The State Department said Tuesday 16 U.S. citizens are confirmed dead and just over 4000 still unaccounted for from the Asian earthquake and tsunami. Officials say they do not believe the final number of Americans who perished in the disaster will be in the thousands.
Accounting for missing Americans has been a daunting task for the State Department, which has sent consular officials to hard-hit resort areas in the region to assist in the process, and is running an around-the-clock identification task force here.
Tens of thousands of U.S. citizens were spending year-end holidays or traveling on business in the Indian Ocean region when the earthquake and tsunami struck December 26.
A toll-free telephone hotline set up by the State Department was drawing hundreds of calls an hour from concerned friends and family members in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, and an initial list of unaccounted-for Americans exceeded 20,000.
At a news briefing Tuesday, State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli said that list of unresolved cases has now been whittled down to just over 4000, with 16 Americans confirmed killed, eight of them in Sri Lanka and another eight in Thailand.
He said duplicate inquiries about single individuals have complicated the task of compiling a firm list of those missing. But he said the State Department should be able to cite a specific list soon, thanks in part to increasing cooperation from governments and travel companies in the region.
"We have gotten from the Thai authorities immigration records of Americans who had entered and left the country,” he noted. “That has helped us significantly. We are working with authorities in Sri Lanka and Indonesia for the same kind of information that will help us to provide a more precise accounting. Another thing we're doing is working with airlines in Thailand, for example, to get information on Americans who came and left the country, and in that way we can also eliminate a lot of names on the list."
Mr. Ereli said U.S. diplomatic posts in the region had scant information about American tourists and others who were in the respective countries at the time of the disaster.
It is recommended, for security and other reasons, that American visitors report their presence to U.S. embassies and consulates, but in tourist areas, few actually do.
A diplomat who spoke to reporters here said officials involved in the accounting process do not believe that the number of Americans who died in the disaster will be in the thousands.
He said the conclusion is based on progress being made in narrowing the list of those still unaccounted for, and the fact that the State Department has been receiving relatively few desperate or frantic calls from families about missing relatives.
The State Department continues to urge Americans abroad who were traveling in or near areas affected by the earthquake and tsunami to call home and notify relatives and friends that they are safe.