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Tsunami: The Missing In Phuket


Tsunami: The Missing In Phuket

By Richard S. Ehrlich

PHUKET, Thailand -- Similar to the bleak aftermath of September 11 in New York, a slew of private photographs, international names, personal details and agonized pleas for help appear on walls, amid hopes of finding people missing or dead from the tsunamis.

"Nicole Weissberg, from Colorado, USA, age 27," reads a caption alongside three photographs of a dark-haired woman with a big, red lipsticked grin who is sitting on a man's lap in what looks like a restaurant or bar.

"Staying in Khao Lak on 25th night in unknown location, last email at 8 p.m., 25th Dec.," Ms. Weissberg's sketchy details say.

Khao Lak's beaches, in Phang Nga province about 40 miles north of Phuket island, were obliterated by tsunamis on Dec. 26 when underwater earthquake-generated waves wreaked death and destruction along Thailand's west coast.

At least 2,230 of the 4,500 bodies recovered along the coast were foreigners, including many at Khao Lak, Thai officials said.

An additional 6,000 foreigners were missing in Thailand, and many of them were presumed dead.

Sweden suffered the most with up to 3,500 missing, followed by about 1,000 Germans who disappeared. Italy, Norway, Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands also reported hundreds of people who vanished after the tsunamis hit, and other nations lost scores of citizens in the natural disaster.

At least seven Americans died, according to U.S. officials.

Overwhelmed and understaffed Thai and foreign teams spent much of New Year's Day wrapping cloth or plastic around whatever corpses they could find, covering them in dry ice in the shade, and examining DNA to identify the bloated, mangled, decaying bodies.

Phuket City Hall is now a priority emergency center for survivors who need help getting home, and people seeking information about victims who died or vanished.

Photographs of the missing and dead are scotch-taped onto City Hall's outer walls and notice boards.

"She has a tongue-piercing," says a description of a 17-year-old Dutch girl.

The photocopied sheets are similar to the thousands of "missing" notices which appeared on the streets of Manhattan, and on the white-tiled walls of the subway's underground terminals, after al Qaeda Islamists crashed two hijacked planes into the World Trade Center, killing about 2,750 people in 2001.

"Missing: Jennifer Gaye Solomon. Last seen: Khao Lak, Sofitel Resort. Wearing: Striped multi-color bikini with black strings, flowery navy blue reversible shorts -- beige on the inside -- and sunglasses. Jewelry: Yellow gold wedding band with four small diamond and yellow gold asymmetrical engagement ring with single diamond -- no claws."

Ms. Solomon, 46 and British, also had "Distinguishing marks: Caesarian and appendix scars and mole on right foot," her notice says.

Diplomats, volunteers, officials, relatives, friends and others spent New Year's Day studying the photos and details.

The most depressing pictures display missing children.

"Please help us find little Ragnar," begs one, describing two-and-a-half-year-old Ragnar Bang Ericsson, last seen in Khao Lak.

"Ragnar understands both Norwegian and Swedish. He's bright blond, has blue eyes, [and] a small pink triangle birthmark on his lower left back."

Ragnar's parents are "both confirmed to be alive."

Another sign points to "this 10-year-old German boy, missed since the spring tide on Sunday 26.12.04...Who can give information?"

A single sentence, in broken English, reveals the continuing pain: "The mother was saved from drowning, but the child is missed."

Nearby, a large photo of a baby is captioned: "Please if you find live or the body, contact us."

A rare burst of cheer appears with a boy's photo which has the word "found" written in big letters, highlighted with a Day-Glo pink marker.

A one million baht (25,000 U.S. dollar) reward is being offered to anyone who can find Louise Hallin, 11, from Sweden who has long blond hair, green eyes, "a long scar on her under leg and a birthmark on her stomach."

She "disappeared from her family in Khao Lak".

Elsewhere, two French passports' identification pages are simply photocopied and pasted on the wall, with contact numbers.

Embassies, Thai officials and others also posted phone numbers and Web sites for seekers.

A sign headlined, "Centers for collection of DNA of relatives of the deceased caused by tidal waves," lists names of local hospitals.

Thai telephone companies offer free international calls.

Alyson Spery, 20, a student from Salisbury, Maryland, said she phoned her mother "for the first time, to advise her that I'm safe and sound. I've been emailing, but then I realized that being away from home, they would probably like to hear my voice."

Ms. Spery, a student, fortunately had been on a safe beach, but when she heard news about the tsunami, she rushed to Phuket and volunteered to help.

"I've just got off of a boat that was near Phi Phi [island], and I was with a bunch of Thais. We were cooking food for the army -- the military that's taken over Phi Phi and doing a lot of work there, bringing bodies out every day," Ms. Spery said in a recorded interview at City Hall on Saturday (Jan. 1).

"They brought us onto the island the first day, when it was completely inappropriate that we were there. It's really a dangerous place. No one is using protection. Nothing for their mouths, nothing for their hands. And meanwhile they're eating where dead bodies have been. And it's absolute chaos," she said.

"I came to Phuket to help, and that was an opportunity, though dangerous. I mean, this is the Andaman sea, which had once betrayed. I spent the past two nights on the boat, cooking food."

On the telephone, she tried to calm her mother.

"She flipped out knowing that I had been on a boat, and that I'm travelling alone at this point, because my friends wanted to go back to Bangkok and I wanted to come here," Ms. Spery said.

"Now she's concerned about what flight number I'm returning on, and that schedule."

Ms. Spery said she would fly home on Jan. 7 to attend Hobart and William Smith colleges in Geneva, New York, where she was majoring in public policy, in hope of going to law school and becoming a judge.

City Hall's walls also include dozens of gruesome photographs shot at morgues, displaying foreigners' faces bloated or splattered with blood.

Many photos of the dead were numbered, because no one knew who they were or where they came from.

Foreign and Thai staff are helping to locate missing people by suggesting seekers come to City Hall where they can contact embassies, get help maneuvering through Thai and international bureaucracy, receive free food, transport and translators, and talk to hospital personnel where the injured and dead were taken.

"Friends and relatives should not go to the [Buddhist] temples -- 'wats' -- unless there is already a match," an advisory warns, apparently because the large piles of corpses being brought to temples are not organized into a searchable database.

"They should not go to try and find a body themselves as this will be impossible and unnecessarily traumatizing. Bodies from the disaster are no longer recognizable.

"It may also hamper the efforts of the forensic teams," the printed advisory adds.

If all the gore and heartbreak at City Hall becomes too much, psychological help is nearby, according to signs and announcements over loudspeakers.

"Free counseling services available under the Coca Cola tent. For anyone. Volunteers included."

*****

Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 26 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is http://www.geocities.com/glossograph/

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