Failure was not an option..

Not a single Dane in need of assistance among the more than one hundred Danish victims of the tsunami catastrophe, who were evacuated to Bangkok, are likely to have slipped through the tight human net which a dozen Danish volunteers managed to put in place at Bangkok International Airport, Bangkok Domestic Airport, the Northern Bangkok Bus Terminal and Bangkok’s Central Train Station from Tuesday 28 December and the rest of that week.
     Around the clock these volunteers worked with extreme dedication to ensure that no flight, no train and no bus could arrive from the disaster stricken area without any Dane on board being met by one of their members and offered assistance on the spot.
     The impossible operation was organized and executed by Consul General of Denmark and Chairman of EACThailand Anders Normann together with Sille stergaard and at the height of the operation with the assistance of some twenty other Danish volunteers who had come “simply out of the woodworks” as Anders Normann puts it.
     “They were people I have never heard about. They turned up completely spontaneously at their own initiative either at the embassy or in the airport and “reported for duty”. It was truly amazing and perhaps what I still find most gratifying and heartwarming when recalling those days,” Anders Normann says.
     We are sitting on the balcony of his riverside condominium. It is Sunday evening and the job is not completely over, but enough under control for Anders Normann to be able to return to his home and give his account of a week that still seems almost unreal.
     Anders Normann was plunged into the task on Tuesday morning as he received an urgent call from the wife of the Danish ambassador, Christina Helweg-Larsen to come and help at the embassy.
     “The embassy was inundated with work of all types and nature. People were calling in and out, left right and centre. It was clear that the embassy needed volunteers to call for instance hospitals. But another obvious urgent need was for people in the field to ensure that all Danes who arrived Bangkok from Phuket were “captured” and offered assistance with whatever they needed.”
     That was where Anders Normann and Sille stergaard came into the picture. The authority to handle the task was swiftly and unceremoniously delegated. The rest was up to them.
     “Sille and I soon developed a frame of operation that may not stand the test of Harvard business school but it was certainly effective. It was like a business plan that we lived out 100 percent and it worked because it had the extreme flexibility demanded by a situation that changed every single minute.”
     “We were constantly handed new lists of people which were obsolete as we received them because a minute later new Danes had been identified. We also had to prioritize because during the peak on Tuesday, Wednesday, and most of Thursday as well, there were certain periods of time when we were five to six volunteers at the domestic and suddenly had to send two more over to the international terminal. But the Thais were fantastic in they cooperation, issuing airport terminal passes just like that,” he says.
     Twenty to thirty flights arrived every day and at all times of the day. Some at three in the morning, some came in three at the same time. In between there were military flights where information of their arrival came in with very short notice but the volunteers still managed to be there as well to catch any Dane who might be on board.
     “Every time a flight came in, we were there. Sometimes there could be five Danes on board, another flight might have fifteen Danes. All had different needs. Some had lost everything. Some told us they just needed help to continue their holiday. Then suddenly they came back again – they had changed their mind: Sorry, we cannot cope with it. Please help us get on a plane to go home!”
     “Behind the chaotic scenes it was a disciplined chaos, because even it was a disaster of unimaginable magnitude, we managed to put a structure around it. We knew what we needed to do.”
     The centre of command was established in VIP lounge No 3 in the domestic airport.
     “It was Thai hospitality and service mindedness at its best. Sandwiches were served, coffee and soft drinks. Paper napkin boxes were filled up constantly and telephones and internet services were freely provided. All with a smile and a grace only the Thais are capable of.”
     “So first we took the Danes to our VIP lounge. Asked them to sit down, have a cup of coffee and a sandwich – again courtesy of the airport. Then – very importantly – we asked them if they had called home yet. Some had already managed this down in Phuket but many had not and immediately took the chance to make their first call home and tell how they were.”
     “Tears were flowing freely. But somehow, when that first call was made to their relatives back home, it was like a burden was taken off their shoulders. You could see how they suddenly were able to address their current situation. What do we do now?”
     Mentally, especially the first day was tough. Almost all the people who arrived had lived through horrific situations of fear and distress and the majority had lost someone in the disaster.
     “The worst cases were taken directly from the planes into ambulances and rushed off to hospital. Those we had to catch up with at the different hospitals to where they were taken.”
     “We met people who had been through a nightmare beyond your wildest imagination, out of the impossible.”
     “Some stories were so unbelievably heart breaking. Standing there, you are tossed into the whirlpool of their nightmare and you start living their nightmare. I have never used so many handkerchiefs in so short time in my life.”
     “They talked about the horrendous experience they had lived through. But they also talked of the help they had received from complete strangers. Some Thais had given one of them 2000 baht. An Australian had given another some Australian dollars. Complete strangers!”
     Throughout the operation, key words were flexibility and compassion, individual attention to individual needs.
     “Every need was individual. We didn’t try to measure or quantify or evaluate the need they came with. They came with a need. It was our job to do what we could to help them.”
     Most were accommodated at various hotels but some were also accommodated privately.
     “Again, I am amazed how some people spontaneously asked “Why don’t you come and stay with us?!”,” Anders Normann says
     “All the best in the definition of a Danish spirit came to the surface. Compassion, assistance, sacrifice. These volunteers sacrificed their families and daily tasks completely. They cut out five days of their lives and gave them to lift the task they had taken upon themselves to carry out. No discussion.”
     “Individuals as well as companies like Jebsen & Jessen offered cars that we could freely use. I had numerous calls from people in the Danish community offering their own time, cars, whatever, it would all be provided just for the asking.”
     “It is not always that I am proud to be a Dane. But I must say that having been through these past five days . I am proud to be Danish!”
     As the operation was nearing its completion, Anders Normann felt that under the circumstance it was in place to communicate his findings back directly to the very top of the foreign ministry in Denmark and in a letter to Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Per Stig Moller he gave an accurate description of the events in which he was involved, that could be used for future references.
     In the letter, Anders Normann assured the Minister of the dedication with which everybody at the Embassy as well as among the volunteers had met their obligations during the operation. In particular he mentioned the outstanding performance of Sille stergaard as a volunteer, and Poul Skov-Petersen and Christina Helweg-Larsen at the Danish Embassy.
     “I am in the lucky situation that I don’t need to please anyone so I have written my report exactly as I experienced it,” Anders Normann comments.
     Anders Normann is an old Asia hand. Having spent his entire working life in the East and in particular in Thailand, he has experienced military coups and even personally been held up at gun point on a dark country road in Southern Thailand.
     “Believe me, I have been there and seen that, but I hope I will never have to live through anything like the tragedies we encountered and were drawn into during those days!”
     “I don’t mind talking about how we solved our task because it was an extraordinary experience that could be useful to examine, but the many accounts of individual sufferings, I want to put behind me, – they are beyond human comprehension.

About Gregers Møller

Editor-in-Chief • ScandAsia Publishing Co., Ltd. • Bangkok, Thailand

View all posts by Gregers Møller

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *