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In Phuket, Thailand

'We Didn't Understand, We Were Just Paralyzed'

By Peter S. Goodman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 28, 2004; Page A12

PHUKET, Thailand, Dec. 27 -- They were supposed to be relaxing on the beach or playing a round of golf on yet another sunny day of vacation from the harsh winter of Norway. Instead, Leif Giske and his wife stood on the concrete driveway of a hospital at an overflow morgue.

They lifted the blue plastic sheeting that wrapped one of the bodies, then recoiled at the sight: It was their niece, her flesh bloated from the waters that claimed her, her skin purple. Flies buzzed around cuts in her flesh.

A man talks on his phone near vehicles that were swept up and deposited along Patong Beach, the busiest stretch of coast on Phuket, one of Asia's most popular tourist islands. The water tore furiously into the shops and hotels. "Big cars and boats were coming," recalled a survivor. (Suzanne Plunkett -- AP)

"This is incredible," Giske said. "I'm having trouble believing this."

A day after a devastating tsunami swept over the coconut palms fringing the beaches of this Southeast Asian island, rescue workers continued to extract bodies from a landscape of waste -- from collapsed buildings and from the shores, where each incoming tide deposited a fresh harvest of death.

Thai authorities said more than 866 people died following the waves triggered by Sunday's monumental earthquake, with thousands more still unaccounted for. But the scene at the morgue here in Patong Beach -- the busiest stretch of coast on one of Asia's most popular tourist islands -- spoke of loss and pain, of holidays gone tragically wrong, and of the likelihood that there were many more bodies on the way.

"When you hear the sirens now, it's only dead people coming in," said Ed Plunkett, a volunteer coordinator at Patong Hospital, whose morgue had taken in more than 100 bodies by Monday evening, in addition to the 58 already there. "No more injured. Just dead." He figured there would be as many as 500 by the time the grisly work was done.

Hospital staff loaded bodies into plywood coffins as relatives kneeled next to their dead with incense in their hands. A German man in a blue tank top stepped gingerly through the checkerboard of corpses, pausing at a wall of photos -- faces of the dead connected to misshapen bodies. He bent closer, seeking, then shook his head and walked away.

A woman in blue surgical scrubs and mask bent over the body of a 4-year-old girl with a beaded bracelet on her left wrist. She rubbed baby powder into the girl's creamy skin, then ran a comb through her wet black hair. The girl's face was serene, as if she had yielded contentedly to sleep. The woman wrapped a white sheet around the girl, then used a red marker to write an identifying number on the outside. She was corpse No. 68.

The adults lying dead all around were contorted and grotesque, their misshapen features attesting to lives taken violently, against their will.

Giske, a Norwegian real estate investor, and his Thai wife had been enjoying the holidays in a villa they own here. On Sunday, they had arranged for a sailboat ride with two other families and were down at Patong Beach, waiting for the vessel to arrive, when everything changed.

"Suddenly, we saw the ocean was disappearing," Giske said.

In the span of about 15 seconds, the water reaching as far out as 2,000 yards simply vanished.

It was about 10 in the morning on one of the busiest days of the year. The sea was packed with families. The undertow was so powerful that anyone in the water was instantly sucked out, witnesses said. Then came a strange period of calm, the ocean gone, fish flopping on the abandoned seabed. Some people wandered out for a look.

"Suddenly, we saw this big wave coming," Giske said. "It took all the yachts and swept them in. We didn't understand, we were just paralyzed."

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