Monday, 21 October 2013

Grim task of identifying Laos bodies

Disaster victim identification experts from Australia arrived in the southern Laos city of Pakse yesterday to begin the grim task of matching the remains of six Australians killed in the country's worst air disaster with ante-mortem evidence collected from grieving families.

Thirty-nine bodies have been recovered from the fast-flowing Mekong River, and French aviation investigators were working with Thai divers yesterday to recover the black box from the new ATR-72 aircraft after locating its signal a day earlier.

All 49 passengers and crew on board the Lao Airlines flight from the capital Vientiane to Pakse died in the crash on Wednesday.

Among those pulled from the turbid, brown water at the weekend was the body of a second small child, raising hopes among the anxious Lao relatives of an Australian family of four that the remains of three-year-old Jadesuda Rhodes had been found.

On Saturday Lao Airlines released a statement identifying 14 of the bodies, including those of Sydney tax consultant Gavin Rhodes, 39, and his 17-month-old son Manfred.

Relatives say they also identified the remains of Lao-born Phoumalaysy (Lea) Rhodes after seeing her body brought into Pakse's Chinese temple, which has served as a makeshift morgue since the tragedy.

According to the flight manifest, the two Rhodes children were the only minors on the flight.

But Thai investigators said yesterday the second child was also a boy, suggesting either an omission in the airline's records or the possibility that he was a local casualty of the treacherous Mekong, which gives life but frequently takes it away.

"We know the (Rhodes) couple had two children, a boy and a girl, but in here we have two boys," said Jarumporn Suramanee, the Thai four-star general overseeing the morgue operations.

The Mekong River is the lifeblood of this small, impoverished country and the weekend marked an important annual Buddhist festival in which locals celebrate the end of the Buddhist lent with firecrackers and dragon boat races.

This year the races have been cancelled in Pakse in deference to those who died, and to the family and friends left behind.

Instead young monks in bright, saffron robes lined the river on Saturday night and prayed for the dead, lighting candles and sending wax-paper lanterns into the air as they did so.

Villagers downstream of the crash have also been touched by the disaster, with bodies reportedly found in water as far as 100km south of Pakse.

General Suramanee said autopsies so far had been conducted on 11 bodies. Though Australian officials had worked quickly to collect and deliver ante-mortem identifying evidence -- from toothbrushes to dental records -- for all six Australian victims, there was a hint of frustration yesterday in his appeal to French and South Korean officials who, he said, had so far provided nothing.

Monday 21 October 2013


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