updated 1/4/2005 3:47:07 PM ET 2005-01-04T20:47:07

The only rough number of Americans missing in the Christmas Tsunami was revealed last week and never referred to again.

On Monday, the State Department confirmed that it is still investigating 5,000 inquiries about missing Americans, but some of them may be duplicates. 

Not to get provincial at a time when 150,000 are known dead and the total may be exponentially higher, but were more Americans killed on December 26 than were on 9/11?

Arriving in Bangkok, Thailand, Secretary of State Powell said Monday that 15 U.S. citizens have been confirmed dead. On Tuesday, that number went up to 16 U.S. citizens.

About 4,000 to 5,000 are still unaccounted for. 

“It means that people have called into our call centers and said, 'I don‘t know where my son, my daughter, my husband is',” the secretary explained.  “They were there somewhere and we don‘t know where they are.”

Back in Washington, a State Department spokesman said the total number of inquiries had reached 20,000.  These remaining 5,000 were the ones they had not been able to nail down yet. 

Whether the missing have died, will ultimately be found, or will remain unaccounted for, haunts families now in many similar ways that those questions haunted families and even strangers in the days after 9/11. 

The missing posters that symbolized 9/11— the incongruously smiling faces of people lost at the World Trade Center— were reprised on the walls of airports and public places around the region, especially in Thailand. 

The 9/11 list of missing peaked at nearly 7,000. Cross-checked against hospital lists and for duplications, it was eventually reduced to 3,016. That number included victims in New York, at the Pentagon, and aboard all four of the aircraft. 

But the missing of September 11 were confined to three relatively small geographic points:  A few square blocks of downtown Manhattan, a corner of the Pentagon, and a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. 

The missing of the tsunami, American or otherwise, are spread out over 11 different countries.  On the other hand, it is useful to remember that in the days immediately after the World Trade Center attacks, a New York City newspaper calculated there had to be at least 10,000 dead there. 

Maura Harty, the assistant secretary of state for consular affairs has considerable experience searching for Americans lost abroad, going back to Grenada in 1983. On ‘Countdown’ Monday, she said that their department is calling people back and trying to figure out if they’ve heard from loved ones.

Harty says they have had people working around the clock since last Sunday last week. “All of us [at our embassies] rolled our their sleeves,”  she says.

The task of matching up names in lists is painstaking. “There may be translations and misspellings of names.  It‘s not going to be an exact one to one match.  But we hope to be able to glean some information from that.”

Harty is inviting people who have called the center and have heard back from loved ones to share this information with them. "It would be a tremendous service to us, so that we can devote our efforts to those whom we don‘t have such information yet." (That number is 1-888-407-4747. )


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