'Far fewer relatives are arriving now - just one or two a day'

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The Independent Online

There is a disconcerting new road sign on the highway from Phuket airport. It reads "Death Bodies", and through the trees you can make out rows of refrigerated lockers containing some of the 5,291 cadavers recovered after massive waves hammered Thailand's south-western shore four weeks ago.

There is a disconcerting new road sign on the highway from Phuket airport. It reads "Death Bodies", and through the trees you can make out rows of refrigerated lockers containing some of the 5,291 cadavers recovered after massive waves hammered Thailand's south-western shore four weeks ago.

The relatives of British tsunami victims, who may opt to take up subsidised government trips to Thailand rather than submit DNA samples directly to the police in the UK, are usually met at the arrivals lounge and escorted by volunteers. Their taxis glide straight past this blunt signpost, the first of many distressing steps that will mark a sad journey.

Relatively few will be able physically to track down their missing loved ones right away. Many personal possessions are still held by Thai police and cannot yet be claimed as keepsakes. Touring hospitals and visiting morgues may yield no tangible results, so families retrace holiday itineraries instead. Most of the bereaved feel a need to witness the power of this seemingly calm sea and seek out views of the devastation.

So far, 39 of the confirmed dead in Thailand are British holidaymakers, and 188 more Britons are deemed "very likely" to be among the 3,100 missing. Authorities caution that it may take many months for more bodies to turn up in swamps or to wash ashore. Search crews comb the reefs but with less urgency now; rescue has long since been replaced by grim retrieval. The terrible tide of the drowned has subsided, though searchers recovered an upper torso and a severed leg last week.

Even if a body has not been found, the British Government has agreed to fast-track death certificates to eliminate a seven-year legal limbo for relatives. Police will apply four tests, including requiring evidence that the missing person was in the affected region when the waves struck, and that there is no motive for disappearing. They will also check the bank and mobile phone details of the missing to make sure no money has been spent or withdrawn since Boxing Day, or a mobile phone call made.

The Home Office yesterday said that "there was no significant legal barrier" to stop the police from accessing this information, despite the Data Protection Act. Referring to reports that the Government was considering emergency legislation to allow the police to obtain these details, a spokesman said: "The police are undertaking investigations, and accessing financial details and telephone information is an important part of those investigations.

"They don't have explicit statutory authority to access that information, but in the circumstances there doesn't seem to be significant legal obstacles to data holders providing that information. We are keeping a close eye on it."

All the refrigerated bodies stored in Phuket have been catalogued and implanted with a microchip containing DNA information. They are closer to flying home than some 1,900 decomposing corpses still under scrutiny in three improvised temple mortuaries on the mainland. Interpol has opened a state-of-the-art disaster victim identification centre in Phuket which is staffed by forensics experts.

It complements efforts by Dr Porntip Rojanasunan, a pathologist from the Thai justice ministry, who has sent DNA samples of Thai victims to be certified in China. Sorting all the dead is excruciating and exacting work. The huge waves struck people from 40 nations.

Wat Yanyao and Wat Bang Muang in Phang Nga province were used as the main storehouses for the cadavers, but now are to be phased out. Outside these Buddhist temples, bulletin boards show smiling photographs of the missing. A macabre gallery of death portraits forms a stark counterpoint. The same bright faces greet you at the airport, at Phuket town hall, at the hospitals, or on websites - a polyglot roll call of lost honeymooners, pensioners, backpackers, parents and children.

A plastic surgeon from Beverly Hills has begun helping to identify the blackened corpses at Wat Bang Muang by digitally reconstructing their faces. Dr Paul Wallace has a practised eye for correcting severely distorted features after a career of treating prize fighters. On a laptop computer, he can project features that result in plausibly realistic portraits that relatives might recognise.

Through dogged persistence and mutual support, the family of one lost backpacker managed to locate him. The body of Conor Keightley, 31, was flown home to Northern Ireland on Friday. His remains were identified in the Krabi mortuary after an exhaustive search by his sisters, a cousin and an uncle.

"Far fewer relatives are arriving now - just one or two a day," said Andy Grey, a British diplomat. "We urge them not to come, but do all we can to help them if they do. Typically, they plan to stay for a week, but most leave within 36 hours. The search grows too hopeless and depressing."

Just last Sunday, a 29-year-old British father was arrested outside the British Embassy in Bangkok, hysterical with grief over his missing boy. He had hacked himself on the neck and arms with a blade after finding the consulate shuttered at 4.45am.

THE CHILDREN

'The mortgage still has to be paid'

John Hofton, 62, a sales manager and his wife Annie, 57, who ran a boutique in Malvern, Worcestershire, were last seen on Boxing Day in Khao Lak, Thailand. After searching every hospital in the area for their parents, their three sons - Edward, Thomas and Stacey - have reluctantly concluded they are dead.

John's brother, Jimmy, has welcomed the Government's efforts to circumvent the seven-year rule, but still feels a year-long wait is too long.

He said: "Once you come to terms with the fact - this is without bodies - that they must have died it's a release.

"But then you come on to the practical issues. There is an issue with the mortgage, it may have to be paid. Annie's side of it is not so complicated because she ran her own business. But we will be talking to John's company about his wages.

"Seven years is a huge problem because the estate cannot be settled. A year is better, but it would make things a lot easier for the family if they brought it forward even more."

THE FIANCEE

'The insurance firm has been fantastic'

Sharon Howard, 37, of Hayle, Cornwall, lost her fiancé David Page, 44, and her two sons, Taylor, six, and Mason, eight. All are still missing. She has one surviving son, Jack, 17.

Mr Page, a deep-sea diver, had asked Sharon, a full-time housewife, to marry him on Christmas Day and was planning to move from his home in West Sussex to join her and her family in Cornwall.

Sharon's sister, Beverley, said: "Any dealing we have had with the insurance company [a Marks & Spencer travel insurance policy] so far has been absolutely fantastic. And Cega have taken care of everything so far - accommodation out there, travel, everything.

"We have not really pushed ahead with anything to do with the Inland Revenue. It is very difficult. They have only had four weeks to get used to what has happened."

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