Rescuers Race Clock in Thailand

Published December 31, 2004

| Associated Press

Rescuers raced against time Friday to find survivors and identify bloated corpses still scattered widely across Thailand's (search) pummeled beaches, while the government announced that more than 4,500 people perished in the tsunami (search) disaster — almost half of them foreigners.

Another 6,475 were missing, the Interior Ministry said. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (search) has warned that Thailand's death toll could approach 7,000.

Relatives refused to give up hope, despite it being six days since the waves hit. Canadian tourist Dan Kwan was still hunting for his missing parents.

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"At this point we hope against hope that they are still alive somewhere," he said, adding that it was possible they were unconscious or unable to speak.

Rescue and identification teams from a dozen countries focused their efforts on a 30-kilometer (20-mile) stretch of beach in Phang Nga province, north of the internationally popular resort island of Phuket, where Interior Minister Bhokin Balakula said the 3,500 bodies had been recovered.

Thai forensic scientist Pornthip Rojchanasiri said she had no idea how long it would take to identify all the dead.

"I do not know because we do not have enough equipment, people to do this job," she said.

Thai victims who have been identified were being cremated on funeral pyres.

Chinese forensic experts joined the victim identification effort Friday, taking tissue and hair samples for DNA testing.

"Our mission is to take samples toward DNA analysis, for example hair and muscle tissue," said Feng Yia-Kung, who was leading the Chinese team. "We will mail the samples to our laboratory in Beijing and the DNA center will give us results as soon as possible."

On Thursday, Cheng-Tsung Lu, head of a 35-man rescue team from Taiwan, said he was not optimistic of finding more survivors.

"We'll try to do our best, but the chances are slim," he said. He suggested corpses be cremated to ward off the spread of disease with samples of flesh or skin taken for DNA identification at a later date.

Minister of Natural Resources and the Environment Suwit Khunkitti refused to give up hope.

"Anything can happen," he said. "When these kind of things have happened everywhere in the world, some people have lived for nine days, without food and water, even if injured. So we keep our hopes high and we fight for it."

Citizens of more than 40 countries were reported vacationing in six southern Thai provinces when the disaster struck.

The Interior Ministry on Friday put the official death toll a 4,510 dead, a twofold increase from the previous day. That figure included 2,230 foreigners.

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