JOHN MAY, then 56, lost his daughter Lisa on the Phi Phi Islands in Thailand where his other daughter, Nicola, had just been married.
Lisa was setting off on a trip around the world, but was caught up in the Boxing Day tsunami.
After bringing her body home, the former mayor of Surrey Heath founded The Lisa May foundation with his family to raise money for those affected by the disaster.
“Most people don’t talk about it when they lose people, particularly children. You always think your children are going to live longer than you. It gives me some comfort that when people hear I have a daughter who died in the tsunami, they say “oh yeah my daughter died in a car crash”, or “my son had a brain hemorrhage”, and you would never know. They keep it to themselves.
In 2004, we’d had a few fantastic days in a 5-star resort, for my daughter Nicola’s wedding. My other daughter Lisa was a bridesmaid. Although she was 25, Lisa hadn’t really been travelling, so she stayed on Phi Phi to start a round-the-world trip. She’d sold her car, given up her flat and got rid of all her possessions, to maximise the money she had.
We left Lisa with massive baggage to carry: it was so heavy that I took some of her things out and brought them home with me, and waved her off.
We were expecting to hear from her over the Christmas period and we woke up on Boxing Day to find out there had been this massive tsunami. And then of course, your hearts are in your throat.
“We phoned the consulate and all that sort of thing, but of course they were all on holiday, so I decided to just get on the first plane I could and get out there.
From then on I don’t think my phone was off. I was basically waiting for a call until we found her and brought her home in the January, which was pretty harrowing.
With Steve, Nicola’s new husband, I went onto Phi Phi and got kitted out with SARS masks, because of the stench of the bodies in the heat, and started walking around the debris.
At this point it had certainly hit me that Lisa might be dead. We searched all the photos of lost and found people, those [message] boards, and we hadn’t found anything. We started looking where we thought she [might have been] in the rubble, but there were already a lot of body bags lined up on the quay, being shipped back to Phuket to put in a morgue.
“I felt in a state of numbness. It’s difficult to talk about, even though it’s ten years on.”
“We found out from one of Lisa’s friends that she had broken one of her front teeth when she was malarking around before Boxing Day, so she had been to a local dentist and there was an up-to-date picture of her teeth. We went to find the dentist and get a copy.
We went to the morgue in an old temple in Phuket, had DNA swabs done, and handed over all the records. At the same time, they put up a list of bodies and what they were wearing. One of my daughters recognised [that] some of Lisa’s clothing was listed.
Lisa May sounds very much like a Thai name: Lisa sounds Thai, and May sounds Chinese, so the authorities thought she was not a farang – the Thai word for European. They had moved her body to a cemetery, which I went to with my brother who had flown in from Los Angeles. That’s when I sort of freaked. A JCB had basically dug a mass grave, and they had all these bodies wrapped in white in the grave alongside each other. They hadn’t filled it in yet, thank God.
I felt in a state of numbness. The bodies were awful, they were like Buddhas, almost, and blown up. They were all sort of purple and green, because they were obviously rotting.
It was surreal, like you were on another planet, but everyone was rushing around. All I can remember was the smell of the morgue.
I got the people from the high commission to start [talking] in Thai, and they arranged to remove Lisa’s body from the grave and shipped back to the UK. It’s not very easy to talk about, to tell you the truth, even though it’s ten years on.
Throughout, I was feeling extremely tired. I’d left my phone on for weeks, just in case Lisa called, but the press would keep calling me to ask if I’d found her – trying to get a bit of a scoop, bless them. They meant well. Every time I’d fall asleep, I’d get another call. But the adrenaline kept me going, and I suppose the purpose did too – we have to find her, we have to get her body home, we have to have a church service and say goodbye.
We were able to do that by mid January, and it was after the hiatus died down that the real grief seemed to come at you in waves. You thought, my goodness, it could have been even worse as we might never have found her.
I think [saying goodbye] was very important. It was important for all her friends: a month before they had waved her off, and suddenly she’s back in a casket.
We decided that the best thing to do was to set up a charitable foundation to try to help restore life to some normality in Thailand. We were one of the groups first in with the money, and raised around £60,000 in the first six months. It bought around 39 boats for fisherman to get back to work, and we put some physiotherapists out there and tried to help with things like school uniforms and fresh water. Small things, but everything we could do with the money we put together.
“I know the charity helped with my grief. One felt one was doing something, and we’ve really kept that going. We still support other natural disasters as we can, but when I was mayor of Surrey Heath I saw so many local charities that needed help, so we continue to help them through the Lisa May foundation.
It is quite amazing how all of those areas in Thailand have recovered. The hotel that we were staying at for the wedding is back as good as new. The Thais are very resilient people, and they have this reincarnation concept so they simply accept things.
It was a shocking one for us all, but I don’t think we’re still shocked any more. Members of the family all deal with it in different ways: some want to be quiet, some want to be raucous. At Lisa’s birthday every year the whole family eats chocolate cake, because she loved chocolate cake.
We do always have this period up to Boxing Day where you feel sort of sad, but you feel slightly elated that you’re still doing things and trying to keep everybody together.
I occasionally talk to people whose sons and daughters are doing the same as Lisa did out there, sitting on the beach at Phi Phi, sending postcards to their friends saying ‘this is a wonderful idyllic place’. It brings me comfort in a funny sort of way: it says that life has to go on. Lisa was in the wrong place at the wrong time and hopefully those other young people will go on, and will succeed.”
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