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In Sweden, the number of dead and missing is seen as country's worst disaster

STOCKHOLM, Sweden—When the boy on crutches asked Jonny Eckardt how his Christmas had gone, Eckardt nodded at the boy's injury and noted, "Looks like it went better than yours. Skiing accident?"

"No," the boy said in a weak voice. "Thailand. My mom and sister are still missing."

Eckardt, who owns a video store in the Altensgatan neighborhood in suburban Stockholm, waited until the boy left his store before he started to cry.

"It's like this all day long, since the tsunami," he said, drying his eyes. "Everyone lost someone; every day we are reminded."

The waves that killed more than 150,000 people may have crashed ashore half a world away, but the shock is being felt here.

Swedish officials say "only 52" of almost 20,000 vacationing residents are known to have died in the waves. But they're certain the toll will be much higher. Another 702 Swedes are confirmed missing—meaning they're both missing and known to have been staying along the coast when the waves hit—and 1,201 are called unconfirmed missing, meaning they're missing but it's uncertain they were in areas hit by the tsunami.

That may seem a small number, given the hugeness of the disaster. But in a country with just 9 million inhabitants, it's an enormous toll. For comparison, the equivalent number of dead and missing Americans would be nearly 64,000.

A recent survey by the state television system and the Sifo polling group found that 4 of every 10 Swedes know someone who either died or was otherwise affected by the disaster.

"This will be the most dramatic catastrophe in our history," said Prime Minister Goran Persson, meaning more than the 551 Swedes, of 852 total, who died in a 1994 ferry disaster in Estonia.

Police and counselors wait at the Stockholm airport to greet anyone returning from Asia, hoping to check names off the lists of the missing. But as the days pass, hope fades.

"It is impossible for us to speculate on the fate of those still missing, but after this long, nobody is thinking good thoughts," Foreign Ministry spokesman Claes Jernaeus said. "Our fears are overwhelming."

In the past 20 years, Southeast Asia has become popular as a Swedish vacation destination. It offers plenty of sun and warm water, two things certain to attract people fleeing the short, damp and cold days of northern Europe's winter.

After airfare, other costs are minimal. So many Swedes make the trip that chartered jumbo jets are fully booked six months ahead of time.

Perhaps nowhere in Sweden is more affected than Altensgatan, a pleasant, upper middle-class place with two-story homes and a picture-postcard shopping district.

Families here often have the money and time for long Asia vacations, and even among those who didn't go this year, most say they've gone in years past. More than 30 people from this small neighborhood are missing.

Eckardt displays a sign outside his video store noting that all proceeds will go to victims of the tragedy.

"Were I anywhere else, I would just give my own money and that would be enough," he said. "But here, it is everyone."

Down the street, a woman knelt by a small makeshift shrine on the sidewalk outside Balsam, a small shop. Tears rolling down her cheeks, she rearranged the notes—simple ones that said "I think of you" and "You are loved"—and candles.

The owner of the shop is missing, as are her husband and one child. One son has returned, injured.

The woman stood. "I needed to arrange the notes, so that they could be read. But I have forgotten matches, so someone else will have to relight the candles." Then she rushed off in tears.

Across the street, a young man in a pizza shop said it was still too painful to talk about. "We can't stop thinking about it, so we try to talk of other things."

Nearby, Jeff Baker sipped coffee as he remembered close friends—husband, wife and two young children—who are missing.

"They were with another family, who also have children at our school, and they're also all missing," he said.

Jedera Bensson, the headmaster at the Alstensskolan, the neighborhood school, was rushing from a meeting with teachers, counselors, psychologists and priests to visit an injured teacher in the hospital.

"He's alive, but some of my students are missing, and we don't know exactly how many, or why," she said. The school returns from holiday break Tuesday, at which point the exact extent of the tragedy will reveal itself.

In the coffee shop, Sussie Lindroth took a break from serving, while a family—mother, father and son—sat at a table and held hands, crying.

"It's been like this every day," Lindroth said. "There has been a lot of crying here since the tsunami. I'm afraid it isn't over yet."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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