Asia disaster: 'Too few coffins in Phuket'

The earthquake and waves that have claimed up to 77,000 people in Asia have left survivors with a near-impossible job in southern Thailand…

As we turned into Patong Hospital’s car park we found ourselves stuck behind four trucks laden with empty coffins - about 40 per truck.
Some were little more than grey crates, others had been painted white with gold patterns stenciled on the sides, pale imitations of the ornate caskets so common in South-East Asia.

There was just one parking space left and we took it. As we opened the doors of the air-conditioned car, we were surrounded by the whining of electric saws and the rhythm of nails being hammered.

The walk to the hospital entrance took us past the source of the noise, and the reason why our part of the car park was full. It was given over entirely to making coffins.

Young men grabbed plywood sheets from foot-high stacks on the floor - the hospital has been appealing for donations of plywood - and sawed them into panels for other young men to nail together as fast as they could.


It took about two minutes to make one coffin, and it showed: no two were the same size, and as there was no time to sandpaper the panels, the hands of their makers were freckled with splinters.

As soon as a coffin was finished, it was taken to the mortuary, where a body, wrapped in plastic sheeting was placed inside.

Phuket has few places in its refrigerated mortuaries and the island’s hospitals have been appealing for donations of formalin preservative to stop bodies piled outside from decomposing beyond recognition.

If there was an identity card on the body when it was found, a photocopy of it was pasted on one short end of the coffin. If there wasn’t, there was a photograph of the person’s face. But bodies don’t keep well in 30C heat, and if the face was too distorted or discoloured to be recognised, there were also photographs of their clothes, or a tattoo or a piece of distinctive jewellery.

The photographs have been placed on a computer in the hospital reception, and anxious people, mainly Thais, were queuing to click through them, hoping yet hoping not to find a face they recognised.

The coffins were carried to the hospital’s underground car park, probably the coolest place on the premises.

Half-an-hour earlier, I had stood on a hillside and looked across the area most affected by the tsunami, where some of Patong’s thriving bars, restaurants, trinket shops and tailors had previously been. It resembled a building site rather than a killing field.

The weather here is such that buildings don’t need to be particularly substantial, and they don’t leave much mess when they’re wrecked, so it’s sometimes hard to comprehend the magnitude of what has been visited on this so-called ‘island paradise’.

Until you find yourself watching men make coffin after coffin and still not make enough.