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Published: Sunday, 1/16/2005

Tsunami deaths also hit Europe

BY MICHAEL WOODS
BLADE WASHINGTON BUREAU

BARCELONA, Spain - Denis Caromel and his wife, Isabell Attali, were in a beach hotel in Sri Lanka on Dec. 26, 2004, with their sons Ugo, 8, and Tom, 5, when a massive wave smashed through their window.

"In a second, water engulfed the room and my oldest son and I were pasted to the bathroom ceiling," Mr. Caromel recalled from a hospital bed in Nice, France, where he was recovering from injuries. "Then the walls caved in. Seconds later, four meters [12 feet] of water swept us out toward the ocean."

Ms. Attali, a noted French computer scientist, and the boys are still missing. Mr. Caromel, a computer-science professor at the University of Nice, faces additional hospitalization and - barring a miracle - only memories of his family.

South Asia destinations such as Sri Lanka, Thailand, and the Maldives Islands are not even on the radar screens for most people in the United States eyeing the dream vacation abroad. But they are tropical paradises for more than 100,000 Europeans seeking to escape harsh winter cold each year.

"Indulge in the pleasures of southern Thailand," suggests one ad for Phuket, a resort hit hard by the tsunamis. "Imagine snorkeling warm, turquoise waters with flourishing coral reefs and abundant colorful marine life, lazing on dazzling white sandy beaches with coconut palms swaying in the gentle breeze and laying back under a night sky of glittering stars."

That allure turned the Indian Ocean tsunamis into national disasters for European countries thousands of miles away from the actual floods.

Switzerland feared that 500 Swiss citizens were missing. The tsunamis could become Switzerland's worst disaster since 1806, when a landslide killed 500 people. As of last week, 16 Swiss are confirmed dead, 85 presumed dead, and hundreds still unaccounted for.

With the final tolls still uncertain and changing daily, Sweden was facing its worst disaster losses since 1994 when the ferry Estonia sank in the Baltic Sea, killing 892 people including 551 Swedes. An estimated 20,000 Swedes were vacationing in Thailand, Sri Lanka, and other disaster areas. While only 59 have been confirmed dead, 3,500 were still missing three weeks after the tsunamis.

Sweden and Germany apparently suffered the heaviest of any country outside the disaster zone. Both are among European countries that provide workers with social benefits that seem lavish by American standards, including up to six weeks of paid vacation and, in some cases, extra pay to fund vacations.

"It's a catastrophe of enormous dimensions, the worst of our times," Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson said at a news briefing. "It is clear to everyone that the number of casualties will be in the hundreds. Sweden is a small country, and it is a huge number of dead."

Germany sends 80,000 tourists to those dazling sandy beaches every year. At least 8,000 were in resorts in the region when the giant waves struck. While it has recorded only 60 confirmed deaths, more than 1,000 German citizens are missing, many under circumstances that make survival unlikely. "This is the worst catastrophe in living memory," German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder said.

Europeans from Barcelona to Vilnius observed three minutes of silence at noon Jan. 5 to commemorate the tsunami victims. The 25-member European Union called for the observation. Sweden, Norway, and Finland held their own official day of mourning on Jan. 8. Nearly 5,000 of their citizens were missing.

With relatively small populations, those Nordic countries are acutely feeling the losses. In some areas, almost everyone knows someone dead or missing in the disaster. Prime ministers from the three countries planned to begin a joint visit to Thailand today.

Newspapers in Finland and other Nordic countries ran black front pages after the disaster or black fringes of mourning.

Other European countries are counting their dead. France estimated that its death toll would exceed 150; Italy had 18 confirmed dead and 660 missing; the United Kingdom reported 49 dead and 391 missing; Austria had 10 dead and 443 missing; Norway 16 dead, and Russia had nine dead and 35 missing.

The U.S. Department of State said 35 Americans were dead or missing and presumed dead. The State Department added that thousands of American citizens were unaccounted for, but most were believed to be safe.

Deaths from the tsunamis exceed 150,000. In addition, thousand were injured and 5 million left homeless.

The big toll of European citizens has been a factor in generous aid packages pledged by the European Union ($581 million) and individual countries. Germany has become one of the world's biggest donors with a pledge of $674 million.

The world's leading donor is Australia with its pledge of $765 million. Japan has pledged $500 million, and the United States, $383 million with more possible.

There also has been an outpouring of generosity from private citizens, whose contributions edged above the $200 million mark last week.

Web sites established to help locate missing persons are filled with heart-rending notices and appeals. Some have pictures of entire families.

"Missing person - my sister Barbro Selander, 45, from Sweden."

"Missing! Emma Wesen, 15; Filip Wesen, 17; Vibeke Wesen, 21. They come from Sweden."

"6 Missing People (3 Kids)"

"I'm Looking for My Parents!!!! Helge and Paula Vuorinen. They are Finnish."

Optimism for finding survivors is plummeting. "From day to day the possibility increases that many of these missing will never return," Klaus Scharioth, German deputy foreign minister said.

Families and friends of the missing are lowering expectations.

"I have to say that now 14 days after the terrible tragedy, we are hoping just to find Pete's body so that his family and friends can have some closure," said Anne Robertson of Jersey, in the United Kingdom's Channel Islands. She is a friend of Peter Harrison, a Jersey resident who is missing in Thailand.

Some are awaiting results of DNA testing that could establish identity of victims. Mr. Harrison's brother, an identical twin, left for Thailand shortly after the tsunami to give a DNA sample and help search for Peter. Mr. Caromel last week was waiting for results of DNA tests on a body that could be his older son. Mr. Caromel and his wife went to Sri Lanka not as tourists but to make a scientific presentation.

"It's been so hot here each day since the wave struck that the bodies being pulled from the wreckage now are often barely recognizable," Chris Hogg, a correspondent for the British Broadcasting Corporation in Phuket, reported just four days after the disaster. Even then, it was impossible to tell Western victims from Asian victims, leaving DNA tests and dental records the best hope for positive identification.

The Royal Thai Police have set up DNA centers to facilitate the identification of bodies of Western tourists. Thailand depends heavily on European tourism, and the government is responding to Western sensitivities about the importance of returning bodies to relatives.

Local officials buried hundreds of bodies in mass graves after the disaster because no refrigeration was available to keep the corpses from decaying. Officials first said that only Thai bodies were buried. Later, they acknowledged that there may have been mistakes, with Western tourists mistakenly identified as Asians.

Police say it may take weeks to recover bodies from wreckage in remote areas and to complete the identification process. Those washed out to sea may never be recovered.

Contact Michael Woods at: mwoods@nationalpress.com.



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