Mannheim AAFES contractor learns of relatives' deaths in tsunami
January 6, 2005
MANNHEIM, Germany — A tear runs down Anong Ratthanagantrong’s cheek as she talks about her sister, niece and nephew in Thailand, who were killed Dec. 26 by the tsunami that decimated much of South Asia.
“They still haven’t found my nephew,” said Ratthanagantrong, 64, a cleaning lady at the Army and Air Force Exchange Service food court in Mannheim, where she has worked for 24 years.
“It is just terrible,” said Ratthanagantrong, shaking her head.
Ratthanagantrong said she was worried sick about her family when she heard the news of the earthquake and tsunami that struck the region, killing at least 140,000 people.
She tried in vain to contact her sister. Finally, a friend called from Thailand last Sunday.
“[She] told me that my sister and her two children were killed. No one saw exactly what happened to them. They were just swept away by the waves,” Ratthanagantrong said.
Ratthanagantrong’s sister, Srinuan, 51, had moved to Phuket, Thailand, from Pattaya, another resort area popular with foreign tourists, two years ago. Along with her son, Sombat, 27, and daughter, Orawan, 23, they eked out a living selling roasted chicken and Sum Tom, a spicy salad popular with Thais, from a push-cart they set up on the beach road. Working 18-hour days in the sometimes brutal tropical heat, Srinuan’s family of three earned as little as $12 a day.
“It [the tsunami] happened early in the morning, so they probably were just starting to set up their stand,” Ratthanagantrong said.
Ratthanagantrong talked to her sister on Dec. 20 and said she was in good spirits and business was picking up.
“She told me that Patong Beach was crowded with tourists and they were selling a lot of food,” she said.
Ratthanagantrong said she desperately wants to go to Thailand to make funeral arrangements for her family. However, her monthly salary of 600 euros barely pays for food and rent. And Ratthanagantrong, who is classified as a local-national employee, is only eight weeks away from retirement and needs to finalize all her retirement papers with German authorities to ensure she’ll receive her 300 euros a month pension.
“As much as it hurts, I just can’t go now. I don’t have enough money,” she said.
Ratthanagantrong’s supervisors at AAFES, who affectionately called her “Mama-san,” have tried to support her since she learned of her family’s fate.
“It is really, really sad,” said Val Hudson, who manages the food court and has worked with Ratthanagantrong since June 2002.
“She has always been an excellent worker and has been through some pretty rough times the past couple of years,” Hudson said. “She is so close to retirement and we are going to try to help her in every possible way.”
The last time Anong Ratthanagantrong saw her sister, niece and nephew was in June during a trip to Phuket. After visiting her family, Ratthanagantrong said, she spent 29 days seeking solace, praying and living at a Buddhist temple in Pattaya.
She said her niece, Orawan, took the 16-hour bus ride from Phuket to visit her aunt at the temple. Several photographs show Orawan tightly clinging to her aunt.
It was the last time Ratthanagantrong saw her niece alive.
As the days pass, Ratthanagantrong a devout Buddhist, says she is slowly trying to come to grips with her loss.
“I am very sad, but I’m trying to accept what has happened because not only my family died, there were many, many others ... even our king’s own grandson was killed in this tragedy,” said Ratthanagantrong.
According to Buddhist tradition, her sister and niece were cremated Sunday. Ratthanagantrong is hoping that her nephew will be found safe.
“I am praying for a miracle that Sombat is still alive, but it is becoming more and more doubtful as the days pass,” she said.
It is customary in Thailand for the ashes of loved ones to be taken to a temple 100 days after death for a final prayer ceremony given by Buddhist monks.
“If my nephew is dead, I am praying they find him, so I can take their ashes to the temple at the same time. I want them to be together,” she said.