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Spotsylvania family was in Thailand when tsunami hit

January 11, 2005 1:08 am


On the morning of Dec. 26, the water level in the ponds of a northeast Thailand village dropped several feet.

The villagers were startled. This was unusual. It must mean something.

Spotsylvania County resident Ann Supanklang was visiting Phimai, a land settlement on the Khorat Province.

Ann had worked there while in the Peace Corps from 1994 to 1996. It's also the place she met and married husband Chai. They have a daughter, 2-year-old Saijai.

When the water levels dipped, and then rose a few minutes later, the villagers were abuzz.

"It was pretty eerie," Ann recalled. But she shrugged it off. The people of Phimai, a farming community reached only by dusty roads, tend to be superstitious.

When Chai's father came in from working in the fields a few hours later, he said there had been an earthquake. The Supanklangs flipped on the television and learned of the powerful tsunamis it spawned.

Later, they would see the images--huge walls of water ravaging shorelines across South Asia.

Thousands were dead. Thousands more were missing.

A swath of Thailand's coastline had been devastated.

And the tsunamis were particularly ill-timed, striking on a picturesque morning at the height of the tourist season. Thousands strolled and sunned on the resort island of Phuket and nearby Phang Nga that day after Christmas.

When Ann and Chai saw the walls of water inundate Phuket and wash through hotels, they shuddered.

They could have been there. They had planned to be there.

"We always go to Phuket," Ann said.

"That's where we learned to scuba dive. It's just beautiful there we hadn't been scuba diving in so long. Saijai loves the beach. She loves the sand."

But Saijai didn't feel well that day. A week into their visit, the 2-year-old was struggling to adjust to a new climate and a 12-hour time difference.

"We probably would be dead if we had been there," Chai said.

It was chance, or fate perhaps, that kept them away from the tsunamis' impact that morning.

The trip

As a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand, Ann built tree nurseries and taught English on a land settlement, which she compares to an American Indian reservation. Chai owned an electronics repair business.

The pair met and married during Ann's second year in the Peace Corps. When her stint was up in 1996, the newlyweds moved from Thailand to the U.S.

Today, Ann is an English teacher at Brooke Point High School in Stafford County. She also teaches baby sign language to area parents. Chai works on the maintenance team for a Spotsylvania apartment complex.

In December, the Supanklangs traveled to Thailand for their first visit in four years. It was Saijai's first.

Phimai is largely a farming community. Villagers grow rice and sugarcane. Some are fortunate enough to own milking cows, which are "very profitable," Ann said. Women wash clothes outside in large buckets. It is hot and dry and dusty. The people are poor. But they are polite and gracious, and they feel their countrymen's pain.

Before each trip to Thailand, the Supanklangs send letters to their friends asking for donations. They donate the money they raise to the village school.

Four years ago, $800 bought desks and chairs for the students. This December, another $800 went for playground equipment and a luncheon for the school children. They also got ice cream--a very rare treat.

Ann, Chai and daughter Saijai presented the gifts during a spirited, daylong celebration at the school.

When the tsunamis hit, the mood in Thailand changed. Even in a dusty northeastern village, far away from the damage.

"It's like Sept. 11, multiplied by 1,000," Ann said. "Disbelief. Everyone is glued to the television."

But the Thai people aren't just mourning their own who perished that December morning. They hurt for the foreigners who lost their lives while on vacation, away from home.

Wanting to help

When it was time to return to the United States on Dec. 30, Ann did not want to go.

She wanted to stay and help. She secretly hoped the tsunamis had disrupted transportation out of the country. She hoped the plane would be delayed.

Hospitals needed translators. Ann, who speaks fluent Thai, could have done that.

Instead, she's back in the U.S., in a comfortable home with all her friends and family accounted for.

Ann knows that, realistically, she couldn't have stayed. Not with Saijai. She wouldn't have wanted to subject her young daughter to all the death and destruction.

But some of she and Chai's friends who live in Thailand are amid the disaster, helping in any way they can.

"I feel like I should be back over there," Ann said.

Ann received this account from a friend, in an e-mail from a woman named Mai.

"We went to Phuket city hall first they sent us to take pics of corpses for identifying.

"Day 1: we worked in identifying team take pics of bodies, accessory items and body decorations. It was the hardest day of my life! Dozens of unidentified people lying around and being decomposed in the sun and the SMELL!!!!! Everywhere I look, my eyes filled up with tears

"Day 2: What brought us back is simply guilt We told ourselves we are not coming back again, we were overwhelmed But finally we decided to come back because we felt guilty for the people who are there seeking out helpOn that day we worked with team, carried bodies to cool storage after identifying. It was a bit easier than the first day.

"After all this, I learn so much from it. Worth of living and loving. Realized and learned how people can be so kind to each other in such difficult situation and give courage to each other."

Staff librarian Craig Schulin contributed to this story.

To reach KRISTIN DAVIS: 540/368-5028

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