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Grief's waiting room

Some of the photographs are from happier times.

"Maja Huber," reads the type under the picture of a beautiful little German girl. "Five years, blond curly hair, brown eyes. About one meter high. If you have information please call . . ."

Others are images no mother or father, husband or wife should ever have to see.

The number 0087 is superimposed over a bloated, discolored body. All that is recognizable of "Female, foreigner, teenager" is a small gold hoop earring.

The tsunami that roared onto Thailand's magnificent beaches Dec. 26 killed more than 5,000 Thais and foreign tourists. Thousands remain missing or unidentified, and it is to a green tent on a busy city street that relatives come in search of their loved ones.

"This is hard," says Yupadee Somanus as she slowly walks down row after row of gruesome photos. Four times she has been here, hoping to find her 26-year-old son, Pongphun, who had been working in a beachfront resort when the waves hit.

"I cannot recognize him from the pictures," his mother says. But, she adds, maybe she can spot him by the white shirt with a resort logo he always wore at work.

Mrs. Somanus also has given a sample of her DNA in the hope that science can identify what her tear-filled eyes cannot. Across the street, on the grounds of the Yanyao Buddhist temple, volunteers from around the world are working 24 hours a day to identify the hundreds of victims still in white plastic body bags.

"I had to come," says John Spitzberg, 62, a retired social worker and teacher from Asheville, N.C. "I'm a humanist and that means you go where people need you."

Spitzberg was visiting relatives in Florida for Christmas when he heard of the disaster. He flew to Thailand at his own expense and started at Yanyao a week ago helping to collect DNA samples from the dead.

"I've been working with Serbs and Swedes and French and Thais and it's just wonderful _ at least for the moment it's what's bringing the world together."

Like most volunteers, Spitzberg wears a white hazmat suit, black rubber boots, face mask and double gloves despite temperatures in the 80s. The goal is to protect against hepatitis and other diseases that could be spread by fluids seeping from decomposing bodies. So great is the fear of contamination that workers constantly spray the grounds with disinfectant.

"Do not pick up things from the floor with your naked hands!" warns one of many signs.

In the first few days after the tsunami, most victims were recognizable. But as heat and humidity took their toll, the difficult work of identification began.

Initial efforts were flawed enough that the Thai government this week ordered 800 bodies exhumed for fear some foreigners had been buried along with Thais. Now, each body gets a complete forensic workup, including fingerprinting, dental X-rays and DNA samples _ part of an arm bone from children, a sliver of rib from adults. The data is then implanted on a microchip in the skull.

Some matches have quickly been made between the forensic findings and information provided by relatives. But more than 3,000 unidentified bodies remain stored in refrigerated containers at Yanyao and another Buddhist temple serving as makeshift morgues for Thailand's tsunami victims.

Among those helping out are a team from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Fairbanks, Alaska. They were called in to check potential environmental problems caused by disinfectants and body fluids seeping into a nearby river.

One solution: Use the absorbents developed for oil spills.

"The Thais have done a great job setting this up but there are some things we can do," says team leader Teresa Schlosser, acknowledging queasiness at the sight of so many bodies being examined in the hot sun. "See _ my hand is still shaking a little."

The atmosphere at the Yanyao morgue is a mix of the macabre and the mundane. Just yards from where volunteers wheel wooden coffins back and forth, others stand in a chow line for Thai noodle soup or Western-style hot dogs.

"I'm sure I'm on automatic pilot to some extent," says Father Rand Frew, an Episcopal priest and founder of an AIDS prevention organization that had offices in Clearwater. "You do what you have to do at the moment and later on you have time to reflect and be sad."

The morgue operation is overseen by a legendary _ and flamboyant _ Thai forensic doctor, Pornthip Rojanasunant. With her spiked hair and skintight jeans, she cuts a striking figure as she scurries around the temple grounds.

This week, she brought in a famous Bangkok hairstylist to give free cuts to weary volunteers. Other beauticians also donated their services.

Such gestures have helped lift spirits in what could be an overwhelmingly depressing atmosphere.

"The first day, I thought I had to leave right away," says Susan Barnett, a Washington, D.C., teacher who has been cooking for volunteers, "but there are so many friendly people here, all for the same reason."

Still, it is hard to escape the terrible reality of what happened Dec. 26.

On Monday afternoon, a German couple walked through the temple gates and showed a Thai volunteer a photo of their young nephew. He was vacationing at a resort destroyed by the waves, and has not been seen since.

The volunteer took their information, then said in halting English: "Good luck. We are all sad."

For a few minutes, the couple stood silent and alone, his arm around her shoulders. They stared at the white-suited figures hurrying past, wheeling yet another unidentified body to the refrigerated containers.

Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at susansptimes.com

ON THE WEB

To read Susan Taylor Martin's Online Journal from Thailand, please go to www.sptimes.com.

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