Lawsuit blocks Thai findings on tsunami

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The Independent Online

Thailand has shelved a detailed tsunami study to protect its government against a lawsuit filed in the US on behalf of 100 foreign tourists who perished in the disaster.

Thailand has shelved a detailed tsunami study to protect its government against a lawsuit filed in the US on behalf of 100 foreign tourists who perished in the disaster.

Of the estimated 300,000 people swept away by the giant waves on Boxing Day, more than 5,300 victims died on Thailand's Andaman coast - half of them visitors to the area.

The seismologist in charge of the Thai government's investigation said yesterday that his report will now be kept from public scrutiny, and that its conclusions would never be put in writing. Samith Dhammasaroj told a Bangkok press conference that it was his patriotic duty to prevent leaks of information which might be used to substantiate the charges of "serious lapses" filed against the government of Thailand in a New York district court last week.

The litigation, brought by the families of 60 named victims from Austria, Germany, France and the Netherlands, plus 40 unnamed victims, points to a 75-minute delay between the scientific measurement of the earthquake off Sumatra and the moment that the waves hit the Andaman coast. It accuses the Thai government and US government forecasters in charge of the Tsunami Warning Centre in Hawaii of failing to warn thousands of people at risk.

Mr Samith, who was ridiculed during the 1990s when he twice warned Thailand about the possibility of tsunamis striking its beaches, was appointed by the Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, to set up an early warning system and to investigate events in Thailand during the Boxing Day disaster. After the disaster, the scientist agonised in public about his inability to reach officials and raise the alarm after he realised the dire consequences of the underwater earthquake.

"I tried to call the director-general of the meteorological office, but his phone was always busy," Mr Samith said. "I tried to phone the office, but it was a Sunday morning and no one was there. I knew that one day we would have this type of tsunami. Everyone laughed at me and said I was a bad guy who wanted to ruin the tourist industry."

The director general of the meteorology department has since been sacked.

The lawsuit argues that an alert from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, even though it underestimated the intensity of the quake, should have spurred Thai scientists into action.

"The seismological and oceanographic experts of Thailand spent more than one hour talking about what the risk may or may not have been, instead of immediately issuing a warning to their population," it says.

Mr Samith is now reluctant to release any information about official dithering over a decision to evacuate.

Thailand's foreign ministry spokesman, Sihasak Phuanketkeow, said: "Thailand and its government agencies did not fail to perform their duties. The disaster was a force majeure that could not possibly have been predicted. The tsunami was a phenomenon never experienced before in Thailand."

Mr Samith said: "You need to have the sophisticated equipment and we just don't have it. You may be able to speculate about it but could not make a definitive forecast. No one should take the blame."

Months after the disaster, there still are no warning systems or surge sensors in place in the Indian Ocean.

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