Surviving the Boxing Day tsunami was the best and worst day of my life; it was the making of me, says next Chamber president Jillian Thomas

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It is nine years since the Boxing Day Tsunami brought death and mass destruction to the Indian Ocean. Jillian Thomas was there and is still so traumatised by the experience she can barely speak of it. But living through it changed her life.

“Surviving it was the making of me,” says Jillian, who now runs her own thriving company, a bespoke financial planning service, and in 2015 is poised to become only the second woman president of Sheffield Chamber of Commerce in its 150-year history.

Q. How did you come to be in Thailand that Christmas?

A. My dad had recently died and I decided to take my mother away for the festive period. I had already been to Thailand and really enjoyed the experience: the people were so welcoming.

Q. What were your first thoughts?

A. At Krabi airport, while waiting for our luggage, we gazed up at amazing pictures of beach front hotels by an azure-blue sea. I leaned over to my mother and apologised; I had booked a hotel half-way up the hillside for the view. I assured her I would try to get us moved immediately after the festive period to a beach-front location.

Little did I realise that my decision was going to save my life.

Q. Was there any feeling of foreboding for you? Or did you simply feel delighted to be in a hot, exotic paradise for Christmas?

A. I was just happy to be on holiday. We arrived at the hotel late on Christmas Eve with the hotel party in full-swing, the band were playing Rod Stewart’s ‘If You think I’m Sexy’, the waiters were dancing around the tables and the buffet was just incredible. On Christmas Day I remember lying on a sun bed by the hotel pool with jet-lag, eating Christmas cake we had brought with us from Chatsworth Farm shop. The cake had been in my hand luggage and had caused much consternation at Manchester airport. We found out it had the same density as semtex.

Q. What was the first sign you noticed that something was wrong?

A. Mum was at the hotel, and I had gone for a walk. At 9.27am on 26th December 2004, from out of nowhere came a crescendo of noise from animals and insects. Elephants were trumpeting and the birds took off from trees and flew round in circles.

Then there was a noise, which sounded like a jet engine when it takes off. The rest is history.

Q. What were your first thoughts?

A. Utter disbelief and no understanding of what had happened.

Q. Can you describe what you saw and experienced that day? Or is it still too traumatic?

A. I have sat for an hour trying to write something here, and I cannot. I find it really difficult to discuss. It still traumatises me. To this day, mum and I have never spoken to each other about the incident, I guess this is how we both cope.

But I got back to the hotel, found than mum was safe and we waited for help to come. Over the following days the power supply came on and off. Sky TV was my link to home and reality. Without it I would have lost hope very quickly. My mobile phone worked and I constantly rang the emergency number given at the British Embassy in Bangkok. The phone would ring out for hours without being answered and then we would be cut off. After five days of no one answering the phone, I realised there was no help coming.

One of the overriding memories of the aftermath of the impact of the Tsunami at Pang Na in Krabi were the long lists of missing people outside the police stations. I remember seeing one of the local fishing boats marooned on a path. It was fit for nothing but fire wood, and yet the owners were lovingly trying to piece the fragments together so they could earn a living.

The Thai people had so little and yet their priority was to look after us. They were amazing.

Q. What happened when you came home?

A. We finally got home on the 6th January: there was the most incredible feeling of relief when the wheels of the plane landed at Manchester airport.

Within hours of my return I found out I had been put on the ‘missing list’ held by UK police and had to prove to them that I was alive.

I was still in shock, so my doctor told me to contact Cruse, the charity for bereavement. They were so calm, so understanding. It put everything into context. I will always be eternally thankful to her and the charity for their assistance. My other saviour was my reflexologist Heather Hull; I had been going to Heather for years and over the next year her healing hands got my body and mind slowly back in order.

But it is nine years since the disaster and there are still times when I find myself being taken back to that fateful day. Switching on the TV to see the tidal wave after the earthquake off the Japanese coast and the typhoon in the Philippines brought unpleasant memories back.

Q. How did the experience change you?

A. Immensely. Over the following year, realising I was very lucky to be alive, sub-consciously I started challenging every facet of my life. At first it was small things, like clearing out cupboards. Then I started to look at my relationships and then what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

It took four years for my confidence to come back, and then I started challenging myself, to see how good I was. In late 2009 I decided to leave a secure job as a shareholding director of a financial planning business and set up my own practice, -in the middle of the recession, immediately after the banking crisis. But I believed in my own abilities, and that there is never a good or and time to start a business. I started trading in February 2010 and have never looked back.

I have realised that day was the worst and the best day of my life. It changed my vision of my life and was the making of me.

Now life has a purpose, I have accumulated a fantastic team of people and we at Future Life Wealth Management have won many awards over the last couple of years. I was very proud to be elected to be only the second female president of the Sheffield Chamber of Commerce in 150 years in 2015.

Q. On Boxing Day, do you remember?

A. Wherever I am at 9.27am on Boxing Day morning, I always think of what happened and have thanks for the Thai people who were nothing but magnificent. And I remember the journey I have been on since the tsunami, I am alive and I am going to make the most of my life.

I take Mum away with me for Christmas each year now: the locations change each year, but if we are going to stay in a hotel, its location is always up a hillside and never on the beach-front.