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Cash legacy of Tsunami victim
Published 29/12/14

£250,000 raised in decade since tragedy

A WOMAN whose sister was killed in the tsunami in the Indian Ocean exactly 10 years ago says she can never forget her.

Lisa May died in the disaster on Boxing Day 2004 while on holiday in Thailand where she had attended the wedding of her sister Nicola Massey two weeks before.

Her death inspired Mrs Massey and their father John May to set up the Lisa May Foundation in her memory. In almost 10 years, the charity has raised almost £250,000 for good causes, including disaster relief in Thailand.

Mrs Massey, of Gravel Road, Binfield Heath, and her husband, Stephen, an engineer from New Zealand, were married on the island of Phi Phi, off the south-west coast of Thailand on December 11. Miss May, a 25-year-old chef, was one of 19 close friends and relatives from both families who attended the ceremony.

Afterwards, the newlyweds flew to New Zealand to spend Christmas with Mr Massey’s family while Miss May, who had recently ended a relationship and was spending a year travelling around the world, was staying on in Thailand before heading to Australia.

The Masseys intended to travel to America in January and spend their honeymoon in Los Angeles but their plans were cut short after a massive earthquake occurred beneath the Indian Ocean on December 26 that triggered the tsunami.

The earthquake measured up to 9.3 on the moment magnitude scale, making it the third most powerful ever recorded.

Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and other nations hundreds of miles away were bombarded by tidal waves up to 100ft high.

More than 230,000 people in 14 countries were killed and almost two million were made homeless.

The couple flew back to Thailand in the hope of finding Miss May alive and were joined by Mr May, a Surrey Heath borough councillor.

Mrs Massey recalled: “I remember it was very stormy on our wedding day and they kept putting back the time because the registrar was stuck on another island.

“We had to get married under a wooden shelter because the weather meant the spot we’d chosen on the beach was completely impractical.

“It was a brilliant day though. We had a great time, then we hung out together for a few more days before we all went our separate ways.

“Dad, Steve and I got a speedboat back to the mainland. We waved goodbye to Lisa on the pier at the hotel and that was the last time we saw her.

“New Zealand is the first country to see the sun so we were ahead of the game when the news broke. When I saw it unfolding on the television that morning I knew it couldn’t be good for Lisa.

“We called some friends she was doing a diving course with but they’d heard nothing from her so I made the decision there and then that we were going back.”

Mrs Massey stayed in Bangkok, where victims were being taken to hospital, and scoured the wards in the hope of finding her sister. Her husband and Mr May travelled to Phuket, another place where survivors were being treated.

They found two men with whom Lisa had spent Christmas Day, who said she had relaxed on the beach before returning to her lodgings.

They said that when the wave hit their bedrooms filled with water but they escaped by diving down and swimming through their open windows. This gave the family hope that Lisa had also survived.

However, on New Year’s Eve, Mr May and Mr Massey identified Lisa’s body at one of many makeshift mortuaries that aid workers had set up.

Her cause of death was drowning and she had suffered a blow to the head. She was one of 56 Britons who perished and one of the last to be identified.

Mrs Massey said: “Those few days of not knowing what had become of her were utterly dreadful. You truly are in limbo — you just can’t know the meaning of the word until you’ve experienced it for yourself.

“In a strange way, it was a relief to hear the news. It brought us closure and meant we could bring the body back for a funeral whereas some people didn’t know what had become of their loved ones until May.

“We don’t know exactly what happened but Lisa could sleep for England so we just hope she wouldn’t have been particularly aware.”

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office arranged for the family to return home.

Miss May’s funeral was held in Cheltenham, where the family grew up and where she was living at the time, about a fortnight later.

In the following weeks, the family began receiving donations from friends and Mr May’s business contacts.

They felt it would be best spent on villages affected by the disaster so put it towards relief efforts in Phi Phi.

The money paid for 56 long-tail fishing boats to replace the vessels that were destroyed by the tsunami. These were named after Miss May and other people who had died at the suggestion of islanders.

The money also paid for new uniforms for schoolchildren along the west coast, where the devastation was most severe.

Mrs Massey said: “We had such an influx of cash — people were giving it to us from all corners and we wanted to channel it into something positive.

“Dad has always been a naturally charitable person so it was always a given that we would help. We had seen the devastation the tsunami had wrought when we were searching for Lisa and we knew we had to do something.

“It’s hard to explain just how catastrophic it was unless you saw the aftermath for yourself. The resort on Phi Phi had lots of little shacks and houses all along the beach and when that wave hit it just wiped out everything.

“We knew we couldn’t do anything more for Lisa but there were things we could do for the people left behind. We phoned the general manager of the resort where we’d got married and had several discussions with him about how we could help.

“In the end we decided to get the boats first because they had been people’s livelihood and they needed them to get back on their feet.”

By the end of March 2005, with donations still pouring in, the family registered the Lisa May Foundation as a charity.

It began selling “tsunami dolls”, which are small cloth figures made by people in the communities that were hit. Many of the affected countries received far more donations of clothes than they needed so this was a way of recycling them and giving survivors an income.

Mrs Massey and her father returned to Phi Phi on the first anniversary of the tsunami to see how their efforts had helped.

She said: “I was a bit concerned about how I would feel but it was actually very uplifting to see the results. It was humbling to see how much it had changed. The beaches had all been cleared and it was great to see that life was carrying on and returning to normal.

“They had made a memorial garden to Lisa and that is still there to this day. The boats we bought are also still being used and people send us photos when they travel out there and spot them.”

Between 2005 and 2009, the foundation received more than £80,000 after appointing a fund-raising manager.

This paid for two physiotherapists to help injured survivors in Thailand and for water purification systems in refugee camps.

In 2010 it began giving money to a children’s home in Rio de Janeiro that looks after youngsters from the city’s slums, ensuring they go to school and are not tempted into a life of crime.

The foundation also donated money to relief agencies and missionaries following the earthquakes in Haiti in 2010 and Burma in 2011 as well as Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines last year.

Now it also raises money for British charities including Action For Carers, the Prostate Project, Care UK and disability charity Parity.

It has also paid for two British children from deprived backgrounds to attend university.

Next year Mrs Massey will travel to Thailand to launch another tsunami doll project.

She said: “I think Lisa would be very proud of my dad and all the good work the foundation has done but at the same time there’d be part of her saying, ‘come on, guys, get on with your lives’.

“She was amazing — she had a real energy about her. It’s a real cliché to say it but everyone genuinely loved her and she was a wonderful person to be around.

“Everyone who knew her still misses her very much and people always send messages on her birthday to say they’re thinking of her. She just had such an impact on them.

“I can’t believe I’ve been married for 10 years and, of course, that it’s been 10 years since she died. It’s amazing how quickly things move on and how life can just change in the blink of an eye.”

Mrs Massey, who moved to Binfield Heath in 2004 and has two sons, Ethan, five, and eight-month-old Will, is celebrating her wedding anniversary in the Canary Islands — the first time she and Stephen have travelled overseas for Christmas since the disaster.

She said: “My memories of my wedding and what happened afterwards are totally separate. I think you have to be able to compartmentalise it or you’d just send yourself round the bend.

“If Lisa could see me now as a mum I know we’d both have a laugh about it. She would have been the most amazing auntie and I’m sure she’s looking down on us now.

“I’ll never forget her saying that when we were old ladies with wrinkly faces and blue rinses we’d sit on the bus together being mean to children.

“Sadly, that wasn’t meant to be but I always think if you live a full life with good intentions, it doesn’t matter whether it’s 20, 50 or 80 years. You can live a long time and never achieve anything or live a full 25 years and gain everything.”

For information about the charity or to donate, visit www.lisamayfoundation.org

Published 29/12/14

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