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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 January 2005, 18:58 GMT
Thai eyewitness: Morgue volunteer

A makeshift morgue in Khao Lak
There is a race to get bodies out of the hot sun

Keith Lambert, a 31-year old from the UK, was on an extended holiday in Thailand when the tsunami hit. He has been helping with the aftermath.

I have just returned from two of the largest open-air morgues in the south of Thailand.

The first one I visited was in a temple called Ban Muang, which was set up to receive the bodies of all the foreigners being brought in.

A police cordon surrounded the site and the first thing I saw was everyone wearing face masks - not one, but two or three.

What one is never prepared for is the smell. It's a solid wall of rotting, decomposing flesh that hits as you approach the tents.

People talk about what hell looks like, and this, I think, is a fairly accurate impression of what it is

Carpenters outside were busy building body racks, and to the right were the coffins - piles and piles of them all stacked more than six high and hundreds deep.

Next to the tents were the photo ID boards - dozens of them showing identifiable faces with smiles and laughter, next to which were hundreds and hundreds of pictures taken over the last nine days.

Most of these were totally unrecognisable - swollen bodies three times their usual size, eyes popped from their sockets...

The first time I saw these pictures, at another centre five days ago, I was sick. Now I walk past and don't even give them a second thought. You just become so numb you shut down reality as you once knew it and enter another world completely.

Workers at a morgue in Khao Lak
Workers are wearing more than one mask to guard against the smell

People talk about what hell looks like, and this, I think, is a fairly accurate impression of what it is.

But you have to eat and you have to drink. You have no choice, so you find yourself a place where the smell is less prevalent and you get on and eat.

Counsellors were on site and advised us to stay with one other person at all times, whether we knew them or not.

This is so that you both have someone to talk to, someone to make you laugh. It is the only way to get through it without either breaking down or going completely off the rails.

Dealing with the onlookers

I moved down to another temple called Yan Yau in the afternoon.

This is probably the biggest out of all the morgues in this area and the smell here was more overpowering than before, though this time I didn't go into the back holding area for the bodies.

It was in many ways just as disturbing watching the living here. This place was swarming with freelance reporters, photographers and news crews all waiting to dart in and get a picture of a body as a bag was unzipped or one was wheeled in on a barrow from the road.

Then there were the sight-seers who just wanted their picture taken on site, or to sign the visitors book.

Families came in with pictures, ID documents, all asking us to try and help identify their loved ones' bodies, all confused as to why we weren't able to do it immediately

All of these made you sick, like vultures sitting in tree branches just watching and waiting.

The place was a hive of activity. The armed forces doing their bit to help; forensic teams from around the world involved with taking DNA specimens as that is going to be the only way to complete this ID process in the future - a process which I suspect will be ongoing for many years to come, due to the scale of cross matching DNA samples worldwide.

There was a general feeling yesterday that the time was coming to start burying the dead, as at this rate there is going to be very little left for people to collect.

It would be better to set aside areas, turn them into large gravesites, seal them, and raise memorials there for the families. Spare people the pain of collecting what remains are left and can be found.

Families came in with pictures, ID documents, all asking us to try and help identify their loved ones' bodies, all confused as to why we weren't able to do it immediately.

Containers with bodies, Khao Lak
Identifying the dead is a very difficult process

I was given a photo of a young European woman taken by her friend just after the waters had receded, she was lying on the beach looking so serene, as though she was asleep.

The woman wanted to know if I could find her friend's body for her. I said I didn't know. In fact, her friend was some 50 yards away from where we were, but I knew that she no longer looked anything like her picture.

How do you tell a person that without being brutal?

This thankless task will continue for many, many weeks to come. Many people involved will return to their daily lives at he end of this, though many will forever carry the scars of what they have seen.

My work is not yet finished, and I like many others are doing two or three days on site and then pulling out for a day.

Towards the end of this week I will be moving back to the Patong area to begin cataloguing the dead down there and start compiling what we call the Death Roll.


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