"My greatest fear is that I won't recognize her"

Two U.K. families unite in grief in searching for missing relatives at a former beach resort in Thailand.

Published January 7, 2005 2:44PM (EST)

They had only met the previous day. The young Edinburgh, Scotland, taxi driver and the middle-aged Glaswegian college lecturer came from very different worlds. Yet Thursday, on a devastated beach in one of the world's most beautiful resorts, they were united in grief. Like at least a dozen other Britons, Michael Lee and Bob Scott had flown to Thailand on a grim hunt for relatives missing since the tsunami struck. Had fortunes been different, they might conceivably have one day been guests at the same Scottish wedding.

Michael's sister, Eileen, a 24-year-old event organizer, and Bob's nephew, Dominic Stephenson, a 28-year-old architect, were a couple. They had just bought a flat together in Leith after being together for four years; and they had gone on holiday to celebrate.

Instead, Michael and Bob have had to get to know each other in the most harrowing of circumstances -- at temporary morgues and the disaster site that was once the bustling tourist resort of Phi Phi Island.

Thursday, they came to lay a wreath of red, violet, white and orange flowers under a palm tree that is almost the only thing left standing in an area that was once Charlie Bungalows, the last-known resting place of their loved ones. They liked the island. In his last e-mail, Dominic sent a Christmas Day greeting saying: "This is paradise, Mum." Bob, a 58-year-old MBA lecturer at Glasgow Caledonian University, arrived on Phi Phi on Dec. 30. He spent several days looking for his nephew -- a task that involved constantly checking the lists of people injured at hospitals and flicking through the hundreds of photographs of bodies recovered from beaches and the ruins of hotels.

When he first went to Phi Phi Island, he said it was like a scene from the film "Apocalypse Now." "There were helicopters coming and going. Bodies were lined up on the pier. Fires were burning everywhere," he said. "I told myself I have to be strong because I have a job to do. I kept myself going by humming Bob Marley's "Redemption Song"; I knew Dominic [a reggae lover] would like that." On Sunday, he found what he most wanted and dreaded -- his nephew's body. He was initially able to identify it from a photograph of a wallet containing a Bank of Scotland banknote; he has since confirmed identification to what he describes as a 99.9 percent degree of accuracy from dental records.

Michael flew in on Wednesday and Bob is trying to induct him into a routine that cannot help bringing on a complicated and painful feeling of guilty hope that a body will be found at one of the temples that have become temporary morgues. While Dominic is one of the 41 confirmed U.K. victims, Eileen is one of more than 150 Britons still missing.

"I've nearly cleared what I have to do," said Bob. "I stayed on to help Michael through this difficult process. I hope to get some sense of closure for Michael. He is still shattered and jetlagged. He saw the morgue photographs last night. That is very hard to take."

On the speedboat trip to Phi Phi Island Thursday, the two strangers expressed concern about each other. When they arrived at the site of the disaster, they helped to talk each other through the whirl of emotions they were feeling. "If she had only waited a week. If she had only stayed up there," said Michael, pointing to a row of beach huts left standing 50 meters farther away from the shore.

"Yes. But this is the most beautiful spot on the beach," said Bob, putting his arm around the shoulder of the grieving man. "That's why they chose it."

Friday, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw is expected to visit what is left of the hotels and beach huts on the island, which was the location for the film "The Beach" with Leonardo DiCaprio. Bob says he was impressed by the support given by embassy staff and volunteers in Thailand. But Michael is unhappy that his family had to wait more than a week before the authorities responded to their concerns. "Jack Straw is not my favorite person right now. When I saw him on TV, he seemed to be only interested in covering his backside. He seemed cold. It is hard to explain. I was so angry at that point. He was saying the U.K. was doing all it could, but as he was saying it we were unable to get any information from the authorities. There was a real lack of communication."

Michael says he will stay for as long as it takes to exhaust every avenue in the search for his sister. But, partly thanks to Bob's advice, he is under few illusions. "In a way, I'm thankful they found Dominic's body. It gives me hope that I can find Eileen," he said. "I'm hoping she is in a temple morgue. My greatest fear is that I won't recognize her."

He is concerned that he may face an extra difficulty because his parents are originally from Hong Kong, so Eileen's Asian appearance makes it easy for her to be mistaken for a local woman. "It is hard. The Thai girls all look so much like her -- the bone structure and hair color, the same Asia look. I keep thinking I can see her," he says. Ironically, it was the first trip to Asia for Eileen, who was born and brought up in Scotland.

Before traveling to Thailand, she had visited Hong Kong, where she met her grandmother for the first time. It is also the first trip to Asia for Michael, who will be alone from Sunday when Bob flies home. "I'll stay as long as it takes," says Michael. "I must explore every avenue. I would hate to go back home with the feeling that there was something I had left undone."

Both men are suffering but helping each other and trying to find something positive to take out of the experience. "I am only speaking to the media because I hope the publicity will encourage more people to donate money to the relief work," says Bob. "The best thing that has come out of this is that our family has learned how great Dominic's family are," says Michael. "I just wish it hadn't taken this disaster to make that happen."

By Jonathan Watts

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