Monday, February 12, 2007

Fire on Ko Phi Phi Island - International Bucket Brigade

© Copyright 2006 by Blogger Jotman (story and photos). All Rights Reserved.

PHI PHI ISLAND, KRABI PROVINCE, THAILAND: Around 11:00 AM I was in an Internet cafe on the north side of Phi Phi island (also spelled Pi Pi or Pee Pee) when there was some commotion on the street. Some people loaded fire extinguishers onto a cart. I heard the word "fire." There was no sign of smoke where I sat across from the Seven Eleven store.

The restaurant next door began to shut down. People started filling the narrow street. Thais appeared with carts, some carried buckets.

No sign of smoke. I walked down a lane towards where the Thais with carts were rushing, in a southerly direction. I looked up at the sky and saw a huge plume of smoke filling the sky in to the south and drifting westward. The source of the fire was about 500 meters away: evidently a shop the southern shore was ablaze. Perhaps more than one shop, the plume of smoke was thick, black and getting bigger before my eyes.

We seemed to have an inferno on our hands. It was then I realized that the small wooden shops lining the south shore of Phi Phi might be consumed in a chain reaction as the fire spread.

Many of these shops had been spared the tsunami. The tsunami devastated the north side of Phi Phi, leaving many businesses along the south shore, where the boats dock, unscathed. A part of the island spared the tsunami looked to be going up in flames.

At this moment, the danger presented itself that we could have a major catastrophe on this dry tropical island that has not seen a drop of rain in several weeks.

I entered the Seven Eleven (which was preparing to close) and handed over some Thai baht for a disposable underwater camera (my digital cameras batteries had died).

This was deja-vu. The last time I bought a disposable camera was in New York City at about the same time of day on 9/11.

"Just take it, go -- no pay" the Seven Eleven girl was telling the remaining customers. More than fear but a measure of near panic was setting in. Shops were closing. Many Thais working here knew the drill; they had survived the tsunami catastrophe which struck the island only two years ago. On that day, the survivors closed shop and ran like hell.

But in my mind was that other great catastrophe of this new millennium. What I saw next seemed a replay (on a much smaller scale) of the sickly cloud etched into my memory from the morning of 9/11 when I stepped out onto Broadway and looked South.

Looking south, I saw that a sickly cloud now filled the sky of this tropical island paradise.

"Head for the mountain!" shouted a Thai lady, pointing towards the mountain.

That’s when I took this photo. The sky to the south was no longer blue. A giant plume of grey and white smoke spread across the sky. Shops were closing, people were beginning to move very quickly down the tiny lanes.

I walked along the south-east coast of the island, approaching the fire zone from the east (Before I was north of the fire). Because the wind was blowing west, the air was clear and I could get very near to the blaze. When I rounded a point, I saw that perhaps a thousand or more tourists and locals stood along the shoreline for two hundred meters.

At first I assumed they were spectators. No. Most were working furiously to put out the blaze. I pulled out the disposable camera which I had bought at the Seven Eleven and started taking photos of the massive international fire brigade, finishing off the camera roll in just a few minutes.

Hundreds of people stood on rocks and waded in the waters off the rocky beach area. Smoke and flames were coming out of ruined shops for a hundred meter stretch. I saw that the trees of the jungle behind the shops had also caught fire.

I approached closer. Five-hundred to one thousand of tourists and locals formed some five or six vast lines passing buckets of seawater from the bay up to those facing the smoke and flames where stores once stood. The men receiving the water buckets up near the flames -- barely visible in the smoke -- numbered perhaps a hundred.

There was great haste to get sufficient water on the flames before the fire consumed the forest.

“We need more people!” came the shout from the line.

"More buckets!” came a shout from men high up amidst the smoldering ruins of buildings. The fire had reached into the forest behind the shops lining the sea, and this was a focus of their attention.

I wanted to help. But what to do about my camera, computer, and cash stuffed bag? I pulled an extension cable-lock out of my bag and used it to attach the bag to a tree overhanging the shore (a spot in clear view of the nearest-most bucket brigade which I had decided to join). Piled onto shoreline rocks near this tree were tourist clothes: many shorts, t-shirts, and other beach apparel salvaged at the last minute by a desperate shopkeeper as the flames encroached on his source of livelihood.

The mood of the bucket brigade was intense. Hardly anyone spoke a word. Every so often someone shouted “heads” as an empty bucket was thrown back down to the sea.

In retrospect, it's easy to say that this was a somewhat unfortunate -- though totally understandable (given the heat of the moment) -- practice that destroyed a number of buckets as some of the empty buckets that had been tossed down shattered on the rocks.

We filled black buckets, white paint buckets, small beach buckets, also big aluminum pots. In the line stood thin blonde girls in bikini bottoms and beach tops, shirtless tattooed western men, many Nordics, also large number of Thai men and women.

In my water-bucket chain we made way for a water pump. Several of these were set along the beach to deliver water up the hill. Some people expressed anxiety about the proximity of the electric pump cords to the sea water.

The buildings continued to burn and smoke. Suddenly from the building, about fifty meters above where I waded filling buckets of water, there was a cheer. Our line had successfully put out one of the fires! We applauded the brave heroes of our line, the men standing amid the rubble.

But four other lines of the great international fire brigade were still fighting the fire. Our line disengaged and its members absorbed themselves into the remaining lines.

Every so often a wall collapsed with a thundering clash. Many expressed fear for the at the top of our line delivering near the ruined shells of the buildings.

A helicopter appeared. More cheers.

“Why don’t they drop some water?”

It was a good question. This was mainly a tourist firefighting brigade.

“We could certainly use a fire chief here” I muttered to the English woman next to me as I dogged another flying bucket.

“You said it. They have no fire department on the island. Nothing. This is it.”

“Safety first!” someone cried out in reference to the flying bucket-hazard. Snickers and moans.

"We need people over here!" came a cry from atop the smoldering wreckage of shops to the east. I moved back to where I had begun my fire fighting career. The first line I had joined had just been re-activated.

Between dodging the flying buckets and being handed more buckets, and handing the last bucket off, I found my attention engaged on a task like nothing I else I could recall. I recalled that psychology professor Csikszentmihalyi popularized a term for this feeling of being-in-the zone. He calls it flow.

Click here to watch videos showing the investigation of the fire, hear fire victims' stories, and survey the destruction it caused.

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