The governor of the tsunami-hit province of Phuket has pledged his personal help to a German-Thai couple searching for a daughter they firmly believe is still alive nearly one year after the surging ocean tore her away from her mother's arms.
The parents, Sascha and Patchara Meissmer, say they are certain that a girl they saw in a grainy photograph taken a day after the tsunami is their five-year-old daughter Solitaire, and yesterday officials were scouring orphanages in the region for any sign of her.
"We are pleased to help the parents investigating and searching for their daughter," said Udomsak Asawawarangu, Governor of Phuket, yesterday.
Mr Meissmer, 36, from Frankfurt, and his wife will meet the governor on Tuesday, by which time it is hoped that further information about the fate of their daughter will have emerged.
"I am confident that he can help investigate the case of my daughter because the picture was taken in the office of the provincial administration." Mr Meissmer said.
The couple say that someone in Germany posted a photograph on a Phuket tsunami website - www.phuketremembers. com - which showed a little girl in profile sitting among a group of adults. The parents first saw it last week and it was reproduced in a Thai newspaper on Friday.
Mrs Meissmer said yesterday that she has been able to track down three people, including a doctor, shown in the photo who told her it was taken 27 December, one day after the tsunami, in the provincial administration office which at the time was being set up as a tsunami emergency centre.
"I hope and pray to get my daughter back as a Christmas present. We are a million per cent sure that the girl in the picture is our daughter," Mrs Meissmer said. Her husband said he was "90 per cent sure."
However, many families saw their hopes lifted and then dashed in the aftermath of the tsunami when what they thought was evidence of relatives' survival turned out to be unfounded. And medics warned it was unlikely that Solitaire had survived and remained separated from her parents for so long.
Mr Meissmer owned a bungalow and restaurant in the nearby province of Phang-nga, where the greatest number of lives were lost. He has lived in Thailand for eight years.
The Meissmer family were in their beachside restaurant, with Patchara holding Solitaire in her arms, when the tsunami struck.
"I was swept into the sea for more than 100m but miraculously survived," Mrs Meissmer said. She was hospitalised for one week while her husband began the search for their daughter, which the couple said had cost them a considerable sum of money.
Nearly 5,400 people died and another 2,817 are still listed as missing in Thailand. Many of the victims there were foreigners on holiday at beach resorts on the Andaman Sea coast.
A German Foreign Ministry spokesman in Berlin said that there were still German federal officers working in Thailand to help with the identification of bodies and assist in efforts to find the 15 German nationals still missing.
Mr Meissmer said they had gone to Thai and German police as well as the Phuket-based Disaster Victim Identification Unit after the tsunami but nobody believed their daughter could still be alive.
"Nobody helped us. Even friends said they didn't believe our daughter had survived," he said.
However, a paediatric mental health expert, Dr Srivieng Pairojkul from Thailand's Khon Kaen University, said it was unlikely that the girl in the photograph was the Meissmers' daughter. "The system in Thailand is such that it is very hard for a child to disappear [once she has been reported by the health authorities]," she said. "Unlike neighbouring countries, there are very few cases of child trafficking here."