Home > News > Archive > 13th January 2004

Tsunami survivor returns home

Courtesy of Te Awamutu Courier

Jesse Lewis Evans By Cathy Asplin

Jesse Lewis Evans started his ‘dream job’ at Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop in Wellington three months ago - but nothing he has seen on screen has come close to his real life battle with a deadly tsunami in Thailand.

Jesse (23) and his mate Marc Smith (28) headed off on a long awaited holiday just a week before Christmas Initially they were at Long Beach on Phi Phi Island, (setting of the movie ‘The Beach’).

Emails home to Jesse’s parents David Lewis and Marion Evans in Te
Awamutu described idyllic beaches, plenty of sun and fun partying.

Around 10am on Boxing Day Jesse and Marc checked out of their accommodation, threw on their back packs and boarded a longtail boat to head into the nearby Tonsai village.

There they headed for the pier to buy tickets for a ferry to take them to Koh Lanta. The pier was on a narrow strip of land between two bays and they quickly found a woman near the pier to barter for tickets.

She made a comment during the process about the water going out and when they looked at the bay the longtail boats, which were normally in the water, were now beached.

A comment was made that this “never happens” but was probably something to do with the full moon.

While Jesse and Marc continued to barter, taking little notice, the woman looked at the bay, suddenly screamed and ran away.

“We looked up and saw the tide coming in fast - the pier which was normally out of the water was now under the water, so
we ran after her. Unfortunately the tide was coming in both sides of us so we jumped up onto a wall. With that there was a huge roar and I was under the water, being swept down a side street, banging into trees, furniture and poles. I had no idea
what was happening really - initially I thought it was a fl ash flood. As I was being tossed around I thought I was going to die - then I started shouting ‘NO’ and said to myself this is not going to happen.”

Jesse says he was fortunate his back pack was on, as it was buoyant and stopped him from being slammed against things
He also credits many years of experience being thrown around in the surf at Gisborne during school holidays.

“It was like being in a washing machine, being spun around. I tried to grab hold of poles or anything to slow me down but it just kept spinning me around."

Eventually he was sucked into a building where he could kick out a window and swam over to grab an Israeli woman who was yelling for help. As the tide retreated they were swept out again into the narrow street, which was full of furniture and debris that had essentially formed a dam.

He eventually helped the woman onto a roof before going to the aid of Canadian man he spotted amongst the rubble of the dam. The man had some severe cuts, so Jesse helped stem the bleeding before getting him up onto a fridge.

Another wave came through soon after, but this was only knee high and with the help of a European survivor they were able to take the Canadian, who was now going into shock, into a hotel.

The five storey concrete hotel became their refuge during the day, as they helped many bleeding and wounded people, and saw many others who were dying.

“I’ve seen plenty of horror films, but this was nothing like that - its certainly nothing like you see in the movies.”

Jesse had no idea where Marc was as this stage - the last he saw of him was when they were swept off the wall.

“By around 3pm I was thinking maybe he didn’t make it. We were being told to head up into the hills as there was another wave coming - but many of the people I was with couldn’t walk.”

Soon after, Marc miraculously appeared from a higher floor of the hotel - he was being taken out for evacuation - as he was badly cut, with a sprained ankle and fractured ribs.

“We were told if we wanted to get off the island by boat we had to go. At this stage we made the decision to leave - Marc needed medical help.”

Jesse had ditched his back pack, but had thankfully kept passports, credit cards etc in a small bag across his shoulder
which survived the pounding of the tsunami. Apart from that he was left in just a pair of board shorts.

While waiting on the beach to be evacuated television crews arrived - putting the cameras into the faces of the pair, as well as some badly injured and dying people.

“I wasn’t impressed really and we pretty much tried to ignore them."

Little did he know that the pictures of him waiting on the beach gave treasured images for his anxious parents back in New Zealand. David and Marion admit they were ‘freaked out’ when they heard the news of the Boxing Day tsunami and had
tried to find as much information as possible via phone, internet and television.

After a sleepless night they were told by a neighbour that a person in pictures being shown on the CNN news channel looked like Jesse. Desperate for news of their son and with video recorder ready, they awaited the next CNN News bulletin. To their immense relief they easily spotted Jesse.

“We were so thrilled to see him - there was absolutely no doubt it was Jesse, but we couldn’t believe that he would be shown amongst the thousands of people.’

Jesse and Mark were taken to Krabi by boat, where they spent three days in hospital. Marc was operated on (and eventually received a skin graft as a 29th birthday present).

Jesse initially thought he would be fine after his cuts and grazes were cleaned up, but the state of the water they were tossed through meant infections quickly set in. Once treated the pair were then sent by airforce plane to Bangkok and four days later the New Zealand Embassy flew the pair home, much to the relief of waiting parents and friends.

After a short stay in Middlemore Hospital Jesse returned home for some vital recuperation.

Television coverage has allowed him to realise the full extent of the tsunami’s force, but he admits he can’t watch any more. The internet has, however, helped him track down the Canadian man he helped.

“During a conversation he said he was an ice hockey instructor in Vancouver, so I looked up a site, saw a photo that looked like him and fired off an email. He replied saying all six of his family survived, which was great news.”

Jesse will be back at work at Weta Workshop later this week, but may take much longer to come to terms with the freak occurance that ended his Thai holiday.

“It certainly puts things into perspective - you don’t worry about petty things any more - I’m just happy to be alive.”