How one man’s devastating tsunami loss turned into a new vocation

“It was like someone snatched me out of my old life. We’d saved for so long for this trip, we’d been having the time of our lives, and then to come back without her was horrendous.”

Boxing Day tsunami and chief executive of the International Disaster Volunteers, Andy Chaggar, while working in Haiti. Mr Chaggar lost his girlfriend Nova Mills and friend Benjamin Watts, both of Holme-on-Spalding Moor, East Yorkshire, in the tsunami.

Andy Chaggar spent seven weeks in intensive care in the UK after being flown out of Bangkok after the tsunami. But the physical injuries he suffered were nothing compared to the devastating loss he felt.

Mr Chaggar was on a dream trip with his girlfriend Nova Mills on Boxing Day 2004.

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The couple had already travelled to Hong Kong, China, Vietnam, and Cambodia before heading to Thailand where they met up with Miss Mills’ childhood best friend Ben Watts and his partner in Khao Lak, an idyllic coastal resort, for Christmas.

Andy Chaggar and Nova Mills at Goole Station when leaving for Hong Kong in 2004. Miss Mills was killed in the Boxing Day tsunami.

Both Miss Mills, 28, and Mr Watts, 29, of Holme-on-Spalding Moor, East Yorkshire, died when the tsunami engulfed the resort.

The friends had been up late on the evening of Christmas Day, and were in their bungalows when the wave hit.

“Nova was already awake, she was asking what the noise was,” Mr Chaggar, 37, said. “Then there was this noise, like a jet engine, getting louder and louder and the bungalow was shaking. We couldn’t see anything coming.”

The next wave hit the bungalows and took them down “like dominoes.”

Mr Chaggar woke up in the water “in a soup of debris” . He was swept onto a building site, where his leg became trapped in a concrete pillar - something he believes saved his life. After four hours, he was rescued by some tourists, who took him to a first aid station.

“Initially, even though I didn’t know what happened I was pretty convinced Nova hadn’t made it. I knew how lucky I was to have got out myself,” he said. “It was like a warzone.”

After a long recuperation, Mr Chaggar felt compelled to return to Thailand to help with the clear up. It was there he realised he could never go back to his old life as an electrical engineer in Munich, where he’d lived with Mr Watts and Miss Mills, an English teacher.

He returned to university studying International Development and went to Peru in 2007 to help the earthquake relief effort. He went on to found International Disaster Volunteers, a charity which looks at long term recovery after disaster. Since its inception, it has raised £500,000 and worked in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, and in Tacloban in the Philippines, following Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013.

Today, he is in Thailand where he will remember all he lost on Boxing Day 2004, but also meet up with friends he made while doing his part to rebuild Thailand.

“It was the worst thing I’ve ever gone through and probably ever will,” Mr Chaggar said. “I am very lucky to live in a country where I have had the opportunity to do what I do. It reminds me that despite what happened I am very fortunate.”