Published December 29, 2004
PHUKET, Thailand – Rescuers were hoping for "individual miracles" of survival as they combed the beaches and islands of southern Thailand Wednesday for missing tourists and locals swept away by this week's quake-tsunami catastrophe. Among the missing were more than 2,000 Scandinavians and 200 guests at a French-owned hotel.
Although Thailand's official death toll stood at about 1,800, a police officer said that more than 1,500 bodies had been found in one district alone and the total death toll there could reach 3,000.
Police Col. Arun Khaewwathi, chief of Takua Pa district north of Phuket (search), said the corpses were discovered in three locations including Khao Lak (search), a stretch of beach studded with luxury hotels.
Shortage of equipment, heat and the fear of aftershocks were hampering the search, he said, adding that trained dogs were needed to help locate bodies covered by debris.
Some 30 rescue workers from Sweden, Germany and Taiwan were helping the Thais comb the worst-hit areas.
Although the toll was expected to soar, a total of 473 foreigners of 36 nationalities were confirmed killed, the Interior Ministry's Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation said. Among the victims included were 54 from Sweden, 49 from Germany, 43 from Britain and 20 Americans.
Thirteen Canadians were also listed as dead, but Canadian embassy spokesman Mark McDowell disputed that figure, saying that diplomats knew of only two Canadian deaths.
The list included 84 corpses identified as tourists, but with no nationality.
A grim-faced German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said Wednesday that around 1,000 Germans were missing. He ordered flags on government buildings lowered to half staff.
"We have to fear that a number of Germans, clearly in the three-digit numbers, will be among the dead," Schroeder said at a news conference after interrupting his vacation and returning to Berlin. He didn't specify in which countries they were missing — but Thailand's Phuket island is a popular destination with Germans.
They were among thousands of Western and Asian holiday-makers packing hotels and bungalows during the height of the tourist season when killer waves struck Sunday.
"There is still hope for a portion of those missing, unfortunately a minority, several dozen. For the rest, we have little hope, except for individual miracles," said Jean-Marc Espalioux, chairman of the Accor hotel group which owns the Sofitel where more than 200 guests were still missing.
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (search) said Wednesday that he expected his country's death toll to rise to about 2,000. Tens of thousands have been confirmed dead around southern Asia and as far away as Somalia on Africa's eastern coast, most of them from the tsunami waves created by the 9.0 magnitude earthquake off Indonesia's coast.
Although the death toll among the sun-worshipping Scandinavians in Thailand was still relatively low, Sweden's Foreign Minister Laila Freivalds said "we fear that many of (the missing) will not be found."
Some 1,500 Swedes are missing, 200 Finns, 200 Danes and hundreds of Norwegians, according to reports from Scandinavian capitals.
Meanwhile, widespread looting was taking place in Phuket, Phi Phi Island (search) and the nearby province of Phang Nga, television channel iTV reported. It said nine people were arrested for stealing in disaster-hit areas and that thieves were pilfering valuables left behind in abandoned hotels.
Nationals of more than 40 countries were reported vacationing in six provinces of southern Thailand when disaster struck. They included citizens from South Korea, Japan, France, Germany, South Africa, Ireland, Denmark, Finland, Australia, Mexico, Russia, Sweden, Portugal, Israel, Chile, Spain and the United States.
A number of foreign officials, forensic experts and relief workers were headed for the area to assess damage and offer assistance.
An international airlift also began Wednesday, with jets from France and Australia carrying critical aid and medical supplies the first to arrive in Phuket. Greece, Italy, Germany and Sweden all were planning to send aircraft to take their respective nationals home.
French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier arrived on Phuket Island Wednesday to deliver humanitarian supplies and meet with some of the victims.
Barnier was to visit a hospital and fly by helicopter over Khao Lak, a stretch of beach north of Phuket Island where the death toll from the great waves was highest, said spokeswoman Cecile Pozzo di Borgo. The Sofitel resort was one of many luxury hotels at Khao Lak that were destroyed.
The U.S. Embassy said six military planes carrying basic food, shelter and medical supplies had landed in Thailand and two naval vessels were carrying similar aid to the stricken area. Other countries donating funds or supplies include China, South Korea, Iran and Japan, the Thai Foreign Ministry says.