French navy plane scours sea for Phuket bodies

6th January 2005, Comments 0 comments

ON BOARD PATROL AIRCRAFT OFF PHUKET, Thailand, Jan 6 (AFP) - "Look out, a body at 300 metres to the left!"

ON BOARD PATROL AIRCRAFT OFF PHUKET, Thailand, Jan 6 (AFP) - "Look out, a body at 300 metres to the left!"

The cry goes out on board the French navy coastal patrol aircraft Atlantique 2 after a new corpse is spotted west of Thailand's Phuket island.

It is the 11th body spotted in the course of the day. The aircraft must guide a Thai frigate in the zone to the area to retrieve it.

Seen from above the coast of Phuket, which was among the Indian Ocean coastlines devastated by the December 26 tsunamis, the body in the form of a cross looks bloated and yellowed.

Once a body is located, the French plane disgorges a colouring agent marking a large area with fluorescent green coating.

The patrol crew immediately transmits the coordinates of the location to a Thai vessel nearby.

Spotting a body is only half the task. The location has to be marked and a Thai frigate led there.

"The Thais are a bit slow in responding when we tell them. But then we can't blame them, it's dirty work and they're overwhelmed," said one French crew member.

In fact, hauling a body out of the water is no easy task.

"After 10 days in the water, the body lacks all rigidity and is likely to come apart," said Lieutenant Laurent Chaumette, commander of Atlantique 2.

From the windows of the plane, a frigate can be seen approaching a floating corpse. On the port side, the Thai sailors throw a special dinghy over the corpse to haul it aboard.

The French aircraft surveys the operation, constantly circling overhead. According to the French crew, some 100 bodies they spotted since the start of their mission on January 1 must belong to one group, perhaps a boat that capsized off the north of Phuket.

"We find chairs, guardrail, perhaps from a ferry," said one crew member.

From the air, some parts of the sea seem to be choking with flotsam and jetsam.

There are also upturned hulls of small boats.

On the approach to the coasts, the scale of the destruction becomes more apparent.

At a hotel complex bungalows facing the sea have lost their roofs. Some buildings have been razed to their foundations.

A row of coconut trees has been felled on the beach. A fishing boat has been tossed into a swamp at least 500 metres (1,650 feet) from the sea. Even those hotels which have apparently been spared, and which would normally be full during the current peak season, appear deserted with empty swimming pools.

More than a week after the tsunami disaster, Atlantique 2 is in a race against time.

"A body emerges to the surface after three days and remains there for six to nine days before sinking again," said commander Chaumette. "We only have a day or two to try and retrieve the body."

His aircraft must therefore circle constantly for several hours in the area to try to spot as many bodies as possible for identification.

"Each body retrieved is at least a sign for the families to begin funeral arrangements," said first officer Laurent Dossat.

Once the body is handed over to the Thais, the French crew gets no more information about it.

"They don't even tell us if the body is that of a Westerner," one of them said.

Foreign holidaymakers, mainly from northern Europe, account for around half the 5,288 confirmed dead in Thailand. Officials have said many of the 3,716 still listed as missing, including 940 foreigners, are probably dead.

Many European countries, whose nationals were escaping the northern winter on Thailand's beaches when the waves struck, are mourning their dead.

Navigator Frederic Larrive said retrieving just a few bodies given the scale of the disaster might seem unimportant, "but for Westerners it's become more and more important."


Subject: French News

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