Up to 2,000 Swedes are missing in tourist resorts devastated by Sunday’s earthquake and tidal waves.
As the overall death toll rose to over 23,000 and Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India, Thailand and the Maldives declared states of emergency, the first plane bringing Swedes home from the devastation touched down at Arlanda airport on Monday morning.
Expressen reported that “at least 20 Swedes – maybe as many as 50 – could have died in Thailand”.
There were thought to be 20,000-30,000 Swedes holidaying in the area over Christmas and by Monday afternoon 10 had already been confirmed dead.
“It is so chaotic – we have no figures on how many Swedes are in the areas – that information is with the agencies and, for example, Fritidsresor has said that they are missing 800 people,” said the foreign office’s chief press officer Nina Ersman.
Agneta Åstrand at travel agency Apollo told Expressen that they had only managed to contact 200 of their 300 guests in the resort of Khao Lak while by Monday afternoon Ving, which has almost 4,000 Scandinavian tourists in the Phuket area, was still trying to track down 30% of them.
Sweden’s ambassador to Thailand, Jonas Hafström, visited hospitals and meeting points in Phuket on Sunday and Monday, and told news agency TT that “many had lost their nearest and dearest”.
Around 50 foreign office staff were called in on Sunday to take calls from relatives of tourists in the area and many more were on duty on Monday. Nina Ersman told Svenska Dagbladet that callers were upset by the lack of information.
“They are getting very angry and desperate and we completely understand that,” she said.
Khao Lak, the worst affected resort in Thailand, is particularly popular among Scandinavian tourists.
“It’s an unbelievable tragedy” said Lottie Knutson, the information director at Fritidsresor. “With the buses which are now coming down to Phuket [from Khao Lak] there are incredible numbers of people missing all or part of their families.”
Svenska Dagbladet said that several of the holiday company’s own staff are still missing.
“Today we’ve managed to get into Khao Lak and now we have some eyewitness reports. The destruction is massive – many Swedes are in hospitals or at meeting points such as schools,” she said.
On Monday morning first aiders, Red Cross staff and journalists joined families at Arlanda airport to welcome the first “evacuation plane” from Phuket.
Passengers, many dressed in shorts, t-shirts and sandals, described the horror that they left behind – and their luck in surviving.
Daniel Dalbjer’s story of how he was woken on Sunday morning in the Thai resort of Patong was typical of many.
“At first I didn’t understand what was going on,” he told Expressen. “But then I saw the water and they told us that we had to get up higher.”
“Dad and I managed to climb up onto a roof which was well over seven metres above the ground. But the water almost reached us anyway.”
Magarete and her husband from Gävle were staying at Karon Beach, a short distance south of Patong. She told the paper that if the wall of water had hit the coast ten minutes later they would have been on the beach.
“It was awful – cars and motorbikes and debris floating around a mass of bloody people,” she said. “We were unbelievably lucky.”
But for every tale of good fortune for Swedes – and there are many – there is news of desperate loss.
Indeed, while the majority of the victims of the tsunami caused by the earthquake are local people living by the coasts of Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India and Thailand, a disproportionate number of the tourists missing or dead appear to be Swedes.
In Aftonbladet alone the stories of family tragedies seemed almost unending.
“Our family is gone,” a woman from Gothenburg told the paper as she sat in an emergency hospital in Krabi with her eleven year old daughter. She had seen nothing of her husband and two other children.
“Swede Per should have been getting married today – his wife is gone,” read another headline. “Death wave took Anna, 4,” read another, while a third described how a Swedish man protected his girlfriend before being swept away himself.
Speaking at a press conference on Monday afternoon, prime minister Göran Persson described the disaster as “shocking” and “a nightmare”.
He said that Swedish aid was being sent to the affected countries but primarily Sri Lanka, which has been worst hit.
In response to a direct question about how many Swedes had perished in the disaster, Persson said “about ten” but added that it was hard to tell at the moment and the total could rise.
Foreign minister Laila Freivalds urged the public to use email or fax to enquire after relatives if they couldn’t get through to the foreign office by phone.
For a list of Sweden’s emergency numbers and internet links concerning the Asian earthquake click here.