Thailand's Tsunami Death-Toll Rising

Published: Wed 29 Dec 2004 10:30 AM
Thailand's Tsunami Death-Toll Rising
By Richard S. Ehrlich
BANGKOK, Thailand Bloated corpses floated off the coast and littered Thailand¹s beaches on Tuesday (Dec. 28) where the government said more than 1,500 people, many of them foreign tourists, drowned and 1,000 disappeared after Asia¹s underwater earthquake sucked countless victims out to sea.
Rescuers tied ropes to stiff, jutting legs and arms of drifting bodies and yanked them onto small boats, or waited until the tide brought them to shallow water where groups of grim-faced men lifted and carried them away.
Many of the dead appeared clad in swimming gear or walking shorts and T-shirts -- their flesh burnt by the tropical sun and decaying in the salt water -- but lacking identification papers.
The government "put the number of dead at 1,516, with 8,432 more people injured" along the west coast, the official Thai News Agency reported on Tuesday (Dec. 28).
"But in Phang Nga [province], which has already recorded 950 deaths, rescue workers said that there were still around 1,000 more bodies which they had not yet been able to reach," the report said.
Sunday¹s (Dec. 26) earthquake under the Andaman Sea caused tidal waves which also left "over 1,000 still missing" elsewhere along Thailand¹s tourist-packed coast, the agency said.
Officials expected the death toll to climb.
The 950 dead in coastal Phang Nga province included "the corpses of 750 Thais and foreigners" in Takua Pa district, the agency said.
Takua Pa district includes Khao Lak beach, a scuba divers¹ shallow, reef-encrusted paradise popular with foreign backpackers and wealthy Thais.
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra earlier said "600 to 700 corpses had been discovered in the Phang Nga tourist resort of Khao Lak alone," the agency said.
Rescuers discovered decomposing corpses strewn along the granite-studded, sandy beaches of Khao Lak and its estuaries, mangroves and sea cliffs.
An estimated "60 percent of the bodies were foreigners", at Khao Lak, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of devastated Phuket island, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) reported on Tuesday (Dec. 28).
Some of the dead hung from trees after rising water perched them in branches, according to eyewitnesses and reporters who reached Khao Lak.
Babies and body parts were discovered rotting in the sand.
Some of Khao Lak¹s corpses were taken to a makeshift morgue inside a Buddhist temple because most buildings were smashed to smithereens.
A gray Thai police boat and a crumpled public bus lay among crushed trees and other debris inland after being washed ashore, according to pictures in the first available video filmed at the site.
Thailand¹s king and royal family grieved the loss of the monarch¹s grandson, Poom Jensen, 21, who despite suffering autism was water-skiing along Khao Lak¹s shore when huge waves hit.
Mr. Jensen¹s body was found after a frantic search, but his four palace-appointed bodyguards survived.
The Health Ministry sent 20 refrigerated shipping containers to the region to collect and store hundreds of decomposing bodies, amid hopes that they might be identified by relatives, officials said.
People who were rescued on Tuesday (Dec. 28) along Thailand¹s lengthy, ravaged west coast included many whose lacerations and other injuries were dangerously infected because they had gone without medical treatment since Sunday¹s (Dec. 26) earthquake.
Doctors amputated limbs too diseased or crushed to save, after tidal waters slammed people against walls, cars and other sharp objects.
"What is terrible is that some [Thai] rescue officials dare not enter in the [devastated] spots following warnings of aftershocks," Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said on Tuesday (Dec. 28) before attending an emergency cabinet meeting.
"Some wounded people run to hills and refuse to come down for medical treatment because they remain frightened" of more tsunamis which may batter the coast again, the prime minister said.
"It¹s also difficult to find victims in some spots because communications and transportation routes are cut off."
Thai military and other services in boats and helicopters also plucked corpses and survivors from tourist-friendly beaches near wealthy Phuket island, including tiny Phi Phi island which featured in "The Beach" film starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
Rescuers entered the wreckage of the two remaining hotels on Phi Phi island and searched room by room for bodies of Thais and foreigners who did not escape the quake¹s hell and high water.
Other devastated coastal provinces include Phang Nga, Krabi, Trang, Ranong and Satun all famous for palm-fringed beaches and resort facilities which ranged from five-star to dirt cheap.
American, European and other diplomats updated their lists of dead, missing and injured nationals amid speculation that their tolls were hopelessly incomplete because December is the prime holiday season for winter-chilled foreigners to thaw out and suntan on Thailand¹s gorgeous beaches.
Many foreigners who died in Phuket and elsewhere included fragile, elderly retirees who thought they would enjoy the time of their lives during a Christmas and New Year holiday in this Southeast Asian land fabled for its warmth, hospitality, cuisine and Buddhist culture.
The dead also apparently included foreign backpackers who flocked to "full moon party" beach celebrations during which some people dance, take illegal Ecstasy, psychedelic mushrooms and other drugs, and go slumming in cheap, flimsy rooms built of thatch and wood.
Some of this year¹s advertised, Christmas season, full moon "raves" took place the night before the Sunday (Dec. 26) morning earthquake.
All along the stricken coast, Thai and foreign survivors told horrific tales of how they were trapped in beachside hotel rooms or other dwellings, by overwhelming waves of water which quickly filled their rooms to neck level.
Some people said they were swept from hotel rooms, restaurants, streets and shops into a swelling, surging torrent of blackish liquid which heaved them against sharp pieces of metal wreckage and broken furniture, gouging and slicing their bodies as they floundered.
Survivors were able to cling to tree branches, floating automobiles and other debris until nearby Thais and foreigners pulled them to safety.
On tourist-packed Phuket island, where opulent resorts, spas and other facilities cater to the world¹s wealthiest tourists alongside budget travelers and locals, the streets of crowded Patong Beach were blocked with smashed cars piled one on top of another, in front of bashed shops and bars.
A stench from a supermarket¹s basement on Phuket island, 430 miles south of Bangkok, led rescuers to discover several corpses of shoppers and staff who drowned when the lower floor suddenly flooded from onrushing waves.
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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