David Abels called home on Thursday, a day after arriving in Thailand, with an urgent question that had been overlooked in his family's 12-day search since the tsunami. Had his brother Ben ever been fingerprinted?
Family members here in the home office that they call central command switched tracks in what has been a constant cycle of grief and action. A cousin decided to check whether Colorado, where Ben Abels used to live, requires fingerprints for driver's licenses. His parents, who recalled something about fingerprints before he took a trip to South America, discussed calling the State Department and their congresswoman, in case they needed help finding the files.
And surely the forensic laboratory already hired to scour for DNA samples on the Abels' belongings could dust his house for fingerprints.
"We're searching for a connection, but do we want them to find one?" his father, Bob Abels, said on Thursday, soon after the family learned that seven Western bodies had turned up near where Ben was last seen on Phi Phi island. "We don't want to never know. But there's a conflict. We're doing all this to identify the body, and yet we don't want it identified."
Ben Abels, 33, a real-estate broker, is among 20 Americans missing and presumed dead. His family is one of scores that have been on computers and cell phones desperate for clues about lost loved ones.
Americans' erratic travel and communication habits have made tallying the true tsunami toll on them elusive, as the State Department toils to unravel many cases with few leads. The Americans totaled 37 lost _ 17 bodies have been identified.
Unresolved queries to the State Department about missing people _ 1,809 Friday, down from an initial 28,000 _ include well-heeled vacationers like Ben Abels, as well as backpackers with vague itineraries. There are expatriates who had been in sporadic contact with folks back home and people who long ago returned from abroad but, apparently, forgot to call concerned friends.
Some are travelers in places like Katmandu, far from the epicenter. Others are society's dropouts, further hidden by the chaos.
Each day, a few more give up hope. Relatives of Fernando Bengoechea, the New York fashion photographer, sent an e-mail message on Thursday "with great sadness," saying that they were finally "forced to presume" him dead.
The families of Luke Scully and Angela Foust, a couple from Portland, Ore., whose last sign of life is a $90 charge on Christmas Eve at the Khao Lak Orchid Hotel in Thailand, stopped paying private investigators on Wednesday.
The families know that they are hoping for a miracle, but "we also know that miracles are happening every day," said Tina Mahaffey, a friend of Foust.
One occurred just after midnight Thursday, when Andrea Bernard of Seattle received an e-mail from her missing brother Ruel.
"Hi dear _ We are fine," Ruel Bernard, 50, wrote of himself and a backcountry traveling companion. They had last been heard from on Dec. 21, bound for Sumatra. "Sorry, we have been in the mountains far from e-mail. You will get a full report upon our return."
Hearing that his old friends were planning a Woodstock-style wake, Ruel replied, "Please tell me this is a joke." Assured not, he wrote, "Oh my God."
The tsunami has complicated Americans' efforts to find loved ones who may just not want to be found. There is Joseph Ginevicz, 28, who suffered a head injury in a car accident before he left Boulder, Colo., last February to roam in Asia. His mother, Dona Smith, has been pestering the State Department since she last heard from him March 14. Her worries were deepened by the tsunami.
Jodeine Cramer, 29, went to Thailand last month to work as a hotel desk clerk and failed to call home on Christmas. "She's kind of going through an independent stage of wanting to live her life on her own," her sister Robin East of Hollister, Mo., said.
Leah Grecko, 71, has not heard from her brother Keith Brooks since a Nov. 22 postcard saying he was headed to Thailand. Then again, she usually hears from him just a few times each year.
Many families are worried that the Thai government's recovery efforts have slowed in recent days, and that bodies of Westerners might be bulldozed into mass graves or burned without efforts at identification. Ben's mother, Hope Abels, said her worst fear is that she will be unable to bury her son in the family plot in Chicago.
"I want to go there on his birthday, I want to go there on his Yahrzeit," she said. "It's the waiting, it's the waiting. If he's not going to come back, I want a funeral. I want to sit Shiva. I want to do everything you do to heal. We can't do any of that."
ON THE WEB
For information on missing Americans, call toll-free 1-888-407-4747 or visit www.state.gov/p/sa/tsunami/
For additional information on others missing:
+ www.tsunamihelp.info/wiki/ index.php/Missing%26Found