St Stephen's Day Tsunami: Ambassador Dan Mulhall recalls a wave of devastation and destruction

St Stephen's Day Tsunami: Ambassador Dan Mulhall recalls a wave of devastation and destruction

DAN Mulhall may be a familiar name on British shores as being the Irish Ambassador but before his move to London in September 2013, he was stationed in Kuala Lumpur at the time of the Indian Ocean tsunami. 

He recalls the afternoon of December 26, 2004, when he received a phone call about a “tidal wave”.

“My family were all out from Ireland for Christmas and we were going to sit down for lunch and we got a phone call from the Department of Foreign Affairs,” he said. “A tidal wave, as she described it.”

Tragically, it was much worse than that. As people in Ireland and Britain woke up on the morning of St Stephen’s Day, news began to trickle in about a massive tsunami in South-East Asia.

Such was the level of devastation that countless people lost their lives, the landscape was virtually wiped clean and rescue efforts were also hampered which made access into and out of the affected countries extremely difficult. 

A day after disaster struck, the ambassador arrived in Thailand, where there were over 5,000 confirmed deaths.

“The following morning I set off for Phuket and I spent three weeks there at first,” he said. “When I went there I had no idea what to expect. A very large number of Irish people had been reported to be in the area but there was no way of knowing how many Irish people were affected.”

Ambassador Mulhall’s first priority was to locate and assist any Irish people in the region and get them back to Ireland as soon as possible. 

But the confusion and mayhem in the wake of the tsunami did not make this an easy task.

As the scale of the disaster unfolded, it became more apparent that the search was quickly turning from one looking for survivors to one searching for bodies. 

The unprecedented event brought out the best in everyone and, according to Ambassador Mulhall, the Thai people were hugely admirable in the wake of tragedy. 

“I pay tribute to the Thais for the way in which they managed this extreme situation. They’d a centre set up for receiving people coming in from the resorts. Everyone was looked after. I remember seeing a whole pile of shoes where people could take shoes if they didn’t have any. Everything was in impressive quantities, much more orderly than one might have expected,” he said.

It took several months to confirm, but it was eventually revealed that four Irish people lost their lives in the tsunami, while Britain lost 143 citizens. 

One particularly poignant moment for the Ambassador was arriving in one of the emergency help centres and seeing a wall adorned with photographs of those who were still missing.

“A significant number of them were of young people, young families, and unfortunately any photograph that was there… you had to assume they might not have made it, he said. “It was sad to see an array of happy photos of people on holidays and knowing they had been affected in this way.”

In all, it is estimated that 280,000 people died, or are missing, since December 26, 2004 — 10 years ago this week.

A decade on, Ambassador Mulhall has left Kuala Lumpur and has taken up the position of Irish Ambassador to Britain. 

But it is safe to say that Christmas 2004 is not a time he will forget any time soon.