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Australians Hunt for Missing Relatives in Tsunami-Devastated Thailand

Phil Mercer

In Asia, as the official search for disaster survivors enters its final phase, hundreds of Australians are still desperately looking for missing relatives in tsunami-hit holiday resorts. Many simply don't know if their loved ones are alive or dead.

So far 16 Australians are believed to have died in the December 26 tsunami disaster, although the government in Canberra has warned the final figure could be much higher.

Among the missing is Kim Walsh, a schoolteacher from the northern Australian state of Queensland. She was on holiday in the Thai beach resort of Khao Lak near Phuket with her husband, Ian. He survived but her fate is unknown.

Her brother Rod Emerson and cousin Terry have made the difficult journey from eastern Australia to Thailand.

Their task is a gruesome one - sifting through the mountains of bodies in makeshift mortuaries and combing local hospitals.

Rod Emerson, an irrigation worker, says they've come to find a very special person.

"She's always been very, very happy, especially with Ian," he said. "Since they met and married, she's always been happy, and a very, very friendly and very loving sort of person. Seems like everyone says that about somebody, but in Kim's case, it was dead-set true. It makes you wonder why sometimes the good people are the ones that go all the time, and yeah, she didn't deserve to be - to happen like this, that's for sure."

The Emersons were advised by the Australian government to stay away from the disaster area because of fears they could hamper the relief effort and obstruct the painstaking identification process of thousands of nameless victims.

The Australian Ambassador to Thailand Bill Paterson has just returned from the devastated resort areas and says it's an experience he wants the Emerson cousins to avoid.

"I've been around a number of war zones and crisis situations in my time, but I have to say that yesterday was just one of the most overwhelming experiences I've ever had," said Mr. Paterson. "And for that reason, for families who may be grieving and want to go and sort of check out these sites, I have to say, I don't think a lot can be served by doing that, and I think you might find it very disturbing."

The ripples of pain and uncertainty surrounding the disappearance of Kim Walsh flow all the way back home.

The schoolteacher from Cairns in Queensland is missed not only by her family but also by her colleagues.

Stephen Savvakis, the Principal at the Trinity Bay School in Cairns, says they're praying that she will be found alive.

"We're hoping that she's going to return to us, but of course, as every day goes past, our hopes are fading. I've had staff ring me over the holidays, 'cause we're all on school holidays at the moment, and they've been in tears," he said.

Australia's most senior police officer, Commissioner Mick Keelty, has toured the tsunami-hit region of Thailand where most of the Australian victims perished.

Even though Australia's sent teams of forensic examiners to help identify victims, Commissioner Keelty is warning families of missing Australians that some people may never be found.

"We're dealing with an open disaster. It's not contained like Bali [bombing in 2002] was contained, and because it's an open disaster, some people will have disappeared simply without trace," aid Mr. Keelty.

For Rod and his cousin Terry, their trip has ended in failure. They have found no sign of Kim Walsh, their sister and cousin. A distressing journey has come to sad end.

They have traveled thousands of kilometers determined to find her - dead or alive. Instead, they head back to Australia, their lives changed forever.

Rod says returning empty-handed will be difficult to explain to worried family members back home.

"The hardest part is talking to family, to my immediate family - mum and Karen, my sister, and Nicole, my wife and my two boys," he said. "They ask you - the kids don't understand. They'll just say, "Dad, bring Kim home."

Science may eventually provide the Emersons and many like them with the answers they need. DNA testing is being carried out to identify all the bodies, but some bodies will never be recovered.

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