Eyewitness account from Phangnga

January 1, 2005

Via an email:
I have just returned after spending nearly 4 days in Phangnga province. There are only a few things I am able to say right here now:

The death toll is beyond belief, we estimate somewhere around between 10,000 and 20,000 dead at least, but honestly, it is nearly impossible to put any number to it... Basically, very few seriously injured people, mostly lightly injured, the rest is dead.

The important thing though, for people who are looking for relatives or friends:

I am very sorry, unbelievably sorry, but I have to say it directly. I had to do that countless times in the morgue I have stayed the last four days, and it ain't getting easier. If you have not yet heard from your missing people, chances are that they are dead. Chances are that they will never be found, and never be identified... If your dead relatives were brought to Wat Yan Yao in Takuapa town, there might be a chance that they can be identified, but they are the minority of the thousands of dead and missing foreigners. Don't go to identify them either now in person, as it is not possible anymore. Wait until later, when it is announced if, and where you could submit a
DNA sample.

The basic problem was that during the three most crucial days nobody was there to work except a few hundred rescue volunteers, Dr. Pornthip, and locals. All these people did an inhuman effort, but of course it was not enough. Nobody else was there - no soldiers, no foreign aid organisations, no equipment other than pure manpower and nobody who had the capacity to take over the organisation.

One personal request please: Don't ask me any questions, I am not in the physical and mental condition to answer any. I don't know who long it will take until I can digest what I had to witness there. I am very sorry.

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There, things are more or less over. My friends from my rescue crew are already on their way back to try to get more corpses out, in beaches and on islands yet uncovered, which is going to be very difficult due to the state the corpses are in now. Most foreigners who needed emergency evacuation have been evacuated, the rest will slowly follow in time. The foreign AID organisations are doing now more show than anything else.

Basically, what you all can do is trying to have a great new year's party. Life has to go on...

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Can give you now a few more details:

My estimate was only about Phangnga province. The reason that the estimate is so rough is that during the first three days the rescue efforts were truly chaotic. The horror and utter exhaustion of those three days will stay forever with me. There was no organisation whatsoever. Not enough people.

When my friends were called up we were under the impression that the whole of Thailand had only not more than 400 dead. Therefore we took it relatively lightly, some of us did not come because of that low number.

First we were supposed to go to Phuket. Only at the airport the local rescue foundation asked us to go to Phangnga as there were not enough rescue workers. We were transported there with a small lorry.

When we arrived at Wat Yan Yao, where I slept for the next two nights looking over a sea of rotting corpses, we were shocked--hundreds of corpses already lying around, Dr. Pornthip running around frenetically to get some sort of order into the mess. I have had to straight away, helping an Austrian guy to find and identify the corpse of his wife.

And that's how it went the following day until late at night when a few soldiers arrived to support the completely exhausted rescue workers and locals, mainly shipping off corpses to mass graves, and trying to bring in some sort of order to the morgue.

I can only tell you a few glimpses of those days. Lorries and pick up trucks waiting in long lines to get rid of their load of bloated rotting corpses as the temple was full already. Corpses falling off the trucks, nobody having time to remove them for more than a day from where they fell down.

When we entered the first time to see and remove corpses from Laem Paga Lang beach, I found in just one single resort within one and a half hours more than 100 passports, credit cards and ID's, mainly Swedish, Finnish and Norwegian whole families were trapped in their bungalows, wedged in impossible positions. The passports I brought to Dr. Pornthip to get them scanned and sent to the embassies.

Walking on the beach of Kao Lak I found children's toys, a diary of a young Swedish girl, and deep-sea fish from the ocean.

Forensic students of Dr. Pornthip's team were breaking down crying from the horror.

The German man brought the corpse of his wife himself to the temple after the first evening. When he came to pick it up, I ran around trying to find the corpse, but I could not find it anymore. Dr. Pornthip was so incredibly busy, so it was up to me to tell the poor man the truth--that we have lost the corpse of his wife. So difficult, but he understood, he saw the chaos, he saw the effort everybody was making.

The monk at the mass graves told me that only Buddhist meditation can explain what happened.

The thousand-yard stares of rescue workers exhausted beyond exhaustion.

The disbelieve and anger of both rescue workers and locals when we heard Thaksin's speech on the news that Thailand had at most 1800 or 2000 corpses, when just in our single temple we had at that point already processed far more than that. Still many beaches unsearched, only the most obvious bodies lying around having been picked up.

Basically - we were left alone by the authorities and the world for three days. Arriving rescue teams were held up in Phuket to clean up there while in Phangnga we had nothing. Not enough people, no equipment, no organisation whatsoever. Thousands of dead tourists, thousands of dead locals, thousands of dead Burmese illegal workers.