with me. I was in shock looking at it all, but then I started to think how lucky I was to be alive as I was processing these moments. Seeing death and dead bodies is an awful thing, I don’t wish it on anybody.”

The job of cleaning up debris continues as a Thai rescue team works on the mess Phi Phi island, 31 December 2004. Photo by PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP via Getty Images.
The job of cleaning up debris continues as a Thai rescue team works on the mess Phi Phi island, 31 December 2004. Photo by PORNCHAI KITTIWONGSAKUL/AFP via Getty Images.

As expats, Lizz and her father were segregated and taken into emergency accommodation. Crewed by Thai army officers bearing guns and with little information, during their few hours inside there was a stampede after a tanker rolled past, making a terrifying sound. Many had speculated that a second wave would come and this may have been what tipped the occupants into panic.

“You stick a bunch of scared people in a room, they’re going to get worried,” Lizz says now with a shudder. “My dad and I were separated. I remember going up to one young Thai national and grabbing him and screaming, ‘Where is my dad?’ I’d just been thrown down a flight of stairs (during the stampede) and I had cuts and grazes all over me. I must have looked scary… I got a bit overwhelmed in that moment.”

Luckily, Lizz and Dan found each other in the chaos. It was then they decided that they would take the risk to leave the centre and try and find a calmer space.

Father and daughter started walking and were eventually picked by locals driving a ute, who took the pair to a different emergency accommodation which was mainly Thai nationals.

“They were so kind,” Lizz says. “They gave me a jacket; gave me some food and we slept there overnight.

“There was a real contrast. In the first accommodation, we were with all the holiday makers, all the expats, the white-skinned people who had their holidays ruined. Of course, in some of those instances, they had much more of their lives ruined. There was a lot of horror.

“But here we were looking at people who had lost their livelihoods, their homes, their families. And it was much more subdued. It was a very calm, but a very sad, safe space.”

A tourist checking names and photos of the missing on December 29, 2004, hoping for a miracle. Photo by Patrick AVENTURIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
A tourist checking names and photos of the missing on December 29, 2004 in Phuket. Photo by Patrick AVENTURIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Fortunately for the pair, they had carried their passports with them on the boat as well as an emergency credit card. Within 48 hours, they were able to get on a plane out of Thailand, heading first to Malaysia and then back to Singapore where Dan is based.

“It’s interesting the way that people deal with traumatic situations,” she muses now. “I still wasn’t completely on my feet. I was still recovering from a head injury and 30 broken bones, so I was still in a fair bit of pain myself. My dad, he sort of went, ‘We survived’ and closed the book on the discussion on the tsunami.

“We didn’t watch TV and we didn’t read newspapers – it was a matter of recovery. I didn’t really start to open that box up until I got back to Australia a fortnight later – the media of the tsunami was vivid and tragic.”

How many people died in the Boxing Day tsunami?

More than 230,000 people across 14 countries lost their lives in the disaster. And it took, Lizz estimates, around three months for the horror of what she had been a part of to really sink in. With that came a realisation: We all get a choice in life.

“I came so close to death twice in a relatively short period of time,” she says. “I could quite easily have darkened further into depression and dwelt on the horror I’d seen. But I could also choose to focus on the fact that I was alive, and there is an opportunity to do something with my life.”

Lizz and Justin Hills kiss in photo by Nic Duncan
Lizz and Justin have been together since 2003. Photo: Nic Duncan

Lizz’s recovery from her initial accident would prove ongoing for several more years. But by her side was a young man she’d met when she was first admitted to hospital in Australia – Justin Hills. Ironically, he had been due to fly to Thailand to meet Lizz on New Year’s Day.  He would later become her husband as well as father to their now-12-year-old son Rowan – a child she was told she’d never be able to conceive due to the injuries she’d sustained in 2003.

She was also told she’d never be able to return to university. Today, Lizz has two degrees and is approaching completing her Masters. She works in environmental education, helping people reconnect with nature. She’s written a book, Stars Linger, reflecting on her passion. And last year, Rowan accompanied her part of the way on a Trek2Reconnect walk across Australia, helping raise funds for Wild Mountains Environmental Education Centre.

Lizz with son Rowan in front of a waterfall
Lizz with son Rowan – the child she was told she’d not be able to have. Photo: Supplied.

“It reminds me that life is what you make it,” she says with a shrug. “People are about as happy as they make their minds up to be, no matter what they go through.”

Sadly, Lizz has never scuba dived again in the aftermath of 2004. “It does make me sad because it’s the most glorious feeling to be under the water,” she says. “Hopefully one day I’ll get back.”

And for now, the same goes for returning to Thailand for a third time.

“My family have requested, maybe let’s not do that. There’s so much more of the world to see.”

I Was Actually There premieres Tuesday 9 July 8.00pm on ABC iview and ABC TV

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