Father saved four children as wife was swept away to her death

A father told last night how he battled to save the lives of his four children as his wife was swept to her death as the tsunami hit the Thai resort of Phuket.

The account emerged as the British death toll from the massive wall of water which swept southern Asia rose dramatically to at least 50 yesterday, most of the casualties in Thailand.

Nigel Willgrass, 43, said he clung on to his daughter, Katie, aged seven, and told his three other children to stick together as they desperately held on to debris in swirling water 30ft deep. He said his children stayed amazingly calm during their 25-minute battle for life and Katie told him "it would be better if she had her armbands on".

Mr Willgrass was in a car with Katie, daughter Emily, 16, and sons Ben, 14, and Michael, nine, and a family friend Sophie Rudkin, 15, when the huge wave hit. They had parked near the seafront and his wife Louise, 43, had got out to walk 100 yards to a supermarket to buy some sun cream but was swept away.

Speaking last night at his home in Colney, near Norwich, Mr Willgrass said: "We were being carried along around 30 feet up in the air. My four children were amazingly calm but Katie said: 'Daddy, I am a bit scared.'

"I was saying: 'It's OK, it will be fine.' One of the children said 'Let's get out,' but I said we should hang on for a bit.

"We went along about 200 to 300 metres and then I thought - because the car was filling up with water - we had better try to get out. We tried the doors but couldn't open them. Just as I was thinking 'What are we going to do?' we hit the top of a palm tree and the window smashed and somehow the back door came open.

"I told everyone to get out and stick together. There were parts of sun beds floating past and everyone managed to get hold of something to help them float."

Mr Willgrass explained how he then tried to find his wife.' The supermarket was full of water and I clambered on to the roof of a building and called out Louise's name, trying to find her. I called for her, and called for her. But it was devastation and chaos. The escape route from the supermarket was just full of water.

"I went back to the children and waited with them until the water went down to about knee high. I put Katie on my back and we all went to a safer point where we were taken into a home by a Thai family.

"I was taken to the hospital and it was devastation with bodies everywhere and nobody spoke English.

'I saw a sign saying 'Morgue' and I went inside. That is where I found Louise. She had received a bang on the back of the head and her arms were up as if in a defensive position.

"It was awful, truly awful. I can't put it into words. I wanted to take her wedding ring but they wouldn't let me. Katie said to me when we got back: 'Daddy, are you going to get married again straight away?' Michael asked me if he could still keep the name Willgrass.

"My children were so brave and fantastic. They didn't question once what I did or what I told them to do."

Mr Willgrass, who arrived back at Heathrow on Tuesday evening with his family, had flown to Thailand on 16 December for a family holiday. They had been due to return on 2 January.

"I just told them that mummy had gone to heaven but I don't know whether that is the right thing to say," he said.

Thai authorities said yesterday that 43 Britons were killed when the tsunami brought devastation to the nation's southern coastal resorts. They warned that the British death toll in those areas was likely to rise "sharply" after identification has been carried out on the bodies of hundreds of Westerners that continue to be washed ashore, especially in the popular destinations of Khao Lak and Phi Phi island.

In Sri Lanka, four more Britons were confirmed as among the dead yesterday although a spokeswoman for the High Commission in the capital Colombo said it was "difficult to tell" whether British casualties would increase.

Three more Britons were confirmed among the dead in the Maldives and the High Commissioner, who said he did not expect the toll to rise, reminded Britons that the local economy was reliant on them not cancelling their holidays.

The Foreign Office in London confirmed last night that 26 Britons were dead: 20 in Thailand, three in the Maldives and three in Sri Lanka. Websites have been inundated with appeals for information from worried friends and relatives of those who have been missing since the tsunami struck on Boxing Day.

Stuart Shields, 37, drowned while swimming in the Indian Ocean off the Maldives with his wife, Tania, 34. The couple, from Ridgewell, Essex, had been forced to abandon their honeymoon in Borneo in 1997 due to raging forest fires.

Other Britons missing and presumed drowned include James Hurren, 22, who was last seen on the Thai island of Phi Phi, near Phuket, where he was travelling with friends. His father, Dale Hurren, 46, of Caister, Norfolk, intends to travel to Thailand to look for him.

Honeymooners Natalie and Andrew McLeish are missing on Thailand's Phi Phi island. The Sheffield couple phoned home on Christmas Day but have not been heard from since. City broker Lincoln Abraham, is missing on Phi Phi. The 34-year-old from Hampstead, north London, was with friends who survived the disaster.

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