Petrified in paradise

When Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines two weeks ago, Rob and Paul Forkan were in Sri Lanka. Even 3,000 miles from the storm, the horrifically destructive potential of natural forces was almost too much to bear.

Nobody really expected Haiyan to come anywhere near Sri Lanka. But for the Forkan brothers, the danger felt all too real.

“We started to get paranoid that something could happen again,” says Rob, 26. “We were up all night watching out of the window of our seafront hotel in Colombo to make sure that, if it did, we were ready. It was almost impossible not to think about it.”

It was their first trip to Sri Lanka since losing their parents — and nearly their own lives — nine years earlier in the Boxing Day tsunami.

At one point Paul, 24, came into Rob’s room and told him he couldn’t take it much more.

“Just say the word and I’ll book flights back,” Rob replied.

The 2004 tsunami is thought to have killed about 230,000 people in 14 countries. Each survivor’s memory is obviously unique. The Forkans’ story — both before and since the disaster — is unusual to an almost incomparable degree.

It encompasses an early childhood in Croydon, south London, and a peripatetic life in India with their parents before the disaster, and then leading survivors on an immense trek to safety before resuming a strangely hollowed-out family life in England and finding themselves again through a footwear company, Gandys flip-flops, that helps other orphans worldwide.

They have never told the full account publicly before.

Kevin Forkan first met Sandra, his future wife, when she came to work at his car dealership, but they launched many other businesses, too, including a fashion company reselling end-of-line clothing to students.

The couple had six children, who often missed school to help their parents: licking envelopes for mailshots, in the days before email marketing, or sticking labels on bottles of aloe vera sun lotion.

In the late 1990s, says Rob, “a random holiday to India changed our outlook and direction in life”.

He remembers: “Our parents asked us if we’d like to have a real change of scenery. To start travelling the world with no fixed abode. We were all ecstatic to be going on this wild adventure.”

The four younger children — Rob, Paul, their little brother Matty and sister Rosie — were wild at the idea. The two older girls, Marie and Joanne, were less keen. They had jobs, and boyfriends, in London.

Leaving Marie and Joanne behind, the others set off for India and stayed for four years.

Rob recalls: “Our parents wanted to show us things you couldn’t learn in a classroom, and that they did. They always used to tell us there were lots of children less fortunate than us, and we should appreciate life and all that we have.”

They saw at first hand, while volunteering in slums and orphanages, children of similar ages to themselves who had been abused, abandoned or hit by natural disasters. They also had fun.

“Every day was different, whether it be cricket on a beach with local children, visiting a temple, visiting markets,” says Rob.

Paul learnt practical skills on their travels. “In Asia they are always out to heavily inflate the price for westerners. I learnt to do tough negotiation in the Indian markets. I’m really good at that.”

Although they were “lucky enough to be pulled out of the standard UK education system”, they didn’t go entirely without formal education.

Rob remembers: “We enjoyed four months of schooling in India, which was a completely new experience. It couldn’t haven’t been any more different from our school in Croydon. We would start each day with an assembly in which we would be singing the Indian national anthem, marching formations and doing yoga.”

Then they were back on the road again for more random adventures. Rob treasures memories of “finding a black panther washed up on the beach, and my dad killing a snake with a cricket bat”.

Their parents allowed them to teach themselves about the world, and to learn how to stand on their own feet. That attitude was to be a life-saver on Boxing Day 2004, and in the days immediately afterwards.

The family had crossed from India to Sri Lanka for the Christmas holiday. They stayed at a hotel in Weligama, a village famous for its surf beaches, 90 miles down the coast from Colombo.

On Boxing Day morning, the family were in bed when Rob, then 17, heard screams outside. Water trickled under the door.

He woke Paul, who was 15, told him to pick his stuff off the floor, and then the first wave came in — smashing everything. Water rose to the ceiling and the boys struggled to get out. They took refuge on the roof.

Kevin and Sandra had always told them the sea was incredibly powerful. As filthy water threw cars and other objects around, they saw it for themselves. But their parents, who had been sharing a room with Matty, 12, and Rosie, 8, were nowhere to be seen. Nor were the two children.

After a time, Rob saw Matty in a tree — pushed to safety there, he thinks, by their father before he was washed away.

Rob swam over and clung to his younger brother for half an hour until the waters receded. Everywhere was chaos and panic. People called for their loved ones, and at the slightest unexplained sound would scream and run off, fearing another wave.

Rosie, too, had survived in a tree and had been taken to safety. She was reunited with her brothers, but there was no sign of their parents.

The orphans scrabbled around in the debris for mementos of their former life. “I grabbed whatever I could,” Rob remembers. “I took my dad’s phone, knew it wouldn’t work, but I took out the Sim card and put it in another phone to save the numbers.

“We saw a crate of Coca-Cola bottles and took those. Found cloth to wrap around our feet, because there was loads of broken glass.”

Rob took Paul, Matty and Rosie up into the hills for safety before returning to the coast to continue the hunt for their parents. He and a local boy roamed the streets on bicycles, visiting hospitals and makeshift morgues where bodies lay in rows.

Circumstances forced Rob to be very grown-up. Telling the story, he now goes blank, stares into the middle distance.

“When we escaped we ended up finding some westerners, adults, and we directed them back inland where we’d been. They all followed us. Adults. Some of them were screaming and crying. Our approach is: you are not going to be able to do anything if you freak out, so you may as well be calm and try to deal with it.”

With no food, money or shoes, the Forkan orphans trekked the 90 miles to Colombo. It was “pretty tiring”, Paul says dryly.

“We had no food — well, we did get a bit, but it’s not like we had a picnic basket. We did what we could to get by.”

After sleeping on the roof of a house, they managed to secure a lift in the back of a truck, but “we could only have a lift if we helped to get fuel”. Drawing on their reserves of ingenuity, they found a hosepipe and syphoned some fuel from the tank of a JCB digger.

Also in the truck was a survivor with a broken leg. “Everyone was tired and fragile. Paul and I had to be strong.”

They reached Colombo three days after the tsunami had struck. When Rob called their eldest sister, Marie, in England, “she couldn’t believe we were alive”.

The British embassy took care of sending them home. “They washed our clothes but didn’t have shoes our size.”

From the moment they landed in Britain they were under court protection from the media, their story secret. They moved into Marie’s home in Fleet, Hampshire — which was guarded by the police — and, after their parents’ death was confirmed three months later, the 22-year-old formally adopted them.

It was a strange homecoming. “Nobody knew how to talk to us,” says Rob. “Bereavement conversations can be interesting.

It’s bad enough telling a kid that their rabbit has died. But this … ! And imagine doing it for a whole bunch of kids.”

His best friends never brought it up, said nothing at all. “Nothing. They were such good mates, we could just play football and go to the cinema and just chill out. At the time, that was nice, just to be able to come back and start a new chapter.”

At home the six children were quiet. “As you can imagine, it wasn’t a house full of spirit,” says Rob. “After about five months, I left. Too depressing. And since then it’s been work, work, work. If you sit around with nothing to do, you think about it. We keep ourselves busy.”

Paul trained as a plumber, couldn’t find an apprenticeship, and went travelling again as far as Australia. He talked to Rob regularly on Skype. Between them they were desperate to find a business idea that would reflect their unique education, and their interest in travelling.

One morning after a big night out, Rob woke with a mouth like Gandhi’s flip-flop, as the saying goes. This was to be their big idea: Gandys flip-flops. Note the chilled-out spelling.

“He would come up with a new idea every week, and so would I,” Paul recalls. “But he kept on with this one. Then he flew out [to Australia] for my 21st birthday as a surprise. He said, I’m going to do it, I’m going to get samples. And I thought, I can’t let him do it on his own.”

Rob returned to India to visit factories. “I said, ‘I want a flip-flop. I want it to be a bit different.’”

“We kept going back to the drawing board,” says Paul. “We’d go into shops and say, ‘What do you think about this?’ and then tweak it. And when it was 100% how they liked it, they started to stock it.”

From the beginning, the idea had been to use a part of the profit to help fellow orphans worldwide. So the product has always been intimately related to their personal loss, and this has led some people to tell them they have been successful because of the tsunami.

“It’s almost as if they think you have been given this great story,” says Rob. “And it’s like: No! Trust me, I’d rather not have it. Some people are jealous, and other people say it in a polite way. But they have no idea about all the rejection we’ve had.

“A lot of people told us at the beginning that we were crazy to sell flip-flops in Britain — forget it. But we thought, what have we got to lose? Now it looks incredible, but only because we’ve worked really hard to get it there.”

The brothers have been through much, which they say puts things in perspective. “We can face huge challenges and get over them,” says Rob. They are not scared, for instance, to meet powerful business figures.

But one thing that they still find challenging is telling their story. People ask about it all the time, and they hate it. “We don’t want to get too deep. What’s the point?” says Rob.

“It’s just not a good thing to talk about, not something I’d choose to do on a Saturday night. I’d rather talk about anything people want to hear, but to me it’s like someone saying, ‘How is your divorce going?’

“Talking about this, it’s like I’m a different character, a bit like I’m a teenager again. I don’t want to. I can’t be bothered.

“We have never really talked to each other about this. The media has been good to us, but I’m talking to you now and I can feel my guard going up. It’s just really uncomfortable. It makes us clam up.”

Having left Sri Lanka with no shoes on their feet in 2004, the brothers returned there as founders of what has become something of a cult brand of flip-flops.

They had not realised how much their emotions would be churned up by their return. “We’ve both been working really hard recently, so neither of us had thought too much about it, but as soon as we were there it suddenly hit us,” says Rob.

When the ferocity of Typhoon Haiyan revived the terror of the tsunami, they couldn’t cut the trip short, because they would have been letting down the many people who had encouraged and supported them over the past nine years.

The brothers had gone to Colombo with Peter Simon, the Sri Lankan-born founder of Monsoon and Accessorize, to meet some of the orphans they are helping. They also ran into David Cameron, who was in Sri Lanka for the Commonwealth leaders’ conference.

“We used to look at our parents in awe,” says Paul. “Now we think they would be looking at us — meeting the prime minister, and being stocked in Selfridges and getting fashion press and winning a global design award, and collaborating with Monsoon, which was my mum’s favourite shop.

“That’s surreal, for a 24-year-old from Croydon. I mean, all my mates still live at home.”

2266 words. First published 24 November 2013. © Times Newspapers Ltd.