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Free Airfares For British Tsunami Victims Families


Free Airfares For British Tsunami Victims Families

By Richard S. Ehrlich

PHUKET, Thailand -- The British government is offering free airfare and accommodation for British families who lost relatives in the tsunamis, so they can grieve amid the wreckage of hotels, inspect the devastated beaches and escort the remains back home.

British police, meanwhile, are visiting apartments, houses and offices in England and elsewhere, meticulously dusting personal property for fingerprints to see if they match Interpol's new, high-tech tsunami database of people missing and dead.

"People who have relatives who are either confirmed dead, or who are highly likely to have been involved [in the tsunami], are provided a package of return airfares and accommodation and all the assistance that we can provide in-country," a British Embassy spokesperson said in an interview on Wednesday (Jan. 12).

Relatives who ask to see the deceased, however, are gently informed that viewing recovered corpses is not permitted.

"We have explained to relatives -- through the family liaison officer, who is appointed to each family as the liaison between government and family -- that visual identification at this stage...is not going to be possible," the British diplomat said, asking not to be named.

Visiting mortuaries and Buddhist temples where bodies are buried in temporary graves, kept outdoors on dry ice, or stacked in refrigerated shipping containers is now restricted to forensic teams and other officials.

After more than two weeks of tropical heat, the salt water-soaked cadavers have bloated and started to decompose.

If a relative saw their loved one's corpse now, "it would be just too distressing, and would not aid the identification process, because we are beyond the visual identification phase," the British diplomat said.

"The process now has to be the forensic process that we've agreed internationally with all the other countries that have nationals still missing."

Relatives and friends have traveled from many nations to Thailand, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives to try and comprehend the last moments of the dead or missing victims, and move toward closure.

"We have seen various [British] families -- two, three, four a day -- come in to see us, to talk," the envoy said.

"Some want to go and see the place where they [the victims] were staying -- Khao Lak, or Phi Phi, or Krabi -- and really it is, I think, part of the grieving process.

"That is part of the reason the embassy office is here, to give them all the support they need."

Khao Lak, just north of Phuket in Phang Nga province, was worst-hit by the tsunamis on Dec. 26, which also swept over tiny Phi Phi Island and slammed onto west coast beaches along Krabi.

Each arriving family has special needs and requests.

Some want to commune, or pray, in the natural surroundings where the person perished.

"It varies from case to case. Different people want to see different things, to see hotels, to walk along the beach.

"People have different motivations and grieve in different ways. For some people it will help. For others it won't help so much."

Some families pay their own way. Those who make use of the government's free travel package can do so at any time.

"We have had about 10 or 12 families come through. There is no time limit on when they can come out. Some wanted to come immediately. Some will want to escort the body back when it is identified, and that may be in the next few weeks or several months."

The government's offer has been publicized in the British media and elsewhere, but "it doesn't really have an official name. It's a package of support for affected relatives. It was made available within days of the tsunami."

Limits do apply.

"It is two family members -- sometimes it's more, but the package is for two return airfares, and accommodation," the British Embassy spokesperson said.

"It's for anyone who has had a relative affected in any country."

The dead also receive free flights.

Bodies are sealed in special caskets to prevent mid-air leakage or other accidents.

Cremated corpses are packed in hatbox-sized containers which can be hand-carried.

"When the body of their relative is identified, we will pay for the repatriation," the envoy said.

Of the 38 confirmed deaths in Thailand, "about 20" bodies have been returned to Britain, he said.

Most were "bodies to be buried."

Possibilities for cremation are "entirely up to families. The option is for the body to be cremated locally, or to be flown back and cremated there."

At least 416 Britons are confirmed killed or missing and likely to be dead, in all countries affected by the tsunamis, including the 38 confirmed dead in Thailand, he said.

An additional 700 Brits "are thought to be in the region, who were due to be in contact, but are not in contact, and have not been in contact," he said.

"Obviously, as time goes on, some of those people will reappear and be taken off the list."

Interpol, meanwhile, has provided a professional standard of "forensic identifiers" that governments throughout the world have agreed upon, to confirm the identity of corpses recovered from the tsunamis.

"There are three identifiers: fingerprints, DNA or dental records. For a death certificate to be issued, you need two of those. Any combination, but two-out-of-three," the British diplomat said.

"Those forensics are to be matched to forensic identifiers that have come from family members or possessions. In the case of fingerprints, for example, it can be something that was in the house [in Britain], that could then be fingerprinted by the U.K. [United Kingdom] team.

"We are putting all of that information together at the Identification Command Headquarters, which is here in Phuket."

*****

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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