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Couple's final photos "an echo from the grave"
Seattle Times staff reporter
It was like a puzzle — these images from a broken digital camera washed up on a deserted beach in Thailand.
Christian Pilet of North Bend could not have known the power of his discovery: the last photos taken by a couple who lost their lives in the Dec. 26 tsunami and the closure the photo diary would bring to a grieving family half a world away in British Columbia.
Taken in sequence, the photographs tell a gripping story: John and Jackie Knill arriving at a Khao Lak resort, happily enjoying Christmas dinner with a large group of friends and then basking in a brilliant tropical sunset.
The next day, the couple is seen hugging, smiling — radiant on the beach. Then the story turns ominous: people stroll the beach under a clear blue sky, apparently oblivious to the large wave that has formed a line across the horizon.
The wave gets closer, its power more evident as it kicks up sand and mud and finally crashes onto the beach.
"We were stunned — just out of the blue, an echo from the grave," Pilet said. "What we saw in these pictures were the last five minutes of these people's lives."
Pilet knew nothing about the man and woman in these photos. But through the power of the Internet and dogged determination, he would find their family — not in Germany or Sweden as he'd originally suspected — but virtually in his own back yard.
The Knills of North Vancouver, B.C., had been on a four-month vacation in Thailand when they were caught in the deadly tsunami.
The disaster killed more than 170,000 people, including about a dozen Canadians.
Of the photos, their son Patrick Knill, 28, said, "This is more than we could ever have asked for. It's like being there with our parents and seeing what they were seeing in those final moments.
"So many people still have no answers. It has taken so much stress off me and my brothers. It's hard not knowing anything and now we know."
Pilet, a missionary with the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism, had traveled with colleagues to Southeast Asia earlier this month to assess the relief effort.
He and a friend had taken a break from the group to explore the beach.
The resorts were all destroyed, he recalls. "We saw suitcases that were never claimed. Shoes. Thousands and thousands of shoes. Passports ... "
"My friend spotted the camera. One more piece of junk. It was smashed up pretty bad."
Back at their hotel, he used his Palm Pilot to upload a flawless set of photos from the card onto his computer.
"We immediately thought about how we could get them to the family," he said.
"Our guess was that they were Swedes, or German. A majority of the people in Khao Lak are Swedish. We gave it 99 percent odds of their being from a Nordic country."
They visited German and Swedish embassies, which were at a loss about what to do with the photos. At home, Pilet's wife searched using Google and the key words "tsunami, missing persons, German and Sweden." She immediately found a link to a Web site with a photograph of the Knills and information about how to contact their relatives.
On Feb. 11, Pilet drove to Vancouver to deliver the memory card of photos to the Knills' children.
For the Knill brothers — Christian, 32, Patrick, 28, and David, 25 — the photos brought closure to a frantic search that began as it did for so many around the globe who had relatives in Southeast Asia on Dec. 26. Their parents had planned to be in Thailand for a few months, Patrick Knill said. They'd gone there every year for the past five or six years, he said, "and had a huge love for Thailand because of the people."
His parents had e-mailed regularly and he said he missed their Christmas Day call by a few minutes.
Knill said after hearing about the direction and scope of the tsunami, he knew right away that his parents would have been in danger. At Khao Lak, there was no higher ground, "no mountain area for them to run to," he said.
Cathy Smith, a family friend, said the couple had talked them out of coming to Khao Lak where the four were to have celebrated New Year's and had arranged for them to meet at a different resort.
Instead of celebrating, however, the Smiths spent days searching morgues and hospitals for their friends. Two other family members from British Columbia flew to Thailand to join the Smiths in the search. Lists of names and photos of the dead posted on bulletin boards provided no clues.
"Even until we received the death certificates, we had hope," Patrick Knill said. "Every day gets worse. The odds get slimmer. But we all kind of knew."
Two weeks ago, the family got word that the bodies of John and Jackie Knill had been positively identified through autopsies. John Knill's body had been found Dec. 31 and his wife's on Jan. 13 — on the same beach but apart from one another.
At the time Pilet presented the photos to their sons, he said he felt compelled to answer their one nagging question: Why didn't their parents just run?
"I walked that beach. There was really nowhere for them to run to," he said. "Initially, it probably didn't even cross their mind to get away. At the point they took that last picture, they had to have known — but by then it was too late."
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or email@example.com
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