Grim task in temple of the dead

By JAN McGIRK, The New Zealand Herald, Jan 14, 2005

Phuket, Thailand -- She is a wraithlike woman with red-dyed post-punk hair who has one of the most unenviable jobs in Thailand.

<< Thai forensic chief Porntip Rojasunan (centre) and her team are battling the odds to identify thousands of tsunami victims. Picture / Reuters

Stepping briskly through the endless rows of cadavers in the Yan Yao temple in Phang Nga province, Dr Porntip Rojanasunan, eyes expressionless behind stark Gothic makeup, is leading the herculean task of cataloguing corpses retrieved after the tsunami slammed into Thailand's Andaman coast resorts on Boxing Day.

A Bangkok celebrity - who also carries the inevitable sobriquet Dr Death - Dr Porntip is driving a fierce pace of autopsies at Yan Yao Temple near Takua Pa town.

British veterans of various disasters and the Bali bombings have been stunned by what they have seen inside Wat Yan Yao.

But Dr Porntip's dedication to her work is as striking as her appearance.

Before the disaster, as the deputy director of the Justice Ministry's Forensic Science Institute, she augmented her government salary by writing best-sellers on her most challenging murder cases. She has no time to write now.

The Yan Yao temple is a roadside Buddhist sanctuary.

It became southern Thailand's principal morgue after the tsunami.

Two gargantuan waves demolished dozens of new beachside luxury resorts in nearby Khao Lak, and many of the staff and guests now lie in shrouds or bodybags on the temple floor. More are stacked in refrigerated boxes.

Thailand now estimates that 5300 people died on its shores in the tsunami, and 3716 more remain missing. About half are tourists.

Hundreds of cases are being reassessed following the doctor's decision to re-do the Thai bodycount after ink ran on some of the tags.

Desperate relatives also believe Asian tourists may have been taken for locals by inexperienced and overworked volunteer undertakers.

Dr Porntip will not tolerate errors and omissions. All unidentified bodies are to be re-examined.

At 48 years old, she is the best known of five pathologists in a country that has only 50 licensed forensic doctors. Her fury and fatigue are palpable as the team battles tropical levels of decay in the third week since the cataclysmic waves.

"We are not prepared for such a big disaster as this," she mutters. She co-ordinates 300 forensic anthropologists, pathologists and scientists from 30 countries who are battling time and overwhelming odds.

The logistics of running the world's largest autopsy unit are daunting.

Since Boxing Day, kept going by Red Bull drinks and the odd cigarette, Dr Porntip has taken just 24 hours off.

After taking samples of teeth, muscle and bone, she has little choice but to munch a snack sitting close to a row of bodies.

Then there are the dogs. A starving pack of 40 has begun to menace the bodies.

Some appear to be pets searching for their drowned masters.

But feral dogs fed on human flesh that washed ashore and now prowl around the temple morgue for more.

At least critics of Dr Porntip's radical hairdo and punk dress sense may decide to keep quiet.

Conservative Thais have mocked her for the image and the frequency of her appearances on talk shows.

She says her startling appearance is designed "to make me happy, to compensate for the work".

No one would begrudge her that pleasure now.