It was the heartbreaking moment she had wished would never come.
But as Nicola Massey stood in the sterile corridors of Bangkok International Hospital, the newly-wed’s week-long search for her little sister had come to an end.
With a distinctive silver ring circling one thumb and a simple shell necklace on her chest, Nicola knew without doubt the body was Lisa May’s.
Her 25-year-old sister had become one of the 230,000 victims of the Boxing Day tsunami after travelling to Thailand to be bridesmaid at Nicola’s wedding.
Now, as her 10th wedding anniversary approaches, so does that of her sister’s death, and heartbroken Nicola has spoken for the first time about her tragic loss.
The 41-year-old mum of two says: “I suppose it’s natural and human to think ‘what if?’
“What if I hadn’t got married in Thailand? What if she hadn’t come? What if she’d left when we did? Maybe she would still be alive.
“I still miss her every day and that will never change, but I still feel her around me. She had the most fantastic smile and you could hear her laugh from a mile off. She was just great.
“I still have her phone number in my mobile and I call it now and again, just to see if anyone answers. Of course, no one has. Then I remember that day when I identified her body and deep down I know she has gone.”
Exchanging vows with her groom on an idyllic beach on Phi Phi island in Thailand on December 11, 2004, nutritionist Nicola had thought it was the start of the happiest time in her life. At her side, her little sister Lisa held back tears as she and Stephen, now 40, became husband and wife. Yet the storm brewing overhead as they exchanged rings was a forewarning of the tragedy that no one could have imagined.
Nicola recalls: “I remember when Stephen proposed to me, the first thing I did was call Lisa.
“She was seven years younger than me – I have four siblings – but we had always been close and I wanted her to know. The first thing I said was ‘you’ll have to be my bridesmaid’. She was clearly delighted.
“It was hilarious shopping for an elegant bridesmaid dress and shoes with her because she was a rock chick at heart. She went to Glastonbury every year and was never out of her biker boots.
“But she had always had a thing about the colour purple since she was a little girl, so we bought her a purple dress, and she looked so beautiful in it. Stephen is from New Zealand and I’m from Cheltenham in England and so we decided to have the wedding halfway between the two and chose Thailand.” They booked a beautiful beach location on Phi Phi Island and 19 of their friends and family flew out to be a part of their special day.
But from the morning of the ceremony, there were bad omens. “We were getting ready in the morning and the general manager of the hotel kept coming to tell us that the service time had to be put back,” she says.
“The registrar was coming from another island and the weather was so bad he couldn’t travel.
“A storm was brewing and as the day went on, black clouds gathered overhead and we had to use the wedding marquee on the beach so we didn’t all get soaked.
“It was a wonderful day, though. We all just had a laugh about it – especially Lisa. She was always the one having a good time.”
A day after the wedding, while Nicola and Stephen jetted off to New Zealand for their honeymoon and their father John May returned to England, Lisa, who was a chef at That Mexican Place in Cheltenham, stayed in Thailand with a family friend.
Nicola remembers the last time she set eyes on her little sister. “The storm had cleared soon after the wedding and Lisa came down to the pier to see us off on a boat to the mainland to get our plane.
“She had taken some time off work for the wedding and was planning to go travelling through Australia after a few more days on Phi Phi island.
“We had planned to meet up again in LA after her travels because we were planning to visit the US after our honeymoon, but I wanted her to have something of mine with her. She was very close to me and I used to share a lot of things with her. I was wearing a square silver ring, which she had always loved and always wanted to borrow. I took it off and gave it to her, but she wouldn’t take it. She was really insistent and said ‘give it to me in LA’. So I said ‘see you in LA’ and that was it.
“I was sure of meeting her in LA.”
A week later, Nicola received a text message from Lisa that she had broken her teeth when she fell down while out partying with friends.
She had to delay her departure to Sydney until after Christmas when she could get to see a dentist.
But on Boxing Day the unthinkable happened.
“It was mid morning in New Zealand, where we were staying at Stephen’s house, when news of the tsunami began flashing on TV. I didn’t see it at first but Stephen’s mum told me and I came and looked.
“Immediately I thought of Lisa. Panic hit as I called and called her mobile, but there was no reply. Extremely worried, I called my dad in England and told him to get up and switch on the TV.
“In that instant I had an overwhelming urge to find her.”
Nicola decided to rush to Thailand. Just 19 hours after the fatal wave hit, while most people were trying to flee the country, she and Stephen flew back to Bangkok. Their father, meanwhile, flew in from England to join the search for Lisa.
“Nothing could have prepared us for what was going on. The country was in chaos and there were no answers from anyone because the real extent of deaths and destruction was still not clear. I felt so helpless, but I knew we had to do something, and from somewhere came the strength to make missing-person flyers with her picture and my number urging people to contact me in case anyone had seen her. Stephen and I then trudged around hotels and beaches, searching and searching.
“Hundreds of dead bodies were piling up in hospitals and morgues, with no one to identify them. Survivors were being airlifted to Phuket and Bangkok, so we started a hospital search. I stayed in the capital while Stephen and my dad went to Phuket, where he had last received the message from her.
“Going from ward to ward, they asked officials to tell them who they had brought in, and to see the list of survivors. Every day they would give them a list of descriptions and each time I prayed one of the survivors would be Lisa, but they never were.”
Lists of the dead were posted on the walls of hotel resorts which had been transformed into temporary morgues. After almost a week of searching, Stephen made a shocking discovery. On a list of dead people that had been pasted in the reception of a resort was the description of a Caucasian woman that seemed to match Lisa.
“It was devastating, but also very surreal. The list was of the victims who had been found dead on Phi Phi and taken to Krabi on a boat with hundreds of other bodies.
“It said ‘Caucasian female, large breasted, Marks and Spencer bra – purple. The moment Stephen called to tell me, I knew instantly it was Lisa. As he read the description I felt a mixture of disbelief, shock and relief. We had an ongoing joke that all her underwear was from M&S because her boyfriend used to work there. And purple was her favourite colour.
“Now we’d found her, but she was gone.”
From a photograph emailed to her in the Bangkok hospital office, Nicola had to confirm that the body was Lisa’s. “So much time had passed and she had been under water, so it was difficult to identify her. I had to do it from the jewellery she was wearing.
“The sight of her skin was shocking, but I could clearly see that chunky silver thumb ring. She loved it and I knew it was her.
“I didn’t cry straight away, I was just numb.” She then had the heartbreaking journey to meet her husband and father and take Lisa’s body home. At the Bangkok International Hospital, the moment Nicola saw the ring and the shell necklace on Lisa, she knew without doubt the body was her little sister’s.
“It was a few days later, when we finally managed to get a government plane back to the UK, that grief suddenly gripped me.
“I felt this knot in my stomach and it was unbearable. It was all I could do not to sob out loud and Stephen put his hand on my leg but I couldn’t even let him touch me because I knew I would break down.”
Nicola and her family later found out through some of the survivors in the hotel where Lisa had stayed that Lisa had a lovely Christmas night with friends. They’d laughed and joked and shared special gifts. They remained on the beach until the early hours, before a few of them returned to their rooms. Lisa remained on the beach with a few friends when the tsunami hit around 10.30am.
Back home two weeks later, over 500 people came to the funeral in Cheltenham before Lisa was cremated.
Nicola was there to the end, giving her little sister the send-off she deserved. “I tied purple ribbons on to the orders of service and we played Run by Snow Patrol, one of her favourite songs.
“People were overflowing on to the streets and it was really special.”
But after the funeral was over, Nicola and her family needed a way to channel their sadness and the tragedy that had gripped the family. And so the Lisa May Foundation was born. “We had so many well-wishers and people wanting to make donations in Lisa’s name, and my amazing dad and mum Juliette had the idea that we should put it all to good use. We set up the foundation with the idea of helping people in Thailand rebuild their lives.
“Within the first few months we raised over £70,000 (about Dh404,000) in donations, which went towards building long-tail boats for the fisherman on Phi Phi so they could get back out working.
“We bought school uniforms to get children back to school, and helped people rebuild a sense of normality and life.” The Foundation has since helped victims of natural disasters all over the world.
“A year later, I returned to Thailand with Stephen not knowing really what to expect. It was an extremely positive experience and even though Phi Phi hasn’t moved on as much as I thought it would, I felt a certain sense of peace after visiting the place.”
Back home this Christmas as she celebrates 10 years married to Stephen, she will also remember Lisa.
“Lisa would never have wanted anyone to mope about but she would love that we remember her how we do. On Boxing Day we’ll share our favourite stories with our friends about her. There will have to be roast beef and lots of chocolate cake – her favourites. That’s not a bad way to be remembered, I think.”