Vol. 15 No. 1
Summer 2005

Following last December’s devastating tsunami in Asia, Don Pedersen, a professor in the U’s Physician Assistant Program, flew to Thailand to help with recovery efforts. He assumed he would be providing humanitarian aid. Instead, he was put to work in the morgue, helping to identify victims by taking DNA samples. During his 10 days at ground zero for one of the worst natural disasters in recorded history, Pedersen chronicled the experience by keeping a journal and taking photographs.

I talked with Noi (a family friend from Thailand) about how to approach the bodies. What is the [Thai] culture surrounding death? Apparently, Thai people encourage the spirit, which leaves the body, to move on and not stay around to cause problems.

Took a taxi from Phuket through the [nearest] impact area. The destruction is incomprehensible. There were very good precautions entering the morgue: rubber boots, plastic suits, double gloves, disinfectant spray when leaving. We were to receive 300 more bodies in the afternoon. They arrived at 11 a.m. The injuries were horrific—skulls fractured, limbs twisted backwards. Faces in grotesque shapes, seemingly screaming. I keep writing as I am afraid to close my eyes to sleep for fear of the visions I know I will have.

Sat for a while with a young man from Switzerland. He related that one of the Thai military soldiers lost his parents and six siblings. Alone now, he works carrying bodies all day long.

3 a.m. Up again unable to sleep. Thinking about the ever-present clanging of metal on metal as new [identification] tags are prepared to add to the bodies. I find myself washing and showering longer. Trying to wash the reality of this situation away.

Fox 13 news interviewed me today. They wanted to know [about the morgue work], but when I told them [the reporter] cut the tape and asked that I tone it down. We found numerous Westerners among the bodies with our last batch. Gold chains, designer clothes, gold dental fillings.






My Utah students want to come and help, but logistics are such a problem: transportation, housing, language, all major issues. One group of volunteers showed up and wanted to do “orienteering” (whatever that is)—when they were told they could [move] bodies, they left.

This morning the work was brutal, 45 bodies on the ground in the sun. The state of them is no longer an issue. There is nothing worse than what I have already seen—mothers with their babies in the same body bag... the back of a skull disintegrating in my hands. Knowing each was a unique human being is difficult. I send them on their way as Noi instructed, to a better place.

[I met with] the only female monk in Thailand, Dhamanannda, and asked for a blessing. We retreated to a quiet place in the garden where she performed a water ceremony for me. Two cups, one full of water the other empty. While she prayed, I poured the water from the full cup into the empty one and then poured the water on a tree. She said she prayed that the merits (karma) I have garnered by working with the Thai bodies protect me and sustain me.

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