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Europeans return to tsunami-ravaged area in search of relatives

PHUKET, Thailand—Peter Elfsberg Lekander wanted to look for his wife, Eva, right after the tsunami hit, but his legs and feet were slashed and swollen. He couldn't put his shoes on. And his little girls needed to get back to Sweden, away from the devastation.

So he waited until last week to go back and scour hospitals and morgues, searching for Eva and her parents, Rolf and Margareta. It was a fruitless hunt.

In that way he's like hundreds of other relatives of tsunami victims, making the same sad journey about a month after the Dec. 26 tsunami washed across this idyllic resort.

They've had a few weeks to return to their countries, recover physically and attempt to absorb what happened. Now they want to look for their loved ones, no matter how remote their chances of finding them.

The last time Peter saw his wife and her parents, they were at a resort swimming pool next to the Andaman Sea, just before the tsunami hit.

The Swedish authorities told Peter he wouldn't find Eva. They'd already checked the hospitals. They'd been to the morgues. All he could do, they said, was wait for investigators to identify her using DNA or other techniques, which could take many months. So far, only 36 missing Europeans have been identified among the hundreds of bodies of tourists, police here say.

Peter, 36, an electrician from Borlange, in central Sweden, needed to see for himself. Maybe they were in a hospital somewhere, in a coma, unable to tell anyone their names. Perhaps they would wake up.

Finding them, dead or alive, would be a great relief.

"Then we can bring them home and bury them," he said. "The children and I will have a place to go talk to them and bring flowers."

His daughters—Ida, 8, and Lovisa, 6—wanted him to make the trip. "Papa, go and look for Mama," he said they told him.

Lovisa doesn't understand that her mother isn't likely to come home alive. Peter talked to her the other day on the phone and she asked when he'd be coming back. Friday, he told her.

"You'll bring Mama home?" she asked. "Mama's coming home on Friday?"

Peter and his twin brother, Mikael, who came with him to search, have posted pictures of Eva around Phuket. She has long brown hair, brown eyes, rosy cheeks and a warm smile.

She was a homemaker who lived for her two children.

She and Peter met in a Swedish disco 10 years ago. He did his John Travolta routine. He was a handsome man, blond and youthful. She liked his style.

Peter and Mikael did a lot of sleuthing on the Internet before they came to Phuket. They visited chat rooms set up after the disaster, where families of the missing swapped information and advice. They gathered names that sounded like Eva's, Margareta's and Rolf's. They tried to match them with online hospital records—many of which were incomplete, compiled in the immediate post-tsunami chaos.

It turned out about 30 women named Eva died when the tsunami hit southern Thailand, an oasis that draws thousands of tourists from Europe's icy north, where the name Eva is common.

They gathered many tips online. People from around the world wanted to help. A few wanted to inflict more pain.

Someone with the screen name "mystiqe00" posted a message saying Eva Lekander was alive, but offered no evidence. "It's probably some freak," said Mikael.

"The Internet is good," Peter said, "but it can be misused."

Before they left Sweden, Peter and Mikael compiled a list of 45 hospitals around Phuket. By Monday, they'd called or visited nearly all of them but hadn't found Eva or her parents.

Three of Peter's friends went with him—Joakim Eriksson, Stefan Molin and Michael Lindberg. A Thai friend from Phuket, Narin Floren, helped them search. He's fluent in Swedish and gave Peter and his daughters a place to stay after the wave hit.

Peter took his friends to the Khao Lak Bayfront Resort. Going back was painful, but he needed to do it. He wanted everyone to see where he was when it happened.

Khao Lak is in Phang Nga Province, just north of Phuket. The worst damage occurred there.

They also visited the makeshift morgues set up at temples, including one at the Yan Yao temple, where most of the bodies were stored.

Outside are photographs of decomposing corpses, perhaps 2,000 of them.

Peter couldn't look. Neither could Joakim.

"It was too much for me," Joakim said. "Stefan and Mikael looked at most of them."

They didn't recognize anyone, but they did find a valuable clue. Forensic investigators had posted a list of personal effects they'd found on the bodies. Among the items was a wedding ring engraved with the name "Margareta" and the date Nov. 13, 1965. Peter can't remember when his in-laws were wed, but that's about the date, and he's certain the ring is Rolf's.

Investigators in Sweden have taken DNA samples from Anna, Eva's sister, who survived the tsunami. If her DNA matches that of the body on which the ring was found, authorities will be able to identify the body as Rolf's.

Sad as it was to see the destruction again, being back in Thailand made Peter feel better. He was doing everything he could for Eva.

"It feels good to be here," he said. "I know that my wife and her parents are here."

If only he could figure out where.

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(Stocking reports for the San Jose Mercury News.)

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

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