Spiky hair, tight jeans: the Thai forensic chief they call Dr Death

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The Independent Online

She is a wraithlike woman with red, post-punk hair who has one of the most unenviable jobs in Thailand. Stepping briskly through the endless rows of cadavers inside the Yan Yao temple in Phang Nga province, Dr Porntip Rojanasunan, eyes expressionless behind stark Gothic makeup, is leading the herculean task of cataloguing corpses retrieved after the tsunami slammed into Thailand's Andaman coast resorts on Boxing Day.

She is a wraithlike woman with red, post-punk hair who has one of the most unenviable jobs in Thailand. Stepping briskly through the endless rows of cadavers inside the Yan Yao temple in Phang Nga province, Dr Porntip Rojanasunan, eyes expressionless behind stark Gothic makeup, is leading the herculean task of cataloguing corpses retrieved after the tsunami slammed into Thailand's Andaman coast resorts on Boxing Day.

A Bangkok celebrity - who also enjoys the inevitable sobriquet, Dr Death - Dr Porntip is driving a fierce pace of post-mortem examinations at Yan Yao Temple near Takua Pa town. British veterans of the Paddington rail crash, Lockerbie and the Bali bombings have declared themselves stunned by what they have witnessed inside Wat Yan Yao.

But Dr Porntip's dedication to her work is as striking as her appearance. Before the disaster, as the deputy director of the justice ministry's Forensic Science Institute, she stretched her government salary by writing best-sellers on her most challenging murder cases. There is no time to write now.

This roadside Buddhist sanctuary in Phang Nga province became southern Thailand's principal charnel house in the aftermath of the Sumatra earthquake. After two gargantuan waves demolished dozens of new beachside luxury resorts nearby in Khao Lak, many of the staff and guests now lie in shrouds or body-bags on the temple floor. More are stacked up in refrigerated boxes.

Thailand now estimates that 5,300 people died on its shores in the tsunami, with 3,716 more still missing. About half are tourists, of whom 400 are Britons. Hundreds of cases are being reassessed following the doctor's decision to re-do the Thai body count after ink ran on some of the tags.

Desperate relatives also voiced concerns that Asian tourists may have been muddled up with locals by inexperienced and overworked volunteer undertakers. Dr Porntip will not tolerate errors and omissions. All unidentified bodies are to be re-examined over the next weeks.

At 48 years old, she is the best known of five pathologists in a country that has only 50 licensed forensic doctors. Her fury and fatigue are palpable as the team fights tropical levels of decay in the third week since the cataclysmic waves.

"We are not prepared for such a big disaster as this," she muttered. She co-ordinates a team 300 forensic anthropologists, pathologists, and scientists from 30 countries, who are battling against time and overwhelming odds.

The logistics of running the world's largest autopsy unit are daunting. Since Boxing Day, kept going by Red Bull drinks and the odd cigarette, Dr Porntip has taken just 24 hours off to tend to her own daughter's needs. After taking post- mortem samples of teeth, muscle, and bone, she has little choice but to eat a snack sitting close to a row of bodies.

Then there are the dogs. A starving pack of 40 has begun to menace the bodies.

Some appear to be pets searching for their drowned masters. Canines, able to sense the quake more readily than humans, were able to scamper to high ground before the waves struck. Feral dogs in the area, after having fed on human flesh that washed ashore, now prowl around the temple morgues for more.

"These dogs are smart. They can unzip body bags and eat the corpses inside," said Tohboon Sappasri, a Thai helper to Dr Porntip who is on leave from his job in America.

At least, after her heroic effort, critics of Dr Porntip's radical hairdo and punk dress sense may decide to keep quiet.

Conservative Thais have frequently mocked her for both the image and the frequency of her appearances on talk shows.

For her own part she insists that her startling appearance is designed "to make me happy, to compensate for the work". No one would begrudge her that pleasure now as she plunges back into her gruelling work.

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