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Internet Lists of Missing Morph Into Bulletin Boards of Emotion

Pleas From D.C. Area Among Those Seeking to Find Loved Ones

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 8, 2005; Page A14

Anthropologist Dick Sorenson had always worked at what seemed like the ends of the Earth. For 40 years, the former Smithsonian Institution scientist had wandered such places as Borneo, New Guinea, Laos and Bhutan, often by himself, studying vanishing ways of life.

Now he was in his late seventies, wore hearing aids and had recently recovered from a virulent form of malaria. His friends wanted him to come home to Washington. But he was stubborn, and content where he was, living on an island in southern Thailand called Phuket.

Washington area friends of Dick Sorenson, fearing the worst, reported him missing to the State Department and put his name on the Internet in hopes of hearing news. (Courtesy Of National Museum Of Natural History)

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Last week, friends of E. Richard Sorenson, PhD, feared the worst. When Phuket emerged as one of the areas hardest hit by the tsunami on Dec. 26, they called the State Department to report him missing.

Sorenson was one of many Americans listed as missing in the wake of the tsunami, people whose fates and exact whereabouts were unknown: not among the dead, yet not known to be among the living.

They were vacationers, scientists, adventurers, students, individuals and families. Some had been away a week or two; others, for years. Friends and relatives thought they had been in the tsunami's reach, and the inability to contact them in the chaos of the aftermath was worrisome.

Within days of the disaster, Web sites blossomed with long lists of names of the "missing," often containing poignant, even desperate, appeals for information.

One posting sought a 61-year-old American named Bob who lived in a hut on Phuket beach and worked with fishermen.

Another inquired about a builder from Boston who was on a island off the coast of Thailand. He has a moustache and freckles, and his parents didn't how to reach him.

An American woman who had been traveling from Australia to Thailand was being sought by her family: "Her seven brothers and sisters are anxiously awaiting any news from her."

And someone else was looking for a man named Eric from Avondale, Ariz. "Blue eyes, bold, tall, mid-thirties," the posting said. "Please help me find him. I beg you."

The Red Cross, CNN and the government of Thailand, among others, posted lists of people reported missing.

In the United States, the State Department's tsunami call center received about 28,000 inquiries about people who were unaccounted for, according to Kelly Shannon, a spokeswoman for the department's Bureau of Consular Affairs.

Many callers were unsure about the precise location of the people they wanted to find, and Shannon said the number quickly was whittled down to about 10,500 Americans who were believed to be in the affected area.

That number dropped to about 6,000 several days ago, as duplicates were eliminated and many people were located, and yesterday the number stood at 1,826.

Shannon said 17 Americans are confirmed dead, and 20 are missing and presumed dead.

"In many cases, we found out that people have returned to the U.S. or have contacted family members to say they are all right," Shannon said.

Irene Aronian of McLean placed a notice on the CNN site about her business colleague, Hiranthi DeSilva of Rockville, who had been traveling with her family in Sri Lanka, which was hit hard by the tsunami.

Phone messages left at DeSilva's home got no response.

"We knew she hadn't come back because she wasn't responding to our voice mails," Aronian said. "To know that one of your friends might be in danger is pretty scary stuff."

Aronian said that finally DeSilva's husband called in Wednesday to report that everyone was fine -- the family had been in a part of Sri Lanka away from the tsunami.

John Page, 43, of Sterling was vacationing in Thailand with his wife, Suchada, and their children, Chris, 5, and Elizabeth, 7, when the tsunami struck.

Worried friends posted an appeal for information about them on the CNN site.

Though the Pages were staying in Ranong province, which was devastated by the tsunami, they were several hundred miles inland on the morning it hit.

Page notified his mother and his boss at Northrop Grumman in Reston that the family was all right. After learning that the word hadn't been passed on to some other friends, he sent an e-mail to the CNN site essentially saying: "I am not dead."

An internet inquiry was posted about Henry J. Brenke of Washington, whose friends mistakenly thought he was in Thailand. Brenke had returned home three weeks earlier.

In Sorenson's case, an old Smithsonian friend, Wilton S. Dillon, 81, a senior scholar emeritus at the National Museum of Natural History, and an assistant of Dillon's, Michael Thompson, called the State Department to report him missing and posted his name on the Internet.

"The moment I heard . . . about Phuket being one of the places attacked by the tsunami, I began to be concerned," said Dillon, who is also a Smithsonian anthropologist.

Friends knew that their colleague was unmarried, sometimes lived a "monastic" life in the field, and could be out of touch for weeks at a time. They also knew that he had chronic hearing problems.

"We thought that he might simply not have heard the sirens or the commotion" relating to the tsunami, Dillon said.

Two days after the tsunami, Dillon said, a call to Sorenson's sister revealed that he had survived. His hotel was on high ground.

The next morning, as Dillon was eating breakfast in his kitchen, the phone rang. His wife, Virginia, answered. "This is Dick," the caller said. She handed the phone to her husband, who heard Sorenson say: "You told me to call. So I've called you."

And then he returned to his work in the field and did not respond to e-mail requests for an interview.

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