One of the final photos taken by John and Jackie Knill

As if their last words were cut off mid-sentence

The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake (aka Sumatra-Andaman earthquake) on December 26 is the third-largest earthquake ever recorded and holds the record for the longest duration of faulting ever observed. The massive event triggered a series of devastating tsunamis along the Indian Ocean coast that generated waves up to 100 feet high which pounded the shores resulting in the deaths of approximately 230,000 people. Among those who died were John and Jackie Knill. When their digital camera was discovered among the rubble on a deserted beach in Thailand, the world was left with the pictorial last words of the couple – a visual record of their last moments on earth presented in a harrowing sequence of photos that seem to end in mid-sentence.

The Knill’s digital camera discovered on the beach

Following the disater, Christian Pilet and a friend, who as part of the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism had travelled to the area in order to assess the relief effort, were digging through rubble on the beach when they found a bashed and battered digital camera.

“We saw suitcases that were never claimed. Shoes. Thousands and thousands of shoes. Passports… My friend spotted the camera. One more piece of junk. It was smashed up pretty bad.”

The camera was practically destroyed but the memory stick looked undamaged. The two removed the stick and took it back to their hotel room where they plugged it into their computer and discovered haunting images of an unknown couple.

“It was as if you were hearing somebody speak their last words and then suddenly they are cut off in mid-sentence. We were stunned — just out of the blue, an echo from the grave. What we saw in these pictures were the last five minutes of these people’s lives.”

Pilets’ search for the camera’s owners

Map showing the location of Khao Lak in ThailandWhen Pilet returned to his home in Seattle, Washington, his wife compared photos found on the camera’s memory stick to pictures of missing tsunami victims. She found the couple on her first attempt. They were John and Jackie Knill of North Vancouver.

Immediately after the devastating tsunami struck, friends of the Knills’ (who were already in the area) spent days on the island searching morgues and hospitals for their missing friends. Two other family members from British Columbia flew to Thailand to join them in the search. All they found were the couple’s passports, washed up together on the beach where they had been staying. The Knills’ bodies were not found until several days after the tsunami – John Knill’s body was found on Dec. 31 and his wife’s on Jan. 13 — on the same beach but apart from one another.

On Feb. 11, Pilet drove to Vancouver to deliver the memory card of photos to the Knills’ children. Understandably, the Knills’ surviving family found comfort in the moving images they had left behind. John Knill’s sister told the Today Show:


“It was comforting to know how they spent their last moments. It gave me a sense of calm because I knew that they weren’t running in terror.”

John and Jackie’s 28-year-old son concurred:

“This is more than we could ever have asked for. It’s like being there with our parents and seeing what they were seeing in those final moments.”

The Knill Indian Ocean Tsunami photographs

The first photos on the digital card showed John and Jackie enjoying a Christmas dinner at the Khao Lak Resort. The next day, the couple can be seen hugging, smiling, and enjoying a brilliant sunny day on the beach. Then things turn ominous.

In the sequence of photos below, people stroll on the beach oblivious to the massive wave that is forming in the water behind them. Then curious onlookers wander onto the suddenly exposed tidal flats. Later, a large wave can be seen breaking in the distance. As the waves grow larger, beachgoers begin to stop and take notice. Finally, the last photo shows a wall of water churning up sand and mud as it rushes towards the couple.  Below is a turn-by-turn narrative of the events the Knills captured before their death.

Photo 1: beachgoers oblivious to oncoming tsunami

Swimmers are in the water as the tsunami first becomes noticeable.  Most are not aware of the massive wave rushing toward them but a few have begun to look in its direction.  All seem curious as to why the water had receded from Khao Lak beach.



Photo 2: Knill notices the unusual wave building in the distance

The Knills’ appear to have noticed the unusual wave on the horizon and have turned their camera in its direction.  Two ships in the water begin maneuvering closer together, turning their bows toward the oncoming wave.


Photo 3: The tsunami wave continues to grow

People on the beach and in the water have now noticed the oncoming wave and begin looking in its direction.  Some seem to be turning, readying to exit the water.


Photo 4: Some beachgoers still oblivious to the rushing tsunami wave

At 8:26 AM, some tourists continue to stroll along the beach ignoring the ominous dark line rolling toward them.  However, all swimmers have exited the water.


Photo 5: The tsunami wave approaches the two ships

The 100-foot-wave approaches the two ships which have now moved close together and turned to face the wave.


Photo 6: The tsunami wave begins to roll

Moments later, the ships are no longer visible as the massive wave hits the beach, building in power.


Photo 7: The tsunami wave approaches the shore churning up sand and mud

As the tsunami nears the shore, its waves grow to enormous heights while churning up sand and mud.


Photo 8: As the tsunami wave reaches the shore, beachgoers begin to run

The mass of water looms behind a person on the beach, dwarfing him as he begins to run across the sand seeking safety.  The camera time shows 8:30.


Photo 9: John and Jackie’s last photo as the tsunami wave reaches the shore

This photo is the final image recovered from the Knills’ digital camera moments before the massive tsunami overtakes them.


Sources: NBC News, Today Show, Seattle Times,, photos courtesy of Knill family

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