Thai hero tells story
By HUGH KEARNEY
HE is the real-life tsunami hero of Relax Bay.
Lifeguard Jit Chairap was yesterday on official duty at Kingscliff Beach alongside Aussie colleagues Paul Young and David Field. But on Boxing Day, Jit was in a very different place.
The 35-year-old Thai, trained to Australian gold-medallion standard by Cudgen's David Field, is the chief lifeguard for Le Meridien Resort at Relax Bay, near Patong Beach on the tourist island of Phuket.
Under his supervision, 10 trained lifeguards look after guests from the 490-room resort, in the ocean at Relax Bay, in the pools and the lagoon.
When Jit came on duty at 8.30am on that fateful day, December 26, 2004, a friend in the engineering section reported a strange thing to him.
The water in the resort's large, oceanfront, tiled and sealed, chlorinated pool - twice the size of an ordinary Olympic pool - had mysteriously tilted and spilled half its contents.
Earlier, at about 7am, guests had reported feeling an earth tremor. The resort manager rang the national seismological centre to learn a 5.5 Richter scale tremor had struck the region.
Jit said between 8.45am and 9am more strange things began to happen in the water which set his alarm bells ringing and he went into action.
"The water started to recede and a (para-sailing) speed boat about 100 metres out in the bay in about three metres of water was suddenly left sitting on the sand," Jit said. "The water level was oscillating in and out, surging two or three times.
"I knew there was something very wrong, so I started telling people to get off the beach, 'Quickly, go, go, go,' I told them,"
Jit said when the water first receded, an unsuspecting older Australian couple had wandered out to look at fish left stranded on the sand.
"I realised they were in danger so I ran out to them and grabbed them just as the first wave hit," he said. "I kept hold of them as the first surge washed all three of us 80 metres up the beach to the hotel lobby."
Jit then ran back to the beach warning and rescuing more people just seconds before the second bigger wave hit the bay, smashing shops, cars, motorbikes, jet skis, furniture, anything in its path.
"They were all gone, the dive shop, the pizza shop, restaurant, everything," Jit said.
The water surrounded the resort, wrecking cars including Jit's, and flooding the manager's apartments and killing a Thai woman who ran a t-shirt shop on the beachfront.
But thanks to Jit's timely action, not one guest or member of the public on the beach at Relax Bay was lost, a result he is rightly proud of.
Many people had acknowledged to the resort manager that Jit's prompt action had probably saved their lives, even though they didn't know his name.
"They told the manager they want to do something now to return the favour," he said.
"For me, it feels good to do my job well."
Jit said because of its more southerly location, Patong was less affected by the tsunami than other resort beaches to the north, like Khao Lak, but sadly, a lifeguard colleague, Vichai, had perished in the tsunami while riding his motorbike to work along the waterfront.
Jit has been brought to Australia under a fledgling exchange program sponsored by Cudgen Headland SLSC and NSW SLSA.
David Field, who has been training Thai professional lifeguards for the past four years, said Jit was the first exchange lifeguard in what was hoped would be a continuing program.
"Jit is probably the most-experienced lifeguard in Thailand and we are very proud of him for what he has done," David said.
"The training program is aimed at developing surf lifesaving in Phuket, so the Phuket Lifeguard Club was started in 2003.
"Cudgen club has formed a sister-club relationship with Phuket, the aim being to bring more Thai lifeguards here for training and work experience.
"We plan to have a surf carnival in Phuket sometime soon and for Aussies and New Zealanders to compete against and meet Thai lifeguards'" he said.
While in Australia, Jit will do fully-paid lifeguard duty at Kingscliff for two weeks, but will be flown to Sydney by NSW SLSA for a promotional visit during that time.
He will also train with the Westpac Lifesaver helicopter, the Tweed Support jet-ski squad and Fingal Rovers IRB (rubber ducky) crews.
Jit is also planning to attend the tsunami appeal evening at Oasis Pool, Club Banora, on Saturday, January 22, where Cudgen SLSC and others will provide water safety.
Unfortunately, when Jit returns to Thailand, he will be without a job.
With the resort wrecked by the tsunami, all the lifeguards, Jit included, were laid off for at least three months.
Keeping a close eye on a busy Kingscliff beach yesterday, Jit had some good advice on how Australians could help his people.
"The best way to help the Thai people is to come back to Thai- land for a holiday," he said.