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Friday, December 4, 2015

Last Photos in a Tsunami: John and Jackie Knill

After the devastating tsunami hit Thailand on December 26, 2004, Christian Pilet and his wife, who were Baptist missionaries, volunteered to travel to Thailand and help.  One morning, while Christian and a friend were walking on a beach strewn with rubble, his friend kicked something with his foot.

"He said, 'Look, it's a smashed digital camera,'" relayed Pilet.  "It was obliterated.  It was in very bad condition.  Finding the camera seemed liked a nonevent."

Still, Pilet was curious, and was able to open the camera and retrieve the memory card, which he brought with him back to his hotel.   Much to his surprise, it was undamaged - and the pictures relayed a devastating story.

an earlier photo from the memory card

The photos revealed the vacation of John and Jackie Knill, a couple from Vancouver, Canada who had been visiting the Khao Lak resort in Thailand.  It showed them happily posing on vacation... until the last eight pictures:

 Before a tsunami hits, the water recedes from the beach.  It would certainly be a curious event worth retrieving your camera to document.

Far in the distance, beyond two ships, the tsunami becomes visible.

Swimmers have begun exiting the water, alerted to something in the distance.
All seem to be looking at the wave in the distance.

It is now 8:26am, and some beachgoers seem oblivious to the wave the in background, casually strolling along the shore, unaware of their impending doom.

The wave has now reached the ships, which have turned to try and face it head-on.  Its size becomes apparent compared to the large ships.

What ships?

The wave draws closer, gaining height and power.

The wave dwarfs a beachgoer who runs for his life.  The time is 8:30am.

The following is the last image on the Knills' camera.

Pilet was shocked by the photographs: "It was as if you were hearing somebody speak their last words and then suddenly they are cut off in mid-sentence."

Christopher Pilet immediately began searching for the couple in the photos, and came in touch with the Knills' three sons.  Pilet traveled to Vancouver to deliver the photos in person.

John and Jackie Knill were a retired couple thinking of settling in Thailand.  "Thailand was their favorite place," explained their son, Patrick.  "They found peace there every time.  They came back a better person every time, and they were already great people."  And he did find some comfort in the images, saying that his parents seemed to be speaking to him: "...that we were together, it's OK, and here you get to see what we saw last."

Pilet took some comfort as well.  "...you can look at the image of them happy in their last day and really be glad they were enjoying a tremendous Christmas."

Some have criticized the Knills for not running from the wave (though many beachgoers in the images are seen oblivious to the dangers as well).  "I don't know why they didn't run," said their son, Christopher.  "Either they knew they couldn't [run,] or they didn't know the power of the wave."

Running may not have helped much - the resort is right on the beach and there is no higher ground to flee to, especially not in the few short minutes before the tsunami hit.  This image from Pintrest seems to show the resort after the tsunami:

Instead, the Knills chose to document their last moments, giving us a heart-wrending insight into what tragedy they went through - and also enabling us to recognize a tsunami should we ever be in the same situation.

The remains of the Knills were recovered and returned to their children in Canada.

The Knill brothers worked together to establish a fund to remember their parents and help orphans from the tsunami.  I have been unable to find any current information on the fund, but the address for donations is listed here:

Knill Thailand Fund
Box 314
1489 Marine Drive
West Vancouver, B.C.
V4T 1B8