A2/2004Y The natural disaster in Asia on 26 December, 2004
In the morning of December 26, 2004, an exceptionally great earthquake occurred to the northwest of the island of Sumatra, which forms part of Indonesia. The earthquake caused a rupture in the earth’s crust some 1,200 km long and a tidal wave or tsunami of immense proportions. The tsunami caused widespread devastation particularly on the coasts of Sumatra, Thailand, Sri Lanka and India; about 300,000 people were killed or lost. 179 Finnish citizens were among the dead, and 250 were injured. Of the Finns who died, 170 were staying in Khao Lak in Thailand, 106 of them at the same hotel.
Under section 3 of the Accident Investigation Act (373/1985), the event was classified as a major accident. On January 13, 2005, the Finnish Government appointed a major accident investigation committee under section 1 of the Act.
The earthquake occurred at about 08.00 Thailand time. The tsunami hit the province of Aceh at the northern tip of Sumatra at about 08.30, the west coast of Thailand at about 10.00 and Sri Lanka about one hour later. The tsunami came as a complete surprise to both local residents and tourists. Most of the Finns who died or were injured were staying in Thailand, which is why the investigation was initially focused there. Local residents immediately initiated aid measures, and the authorities became involved about one hour after the event. The hospitals in the Phuket and Takuapa area were overloaded as hundreds of patients were brought in at once, and the injured began to be transferred to hospitals in the Bangkok area. The repatriation of Finns, using charter flights, was begun at the initiative of Finnish travel agencies in the evening of December 26. The Finnish authorities got involved in the morning of December 27, at which point it was decided that all Finns in the region would be evacuated, at the government’s expense if necessary. Government-commissioned evacuation flights began in the evening of December 27 and concluded on January 2, 2005. Some 3,300 people were repatriated on these flights; an additional 400 people returned home on commercial flights. Flying out to the disaster area, the chartered planes carried mainly medical personnel from the Finnish Red Cross, other aid personnel, members of the Finnish Police identification team and aid supplies. Injured persons returning to Finland were admitted to central hospitals. Psychosocial support was provided for those requiring it, and various services were set up for families and relatives. The repatriated dead were given a solemn reception at Helsinki-Vantaa Airport.
The investigation involved examination of the origin and impact of the natural disaster; the course of events from the point of view of Finns; the actions of the authorities, of companies, of organizations and of communities; the repatriation and evacuation flights; the rescue operation and treatment of the injured; and the leadership system and communications in Finland. Two trips were made to Thailand in order to study local circumstances and the functioning of the rescue, evacuation and health care system. It was found in the investigation that the Finnish authorities are not adequately equipped to take immediate action to help Finnish citizens involved in a major accident abroad. Once action was initiated, it got up to speed efficiently in a couple of days. Personnel voluntarily performed above and beyond the call of duty, to the brink of exhaustion. Operational leadership was assigned to the Government Chiefs of Readiness under the State Secretary at the Prime Minister’s Office. The competent authority was the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, and an official from the ministry was in charge of the evacuation operation. All Finns were repatriated from the area in seven days. Public communications by the authorities were less than successful. The Information Unit at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs restricted itself to official bulletins; these conflicted with the information available to the general public and published by the media, and the latter were subsequently proven correct. The result was a loss of confidence in official communications which could not be dispelled during the critical first week. The investigation showed that most of the media did rely on official information in addition to the news services in the first few days following the disaster, but once the official information had been proven incorrect, the media changed their tack.
Being a natural occurrence, the disaster could not have been avoided. There was no early warning or alert system. Once the tsunami had hit the coast, there was nothing at all that the Finnish authorities could have done to save any of the Finns who were killed or who disappeared in the disaster. Neither the local residents nor the tourists were aware of or could prepare for the tsunami. Tour operators and hotels were likewise unprepared, and there was no provision for evacuation and medical care facilities to cope with a disaster of this magnitude. Thailand’s extensive readiness organization, which extends to the local village level, enabled rapid initiation of aid measures. The Thai military was immediately organized to participate in the rescue operation. Other countries also sent professional and well-equipped help to the disaster area at short notice.
In Finland, travel agencies, airlines and the Finnish Red Cross had the capacity to initiate aid measures rapidly. However, not all the available medical, rescue or airline capacity was used. Shortcomings in crisis readiness were revealed in the functioning of the authorities, particularly the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, including neglecting to address shortcomings that had already been identified earlier. A lack of cross-sectoral readiness measures and joint operation capacity appeared to be the main cause for this. Also, the authorities did not have sufficient information on companies and other actors capable of providing aid in such a situation. This actual situation demonstrated a lack of ability to make use of experiences from exercises aimed at improving joint operations between various bodies.