Forensic experts have begun exhuming 300 tsunami victims in Thailand after discovering their bodies apparently were mislabeled in the rush to bury the dead before they decomposed in the tropical heat, officials said Monday.
Teams of more than 200 forensic experts from Thailand and 18 other countries, meanwhile, worked frantically at Buddhist temples that serve as makeshift morgues to identify the dead, many of whom were foreign tourists.
At one, several hundred bodies lay on the ground, covered by tarps or body bags. Another hundred lay in the sun. A man sprayed a cloud of disinfectant.
Some of the beaches least affected by the walls of water that battered a long stretch of the country’s southern coast Dec. 26 already have been largely cleaned up, and tourists were out swimming and sunning themselves.
With 5,046 confirmed deaths and 3,810 people still listed as missing, Thailand’s official death toll could be as high as 8,000, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has warned. The total number of people killed in 11 nations was approaching 150,000 on Monday.
Identifying victims a daunting task
With Thaksin saying Sunday that Thailand no longer needs financial assistance, the focus was on finding and identifying bodies, along with maintaining the flow of aid to the needy and finding longer-term housing for people who lost their homes.
Heavy machinery worked on the ruins of posh resorts that were flattened around Khao Lak beach, about 50 miles north of Phuket, where Thaksin said the situation remained “quite severe.” Elephants helped clear debris.
Leading Thai forensic expert Porntip Rojanasunand said 300 victims, all Thais and other Asians, were being exhumed.
“When the relatives came to try to claim the victims’ bodies, it turned out they had the wrong number,” she said. “The local offices did not put tags on the bodies properly, so we are trying to re-identify them. No one understood how important it is to have the appropriate tagging and labeling. The last two days, we have had the problem of digging up bodies.”
In one case, a Thai family admitted it had mistakenly claimed the body of a woman that was brought from Phuket to Bangkok. It turned out to be the body of a 23-year-old Philippine choreographer and ballet dance instructor.
“There were just too many casualties or maybe because Thais and Filipinos look the same. We don’t know, but in a disaster of this magnitude, confusion is bound to happen,” said Hector Cruz, a Manila-based labor official helping families locate dead, injured or missing relatives in Thailand.
Detailed forensic records
The bodies of foreigners are kept in air-conditioned containers and Thais are temporarily buried in nearby cemeteries waiting for relatives to retrieve them for cremation. Rescuers are packing some bodies in dry ice to slow down decomposition in the tropical heat.
Officials sought to increase their refrigeration capacity to store bodies while DNA samples, fingerprints and dental records are obtained so identification can be made later.
Suwit Khunkitti, minister of Natural Resource and Environment, said relatives of foreign victims can send DNA samples from their missing loved ones to be matched here in Thailand.
Eight days after the tsunami hit, officials are starting to relocate victims who were displaced, particularly those from fishing villages that were virtually wiped off the map.
Volunteer Rattana Tanasarakij said hundreds of villagers, fisherman, and laborers who sought temporary shelter in front of the district office in Takua Ta were being moved to tents in an area in one of the fishing villages or to temporary homes.