Tsunami relief effort hampered by catalogue of errors, say families

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The Independent Online

The families of victims of the Boxing Day tsunami angrily condemned international authorities for their role in the disaster which killed 270,000 people, including 147 Britons.

During a series of emotionally charged questions at the official opening of the inquest into the deaths of 91 of the British victims yesterday, the families used the first public hearing into the tragedy to describe how their grief was compounded by a catalogue of blunders. They said widespread confusion and lack of official information resulted in unacceptable delays in the return of their loved ones' bodies. They also asked why the international community had been unable to prevent such a heavy death toll.

Liz Jones, whose 23-year-old daughter, Charlotte, a student at Bristol University who was on a gap year, was swept away on the island of Rachayai, south of Phuket. She said she would have survived if an early warning system had been in place. She said "five-minutes" notice of the impending swell would have saved her.

Sharon Howard described how, after being stonewalled by the police and Foreign Office for weeks, she eventually heard that the body of her six-year-old son, Taylor, was to be repatriated from a voicemail message left by a Channel 4 reporter. It said: "Congratulations, your son is coming home today." She said: "It just beggars belief that a newspaper or a television reporter could phone up and tell you your child is on a plane home ... I think it is disgusting they could leave a message like that before the police had got in touch."

The inquest, at Olympia in west London, also heard from one of the unnamed friends of a victim whose body was mistakenly sent to Germany by the Thai authorities, where post-mortem examinations involved the removal of the hands and jaw bone.

An emotional wife, who wished to remain anonymous, said she found information on the whereabouts of her missing husband within 24 hours by tapping his name into an unofficial website. A second spouse said it took three and a half months to have the identity of her husband officially confirmed, even though she had found his body intact shortly after the tragedy.

Giving evidence before the west London coroner Alison Thompson, Detective Chief Superintendent Nick Bracken, of the Metropolitan Police, who led the operation to identify victims, described the complexity of the task. With victims from more than 120 countries, the local authorities had been overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster. Thailand, where the majority of British victims died, had no established coroners systems in place, he said. As a result, many families would never know exactly what happened to their loved ones. The inquest was told that 129 Britons died in Thailand, 17 in Sri Lanka and three in the Maldives.

The number of bodies recovered in Thailand outnumbered those reported missing and more than 1,000 bodies were still unclaimed, he said. All but six of the dead Britons had been recovered and identified.

Det Ch Supt Bracken described how the Thai government caused confusion by changing the rules on releasing bodies - requiring DNA matches rather than visual identification - after a number of cases of mistaken identity. Eventually, forensic science experts were called in from Sarajevo, where they were working on war-crimes investigations. Other experts from Australia, who had worked on identifying vicitms of the Bali bombs, were also drafted in. He said a lack or refrigeration units, the intense heat and the length of time many of the victims had been in the water seriously hampered the identification process.

The coroner returned 11 verdicts of death as a result of the tsunami, including the youngest victim, an eight-week-old baby called Charles Smith.

The inquest is expected to conclude tomorrow.

LIVES THAT WERE SWEPT AWAY

* REBECCA JOHNSTON

The coroner had taken the unusual step of asking relatives whether they wanted to contribute eulogies to their lost ones during the proceedings at Olympia. The mother of the trainee children's nurse wrote a moving tribute to her dead 24-year- old daughter, who died in Sri Lanka. Read out on her behalf by a woman police officer, she said Rebecca was known to her many friends as Becky. She was "fun loving and loud ... the most infuriating and entertaining person ... a normal but amazing young woman". She said the youngster had made "many strong and lasting friendships". "She will be always loved and forever missed," she said. Her boyfriend, James, survived the disaster. The coroner recorded that she was a victim of the tsunami.

* ISABELLA PEATFIELD

The five-year-old had been looking forward to a day visiting the elephants at a national park near to their bungalow in Tangalle Sri Lanka. The youngster, from Ashbourne in Derbyshire, was with her parents, Tristan and Kim, on their way to breakfast when the wave struck. They opened the door to see the wave coming towards them and closed it. But a second wave sent them backwards into a lagoon, where they became separated. Isabella's body was found two days later. She was identified by DNA and by a scar on her knee. The coroner returned a verdict of death by drowning.

* CHARLES SMITH

The youngest victim of the tsunami was just eight weeks old. He was with his parents, Dierdre and Richard, at the Silva Tourist Lodge at Unawatuna in Sri Lanka. A wave swept into their restaurant while they were eating. Charles and his father were swept away, and although his father managed to keep hold of him throughout, the baby died. The inquest returned a verdict of death by drowning.

* CHARLOTTE JONES

The 23-year-old university student was enjoying a gap year with a friend when tragedy struck. They had been celebrating Christmas with friends on Phi-Phi island in Thailand and were due to leave the resort, when the woman they had hired their tourist hut from suggested they go to the beach to see the giant waves approaching. The two women were knocked over as they fled inland when the danger became apparent. Charlotte's body was found up the coast after drifting in the sea for eight days. The inquest heard the exact place she had been found may never be known as she was taken to a buddhist temple by locals who found her. Verdict of death by drowning.