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Families mourn 12 Americans known killed

Hope Abels, center, is consoled by her son, Dave, as husband Bob listens to a question about their missing son, Ben, during a news conference Monday in Evanston, Ill.Nam Y. Huh / AP
/ Source: NBC News and news services

Like many Sri Lankans who live abroad, Dr. Anton Ambrose and his wife, Beulah, traveled to their homeland during the holiday season for rest and relaxation.

This year’s trip was to be special because they were also visiting their 33-year-old daughter, Orlantha, who had taken a two-year leave from her job in Los Angeles to teach music to underprivileged kids in her father’s hometown.

But the vacation took a terrible turn Sunday when a tsunami rushed through the coastal areas of Sri Lanka, killing Beulah and Orlantha Ambrose. Anton Ambrose survived, but it was not known whether he had been injured, friends and family said.

At least 12 U.S. citizens died Sunday in massive tsunamis caused by a 9.0-magnitude quake off the Indonesian island of Sumatra, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said Tuesday. He said that seven died in Sri Lanka and five others in Thailand, but did not identify the dead or provide any other specifics.

Hundreds more remained missing, he said.  

An Ohio couple, also native Sri Lankans vacationing in their homeland, were among those killed when the tsunami hit the coastal town they were visiting, their son said.

As rescue and relief workers in Southeast Asia count the bodies in one of the world’s deadliest disasters, friends of the Ambrose family prayed for the wife and daughter of a respected and beloved doctor.

“A lot of people have lost loved ones in this disaster,” family friend Naj Nagendran, 57, of Thousand Oaks said Monday. “It’s difficult to accept someone is gone.”

The Ambrose family was vacationing at a wildlife preserve when the tsunami struck, relatives and family friends said. Their bodies were recovered and had been brought to Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. “Yes, both are dead,” said Piyanka Weeresingha, who identified himself as a relative of the Ambrose family at Colombo’s Hilton Hotel.

Scientist, wife among the dead
Also killed were Muttaiya Sundaralingam and his wife, Indirani, who left their hometown of Upper Arlington, Ohio, a Columbus suburb, several weeks ago to vacation in Sri Lanka with their daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren.

The younger couple and their children weren’t injured because they were visiting Colombo, on the western coast of the island nation, when the giant waves hit the eastern coast, said Ranjan Manoranjan, president of central Ohio’s Sri Lankan Tamil Association.

A respected scientist and scholar who retired from Ohio State in 2001, Muttaiya Sundaralingam, 73, was known for his work in determining the structure of nucleic acids and proteins, an area called X-ray crystallography.

Indirani Sundaralingam, 63, was “a great mom, wife and grandmother,” said her son, Mohan Sundaralingam, of Upper Arlington.

A Chicago woman was also among the dead. The body of Tamara Mendis, 55, was recovered in western Sri Lanka, where she had been traveling by train with her daughter when a 30-foot wave crashed over the tracks. Mendis’ daughter survived but could not pull her mother to safety, family members said.

Narrow escapes
Some American survivors narrowly escaped the deadly waves. Dipak Jain, dean at Northwestern University’s business school, saw the wall of water barreling toward his hotel on the island of Phuket. The massive wave hit a large lagoon just in front of the building, missing the building itself.

“When the wave started pouring into the lagoon, it reminded me of Niagara Falls,” Jain said Monday by telephone from outside Bangkok. He was visiting Thailand to teach at one of Northwestern’s partner schools.

“We are very fortunate,” Jain said. “When you see things like that, you get a very different perspective on life; you see how short life can be.”

Agonizing waits for families of missing
Other families anxiously awaited word on missing relatives.

The family of Ben Abels has been searching for the 33-year-old real estate agent after water inundated his vacation bungalow in Thailand on the island of Phi Phi.

Seen in a handout photo released by his family on Monday, Dec. 27, 2004, Ben Abels, of Evanston, Ill., is among the missing after a massive undersea earthquake caused tsunamis Sunday, Dec. 26, that killed thousands of people in nine countries, authorities said. Relatives say Abels, 33, was vacationing in Thailand with a friend when a huge wall of water hit their bungalow Sunday on the island of Phi Phi. According to the U.S. government, at least eight Americans died in the tidal wave. (AP Photo/Courtesy of Abels Family )

A friend of Abels escaped the house with a severed hand and a crushed leg and was recovering at a hospital. But Abels’ family has been unable to determine his fate.

“We know the island. We know the resort he was staying at. We know the bungalow number, and yet there seems to be no way to get any information from the island,” said Abels’ father, Bob.

The family hopes he is at a hospital and doesn’t have identification or has been unable to contact them.

“For all we know, he could be helping other people on the beach right now,” Bob Abels said. “He would do that if he could, and we hope he’s able to do that.”