Friday, 22 October 2021

Children’s smiles wipe out memory of tsunami

SEEING a group of children huddled excitedly round a computer screen in the classroom caused Jim

SEEING a group of children huddled excitedly round a computer screen in the classroom caused Jim and Valerie Stoner to smile with pride.

For this was not one of the local primary schools here in Henley, where the couple live, but thousands of miles away in Thailand, which was devastated by a tsunami 11 years ago.

The Stoners decided to help the local people after narrowly escaping with their lives in the Indian Ocean disaster on Boxing Day 2004, which killed an estimated 230,000 people across South-East Asia.

After returning to Henley, they helped organise an appeal which raised £11,000 for a new computer centre in the Thai village of Bangtao, where they had been staying, along with another Henley couple, Barrie and Jennifer Scott.

The centre was officially opened in Janaury 2006 and was moved to the village school the following year.

Now the school has become one of the best performing in the country, as the Stoners discovered on their latest return journey a few weeks ago.

The couple were given a tour of the school and saw pupils gathered round one of the 40 computers.

With 900 pupils, aged six to 16, at the school, they have little option other than to share but their perfomance means the school can apply for government funding for more equipment and a second computer suite.

Mrs Stoner says: “When we first got them we thought it would be for the village and its children but it has got much bigger then that.

“The computers are used for teaching all the time and the school lets children in to use them when they’re not being used for teaching.”

Mr Stoner, 78, adds: “It really has developed and it is all because of the money put in originally. It gave them a leg up with the computer centre.

“The original concept was that they would not be just for the children but the whole village.”

All this seems a long way from the disaster the couple witnessed 11 years ago with the tsunami caused by an   9.2 magnitude earthquake with an epicentre off the coast of Indonesia.

As well as claiming countless lives, it would displace another 1.7 million people.

The Stoners, who live in Wyndale Close, Henley, were on holiday at their bungalow in Bangtao, a stone’s throw from the beach.

Mrs Stoner had spent that Boxing Day morning walking and meditating on the beach before her husband met her. As the couple walked back to have breakfast, a fellow holidaymaker asked them: “Did you feel the  earthquake?”

Having lived in California, the Stoners had experienced an earthquake tremor before.

Mr Stoner, a retired civil engineer, noticed the water in the swimming pool moving up and down.

“It was sloshing around,” recalls his wife. “We went to the open air reception and asked people if they knew about the earthquake and they said ‘no’, so we told them to look at the pool.

“Jim went to sit by the pool and I went to talk to a man who had just come out on to his deck.

“As I was walking I looked towards the sea and could see a traditional boat that I used to see in the bay coming towards the beach. This beautiful boat was coming straight through the trees.

“The wife of the man I was with was shouting ‘come back, a wave is coming’.

“I noticed a trickle of water coming through the trees and the next thing I knew the whole area below me was full of water. The water was up to people’s chests.”

This surge of water was before the first big wave, about 5m high, crashed on to the beach followed by four others over the next 90 minutes.

Mr Stoner, who was still by the pool at this stage, said: “I was reading a book and I heard all this screaming.

“I looked and I could see the wave coming in. I thought ‘I have got to get out of here’ and started to run.

“Then I thought about where Val was. I went back to find her and I think it saved my life.”

The couple were reunited about 15 minutes later and went to look for higher ground together.

Mrs Stoner recalls: “We started to run. By this time people had already climbed on the roofs of the bungalows, including Barrie and Jennifer. They were with a group of about 12 others. We thought we wouldn’t climb up because they weren’t supposed to hold that many people.

“We were blessed because there was a water tower, probably 10 or 15 years old, but it had bamboo scaffolding left round it.

“We climbed a wall, some barbed wire and then on the scaffolding. When we got to the top there was a set of golf clubs, which we thought was funny.”

The couple were about 20ft above the ground when the first wave hit but didn’t realise there were more coming, so they went to climb down to try to help people but were soon persuaded to stay put.

Mr Stoner says: “My first thought was to go down and see what was going on. Half way down a local person was shouting, ‘wave coming’, so we went back up.”

When it was clear there were no more waves coming the couple climbed back down.

Mrs Stoner, a reiki and crystal healing therapist, helped to calm people who were in shock.

She says: “The people around us had climbed on bungalows or climbed trees. The water did recede and did not stay.

“The people were pretty distressed and frightened. All of them were saying ‘what’s going on?’. They had no idea it was a tsunami.”

That evening, the Stoners and the Scotts were taken from Bangtao to Phuket, where they stayed in an apartment building.

All they had was the clothes they were wearing.

On arrival they signed a big red book which locals travelled with to different places where tourists were being taken.

Names were read out at each location so people could know where their friends and relatives were.

Mr Stoner says: “A lot of people were being moved on the back of motorbikes to get them to their  relatives.

“It’s amazing what the locals did. They had huge concern for us and all the people there. They were concerned about people coming back again on holiday.”

Mrs Stoner adds: “The local people, who are 90 per cent Buddhist and Muslim, were unbelievable.

“They came along when we were in our room and gave us food. They were fantastic.”

Mr Stoner returned to the resort the next day to pick up his golf clubs and some other items.

The couple thought they had lost their passports, travel documents and money, which were locked in a safe in reception at the resort that was  destroyed.

Mr Stoner says: “Val stayed at the apartment and she was upstairs looking out on to the main street when along came this pick-up truck with the safe on the back.

“It was lying on its back and had been opened like a can of sardines. They came in and gave us all our passports and money.

“When I got back it was like a money launderers with all the money hanging up to dry.”

The couple were able to use their passports to fly home on December 30. They have kept the documents with their crinkled pages as a reminder.

The Stoners and the Scotts, who live in St Andrew’s Road, began fund-raising sooon after returning to Henley.

Over the next 11 months, they raised £11,000, including a donation by the Salters’ Livery Company where Lord Remnant of Wargrave was a  director.

The Stoners returned to Bangtao in November 2005 and then again in January 2006, with the Scotts, to open the computer room.

Since then they have visited the area intermittently to see the results of the generosity of people here.

Mrs Stoner says: “All this is off the back of the money given by local people.”

Her husband adds: “What we’re trying to say is thank you to the people of Henley. This is what they have achieved.”

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