Thai Players Discuss Recent Tsunami

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Futures TourHer short e-mail arrived on the morning of December 27, 2004, and it carried a certain weight not seen at Futures Tour events.

It read simply: Dear friends, Just wanted all my friends to know that my family and I are all ok. We are safe in Bangkok. Hope everyone's doing well also. -Oui
 
Virada Nirapathpongporn, better known as 'Oui' by her friends in the United States, was at home in Bangkok, Thailand when the tsunami struck her homeland on Dec. 26th. It was a cataclysmic event that touched the nation and her region of the world in a way they had never before experienced.

'I didn't even know what a tsunami was,' said Nirapathpongporn, a second-year Futures Tour player who was a four-time All-American and NCAA champion at Duke University. 'We just don't get those, but last December, we did. It started with an earthquake on Christmas morning, and then there were earthquakes going on in five places. I never heard of a tidal wave caused by an earthquake, so that first day, I was really confused.'

Greeted by their peers for the first time this year as the Futures Golf Tour opened its season last week in Lakeland, Fla., Nirapathpongporn and Russy Gulyanamitta of Rayong, Thailand, answered questions about the event that still plagues their homeland.

'I was in San Diego when it happened, so I called my parents in Thailand to make sure they were OK,' said Gulyanamitta, who has played on the Futures Tour since 2001 and was a member of the 2004 LPGA Tour. 'My family was fine, but one of my friends in southern Thailand was missing.'

For 10 days, Gulyanamitta called and sent e-mails from California, trying to locate her friend. She scanned web sites, looking at photos of the deceased as government officials attempted to identify the dead. She called emergency workers in the low-lying area of Kaolak, on the peninsula of Thailand. Finally, she reached her friend by telephone. The woman had fled to the mountains, driving a pickup truck as fast as she could to escape the floodwaters.

'She said it was the scariest thing in the world,' said Gulyanamitta. 'She lost her business and her home, so now she lives with relatives in a village.'

Gulyanamitta has another friend who lives outside Phi Phi Island who was hit by the raging waters of the tsunami, but escaped with only minor injuries. She was in her room sleeping when the wave smashed into her home, caving in a window and door and leaving her in a room filled with water.

'She couldn't get out and she told me that she really thought she was going to die,' said Gulyanamitta. 'Then, at the last minute, the water sucked out of the room. My friend feels so lucky.'

Like Nirapathpongporn, Gulyanamitta said she had never heard of a tsunami before her homeland was struck. Once it happened, the Japanese word became a part of global news headlines throughout the world. Fans and friends who had hosted players for Futures Tour tournaments called and sent e-mails to the Tour's headquarters inquiring about the well-being of the Futures Tour's Thai players.

'I got a lot of e-mails when I was home and it made me realize that many people around the world were concerned and took this news very seriously,' said Nirapathpongporn, who also had a friend on an island who escaped the surging water with only cuts and bruises.

Nirapathponporn's mother, Supranee, a radiologist in Bangkok, was busy for many nights until 2 a.m., helping with airlifted medical emergencies. She worked with surgeons and dentists, x-raying patients and helping with wound care of mostly tourists.

'I was upset, but my dad [who's a retired surgeon] and my mom could handle it because it's their occupation and they've seen it all,' said Nirapathpongporn. 'There was nothing I could do but to help out financially, which I'll continue to do.'

The players noted that the region struck was largely a European tourist destination, attracting numerous visitors each year from Sweden -- a nation hard-hit in the mortality count following the tsunami. Gulyanamitta observed that the fatalities could have climbed even higher if the tsunami had struck during the New Year celebration, when international tourists typically flock to the region's beaches and businesses. She generally travels to southern Thailand once or twice a year after the monsoon season in March or April.

'I was home three weeks ago and there was still a lot of community spirit of people helping out,' said Gulyanamitta, who holds an engineering degree. 'My friends who are engineers were helping to rebuild and many people gave blood. It will be like starting over and it will probably take a year or two to recover from the disaster.'

Futures Tour member Naree Song, who was not in Lakeland last week, described a fortunate swing of 'fate' when reached by telephone. Song, whose mother is Thai, said if she had earned her exempt LPGA Tour status last December at the LPGA's Final Qualifying Tournament, her entire family had planned to vacation in Phi Phi Island to celebrate over the holidays during the time that the tsunami struck. Song just missed getting her full LPGA card, so the family stayed in Orlando.

'We have a lot of friends who have restaurants and businesses on the island,' said Song, twin sister of LPGA Tour player Aree Song. 'The roof fell in on one of our friends and she held on to a piece of something until she was rescued. That was an eye-opener for us. Aree told me everything happens for a reason.'

All three of the players have answered e-mails and telephone calls ever since the tsunami disaster and fortunately, all, along with their families, are fine. Most of all, they are grateful for the public's concern and pleased that many nations stepped in to help in a time of crisis.

'I heard from people that I haven't heard from in a while,' said Nirapathpongporn. 'Everyone helped out in a bad time. I also felt proud of my country that week. We were helpful to tourists and to people from around the world. I know that for a while, Thailand will probably be associated with the word 'tsunami ' and people will only think of the tragedy. But we hope they will still want to come back.'