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Only Mountains and Cliffs are Left

Posted December. 31, 2004 22:57,   


The hard-hit island of Phiphi near Phuket, Thailand, is still in ruins five days after the disastrous tsunami waves hit.

The island, where five Korean tourists went missing, shows deep gashes left behind in all directions. Only the mountains and the cliffs are left intact on Phiphi Island. The white-sand beach and lodgings resembled a garbage dump in the tsunami’s aftermath.

We succeeded in entering Phiphi at 8:30 on the morning of December 31, 2004, which previously did not allow visitors until the recovery of corpses was finished.

As we arrived, the stench of rotting corpses pierced our noses. A Thai aid worker handed us facemasks and gloves, saying, “You must wear these because of contagious diseases.” Around 9:00 a.m., as helicopters from the shore with soldiers on board landed, it grew hectic. Nineteen Japanese rescue workers joined a team of 10 navy divers to search for bodies that may have sunk in the ocean.

In the midst of workers searching for bodies in the wrecked buildings with bulldozers, some locals looted electronic appliances such as televisions, cameras, and refrigerators.

We were able to see an elderly Japanese couple and two Caucasian teenagers nearby. The two youngsters guided the Japanese couple and explained the situation when the tsunami waves hit, telling the couple at the densely crowded mall district entrance, “This is where your daughter was swept away by the waves.” The Japanese grandmother momentarily cried out, “Yumi!” before collapsing on the spot.

It was apparent that as each minute passed, the prospect of finding Korean missing persons was growing dim.

The tsunami hit the island in the early morning of December 26, at 10:10 a.m. It was 20 minutes after the arrival of a cruise liner with a group of Korean tourists aboard.

The Korean tourists did not have overnight plans at Phiphi Island, and, with no need to check in at the hotel front desk, proceeded to stroll the beaches after docking. The local authorities told us that the possibility of the five missing persons being swept out into the ocean was very high.

A 49-year-old policeman supervising the corpse excavation named Somchai predicted, “If the waves swept them away, it will be more difficult to find the missing Koreans,” and added, “With this 30-degree weather, the decomposing faces will be almost unrecognizable.”

The Korean government dispatched two investigators from the National Institute of Scientific Investigation on December 30 to identify bodies and dispatched two more police-affiliated fingerprint identifiers on December 31.

Meanwhile, 119 rescue workers searched for missing Koreans in Krabi, near Phuket, for two consecutive days.

Hyung-June Park lovesong@donga.com