The loss of Belinda and Andrew Welch in Khao Lak became painfully apparent. Photo / Martin Sykes
The loss of Belinda and Andrew Welch in Khao Lak became painfully apparent. Photo / Martin Sykes

Silence... then the grim realisation

IT was the first time in 40 years Andrew Welch had not been home for Christmas, his brother Jeremy recalls.

As usual, that 2004 celebration saw a big family get-together in the Waikato countryside. Photographs were taken to be sent to Andrew, 42, and wife Belinda, 26.

"They'd been in touch to say it was funny not being here," says Jeremy Welch, 60.

The couple, instead, were rounding out a trip around Asia with Christmas in a beachfront bungalow at Khao Lak, north of Phuket in Thailand.

The stretch of coast was the worst hit in the Boxing Day tsunami in which more than 4000 people died.

It wasn't until late on Boxing Day that the phone rang at Jeremy Welch's home. Belinda's father John Croft was calling from Christchurch: "I suppose you know why I'm calling?"

Jeremy Welch didn't have the slightest idea - none of them did. They had retreated from the world the way families do in the festive season and news of the tsunami had not filtered through.

"I'm a bit worried about them," said Mr Croft.

Don't be, thought the Welch family, blessed by its distance from untimely death. Jeremy Welch explains, years on, that the last premature death in the family was in 1917.

Silence dented their conviction as nothing was heard from the couple. "After a day, you say it's because the phone lines must have jammed. As a few days went by, you thought they must have found a phone line by now."

Jeremy Welch explains how death either arrives slowly - as in a creeping cancer - or too quickly, with a knock on the door.

A decade ago, it was neither. "Rather than an announcement, it was a dawning realisation."

The Welch family realised quickly, says Jeremy, the couple were lost. It was a case of "no news is bad news". The family's strong Christian faith allowed them to understand they had gone.

So, it happened that understanding, if not acceptance, had arrived by the time the missing couple's bodies were found in late March.

As time passed, the nation's loss came into focus. While it was initially thought dozens or even hundreds of Kiwis had died, the predicted death toll tumbled.

In the end, only a handful were lost and, of those, only Andrew and Belinda Welch were Kiwis currently living in New Zealand.

This obvious isolation was as stark as their youth in wedding pictures, which saw them in New Zealand media as the domestic face of the disaster.

The widely distributed wedding pictures had some saying the couple were on their honeymoon, when they had been married a few years already.

There was a sequel which never played out. Jeremy's parents - Terry and Pauline Welch - would work with a charity in Samoa and finish the volunteering trip with a few weeks at the Coconut Resort.

In 2009, they skipped the trip and were absent when the resort was wiped out in its own tsunami.

"Had they been there, as they routinely were, they would have been the most likely to be killed because they were the oldest."

There's been talk recently in the family of the decade passing. In the years since, some have made the journey to visit Khao Lak.

"Over recent months, we've been looking at each other saying '10 years'," as if to wonder how time had passed so quickly.

- NZ Herald