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In Europe

Tourists Bring Home Tales Of Nature's Random Horror

Death Toll Among Vacationers May Reach Several Thousand

By Glenn Frankel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 31, 2004; Page A24

LONDON, Dec. 30 -- The photo of a young Swedish father sobbing in his hospital bed in Thailand after he was reunited with his 2-year-old son appeared in newspapers throughout Europe on Thursday, symbolizing this continent's sense of loss and horror over the Southeast Asian tsunami.

Europe is reeling from the waves, not just because the ever-rising death toll has surpassed 117,000 but because of the growing realization that among the dead could likely be several thousand tourists who had traveled to southern Asia for the holidays to escape from Europe's dismal winter to warm beaches and sunny skies.

Janette Strum of Sweden and her son, Matias, 16, wait to be airlifted off the Thai resort island of Phuket. Strum's 13-year-old son, Jonathan, is still missing. Officials fear Swedish fatalities could exceed 1,000. (Adrees Latif -- Reuters)

Among European countries, Sweden appears to be the hardest hit. While the official death count so far is 44, Prime Minister Goeran Persson said at a news conference in Stockholm the final count would be in the hundreds and could exceed 1,000. His government estimates that 1,400 Swedish tourists are missing, but the Associated Press cited warnings from travel agencies that more than 3,000 Swedes remain unaccounted for.

Declaring Jan. 1 a national day of mourning, Persson told reporters: "We're facing a New Year's celebration unlike anything we've seen before. This is an extraordinarily sad and serious situation."

The prime minister added, "When the country's schools reopen and workplaces open their doors again, a lot of chairs will be empty."

The country was captivated by the tale of Hannes Bergstroem, age 2, who was separated from his family during the storm and found unconscious by a hotel swimming pool on the Thai resort island of Khao Lak. Evacuated to a hospital, he was reunited with his father, Marko Karkkainen, whose weeping was captured in the photograph that dominated the European press on Thursday. But Hannes's mother, Cecilia, remains among the missing.

"Stupid Giant Wave" read the headline in Aftonbladet, the afternoon tabloid, quoting the little boy's words.

Besides the Swedes, about 1,000 Germans, 600 Italians, 430 Norwegians, 219 Danes and 200 Finns are among the missing, according to news service accounts. Most were visiting resort areas in Thailand or Sri Lanka. The Thai government has put the total confirmed Scandinavian dead at 95 so far.

"We're facing an incomprehensible tragedy that keeps growing by the hours," Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik told reporters in Oslo, according to the Associated Press. "We are steadily getting new numbers of dead, missing and homeless."

Britain has officially confirmed 28 dead so far, among the estimated 6,000 British tourists in the region. But the country has led the way in charitable donations, with the government pledging $95 million for the relief effort and individuals adding $50 million.

The fact that so many European tourists were among the victims "has helped to bring it home to people here because it somehow has made it all seem more real," said Laura Conrad, a spokeswoman for Save the Children U.K. "A lot of us know someone who was in the region for the holidays."

European airports were filled with travelers returning home from sites of devastation, many of them bearing photographs and amateur video footage of the tsunami along with personal accounts of tragedy and bravery, and the senseless, random nature of who was swept away and who survived.

Many British newspapers featured the story of Louise Willgrass, 43, a mother of four, who had just gotten out of the family's rental car in Phuket, Thailand, to buy suntan lotion at a supermarket when the surge hit. It swept the car carrying Nigel Willgrass and the four children inland.

"The car was filling up with water but we couldn't open the doors," he told the Daily Mail. "We hit the top of a palm tree and the window smashed and somehow the back door came open. . . . We managed to get onto the roof of a building."

Willgrass later went back to search for his wife in the flooded remains of the supermarket. He eventually found her body in a hospital morgue.

The British press also focused on the deaths of actor-director Richard Attenborough's 14-year-old granddaughter, daughter and her mother-in-law. Also among the British dead were a fashion photographer, a newlywed couple, a garden designer and a conservationist. Sharon Howard lost her fiance, who had just proposed to her on Christmas Day, and her two sons, ages 8 and 6.

But in Europe, Sweden appeared the most affected by the disaster. Ingrid Iremark, head of the government's press and information department, said as many as 25,000 Swedes had ventured to Thailand for the holiday season and thousands remained unaccounted for. Newspapers published pages of photographs of the missing and the dead, sometimes featuring entire families.

King Carl XVI Gustaf, Queen Silvia and members of the government attended a special memorial ceremony at Stockholm's Storkyrkan cathedral, while Foreign Minister Laila Freivalds rushed to the site of the devastation.

She compared Sweden's loss to a 1994 car ferry disaster in which more than 500 Swedes died.

"Everybody in Sweden knows somebody who in some way or other has connections with someone who was in Phuket," Iremark said. "It's a very sad and traumatic time."

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