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Tsunami: Interviews With A Dead Worker

Tsunami: Interviews With A Dead Worker

By Richard S. Ehrlich

PHUKET, Thailand -- A Canadian who helped carry and separate about 500 corpses into "Asian" and "foreign" piles at a Buddhist temple, said bodies were covered in dry ice until forensic teams could decide who could be cremated in Thailand or shipped overseas.

"I handled about 500 personally," Scott Murray, 44, from Toronto, Canada, said in a recorded interview on Monday (Jan. 3).

He helped unload corpses, already encased in body bags, from Thai army trucks after they had been discovered by search teams in Khao Lak, the worst-hit area of Phang Nga province about 40 miles north of Phuket, Mr. Murray said.

"When the bodies were recovered, they were put in body bags and brought to the wat," he said, referring to Wat Yarn Yao, a Buddhist temple which has been converted into a sprawling, makeshift morgue in Phang Nga province's Takua Pa district.

"The horrible thing about this is we could tell that they were male or female, but beyond that it was very hard to differentiate between whether they were Asian or foreign. You need forensic anthropologists to do that," said Mr. Murray, who volunteered to relieve a shortage of workers at the temple.

"The trucks would back in with the bodies, and then we'd jump up on the back of the trucks, and put down the truck's gate, and then physically take the body bags and put them on stretchers," he said.

"Forensic teams would try to see if they could identify them based on a list of missing people, and identification marks, that they had from families and friends," he said.

"A lot of the Thais did have some I.D. on them, because they had been working. So you could pull out a person's wallet, and there's the name. But the foreigners were sunbathing, so they didn't have I.D. on them," Mr. Murray said.

"Sometimes the body bags weren't sealed, so the body fluids were seeping out. Rigor mortis had set in and the bodies, most of them, were bloated," he said.

"Somebody said the wat [temple] that I was at had 4,500 [corpses], and another nearby wat had another 1,600. It was close to 6,000 at the two temples up at Takua Pa," he said.

More than 5,000 people were officially reported dead in Thailand, including about 2,500 foreigners and 2,500 Thais, but those tolls steadily climbed upward as more bodies were recovered, and the names of people who vanished were added to databases.

Handling so many corpses was laborious and ghastly work.

"You immediately took them off [the trucks], and put them in an area on dry ice. The medical teams were working on the identification of them, whether they were either 'Asian' or 'foreign'. Then they were further carried to another area, either the 'Asian' area or the 'foreign' area."

Bodies which appeared to be of foreigners were further scrutinized by foreign forensic teams to determine their names or at least their nationality.

Forensic teams checked corpses to see "what they were wearing -- jewelry, rings, tattoos, clothing, whatever."

Mr. Murray said most foreigners "were wearing swim gear, or what's left of it" because they were enjoying a tropical morning along the sea when the tsunamis hit on Dec. 26.

"I'd zip up the body bag, to take them back to the areas once they had been identified."

If the name, or nationality, of a corpse could be determined, Mr. Murray and other volunteers would carry it into refrigerated containers which had signs on them, listing each country, "like the Dutch container or the Australian container," he said.

About 100 mostly foreign volunteers were assisting Thai and international personnel at the temple.

It was a nightmare of "mass death," Mr. Murray said, made freakish by wafting, white clouds from blocks of dry ice, chilling the arriving corpses.

"Dry ice, it was all over the place. It's on them, it's under them, it's around them. So the whole thing is kind of surreal, because you've got this whole cloud of dry ice and all these bodies in blue and white plastic bags interspersed.

"You're just keeping them as cold as you can, until you can move them into the refrigerator containers," which looked like cold storage units "for moving meat, or any kind of cold produce."

Amid the confusion and misery, forensic teams extracted DNA, to later confirm identities.

"They took a DNA sample from every single person, whether it be hair, teeth, or they would cut into the thigh and take something from there."

He saw some corpses deemed Australian.

"When the Australian police arrived, they had identified a couple of people," he said. The corpses "had a toe tag, or a body tag, on the end of the body that said: 'This is the property of the Australian federal police'," he said.

Conveying so many bodies amid such terrible scenes, strongly affected Mr. Murray.

"They were so grotesque. I think it is different than someone dying in your arms, or covered in blood, or the immediacy of death. These people had been dead for four or five days," he said.

"Their eyes were kind of bulging out of their head, [and] all you saw were these bloated bodies," he said.

"The worst thing was the children," whose bodies arrived wrapped in plastic as small bundles.

He praised the "stoicism" of the volunteers, the foreign forensic teams and the Thai medical and military personnel.

"Even when the bile came up in my throat and I wanted to puke -- I actually puked a little bit and I had it, the puke in my mouth -- you didn't want to be shown to be weak, in a crazy sense, because you had these Thai nurses and doctors who were 23 or 24 years old, and they were bopping around identifying people.

"They were just heroes, and the enormity of it was so great, you didn't want to detract from the whole task by failing yourself," the Canadian said.

"Even though rigor mortis had set in, we were handling them so delicately. To me, the final indignity would have been to drop these people, and for their body fluids to escape and everything.

"So even though they were dead -- and I saw this from almost everybody -- the care, and the consideration that everybody was using in handling these people made sure that even though they had suffered this horrible death, we were going to try to take care of them after their death," he said.

Mr. Murray is an editor who has been based in the Thai capital, Bangkok, for the past 12 years.

He said he came to the tsunami-hit coast to report "feel-good" stories for Phuket Magazine, to raise reader's spirits.

"But the more I drove around, the more I found there were very, very few feel-good stories that I could find," he said.

"I just wanted to do something positive, and the best that I could do was to help people identify the victims and speed up the process."

He began carrying the dead on the morning of Dec. 31, worked through New Year's Eve, and finished in the late afternoon on Jan. 2.

Gallows humor lifted some gloom at the temple enabling volunteers to perform the grisly work.

"One guy turned a coffin around and wrote on it, 'The Happy Coffin Cafe' and started serving drinks. Now at first, you might think that's macabre, but that's exactly what was needed," he said.

"They were just wooden coffins waiting to be used. There was nobody in them," he added.

"When I was carrying this cart with the dead, all I could think of was this Monty Python movie, where they were saying, 'Bring out the dead, bring out the dead,' and I half-expected somebody from the body bags to lift up and say, 'I'm not dead yet.'

"That's horrible, but the reality of it was it was so massive, and so overwhelming, that the only way to keep working through it is -- the only way, I guess, that firemen, and cops, and paramedics do -- you've got to maintain a sick sense of humor to maintain your sanity."

The smell of decomposing flesh still haunts him.

"The stench of death, it's in your hair, it's underneath your fingernails. I went home, I tried to wash my clothes, but you just can't get the smell of death out of you. It just permeates everything in you. It's just sickening."


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

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