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Disaster may be Sweden's Sept. 11

STOCKHOLM --The tsunami that swept away so many lives in Asia has carried waves of grief to Sweden, with the country confronting what one government official described yesterday as ''Sept. 11 levels of casualties."

The confirmed Swedish death toll is 59, but more than 3,500 Swedes who were vacationing in Thailand and Sri Lanka are missing. Authorities here believe a majority of them are dead.

Yesterday, the country canceled its usually festive New Year celebrations and instead held a national day of mourning, flying flags at half-staff and gathering for candlelight vigils and church services across the country.

Outside Asia, this Nordic nation of 9 million has felt the brunt of the disaster far more than any other single country. While there are hundreds of other missing European tourists -- from Norway, Denmark, Finland, Britain, Italy, and elsewhere -- Sweden, a country isolated from horrors wrought by the two world wars and by modern terrorism, is suddenly facing one of its worst catastrophes.

''Never has the step into a new year felt heavier," Prime Minister Goeran Persson said during a press conference here yesterday.

''Five days have passed. Fifty-nine Swedes are dead, 3,559 are missing. If the number does not diminish quickly, this will be the most dramatic catastrophe in our country's history," Persson said. ''Coffins will soon be landing at our airports like never before."

Lars Danielsson, state secretary in the prime minister's office, said: ''We are talking about Sept. 11 levels of casualties. And it has all happened on the other side of the earth.

''The magnitude of this and the challenges it presents are like nothing we have faced," he said in an interview.

In 1994, 500 Swedes drowned when a ferry sank in the Baltic Sea, but Danielsson said that tragedy does not compare.

''You'd have to say we haven't seen this level of loss of life since our last war in 1814," he added, referring to a conflict between Sweden and Denmark.

Swedes have accused the government of reacting too slowly to the crisis. The media has lashed out in particular at the foreign minister, Laila Freivalds, for going to the theater after hearing news of the tragedy and failing to report to her office for another 31 hours.

Families also demanded that the government move quickly with refrigerated containers to preserve remains of loved ones for burials back home. In the Baltic Sea disaster, the vast majority of the dead were never recovered.

The big fear this time is that because local authorities are cremating bodies and dumping them in mass graves, it is increasingly unlikely that many families here and elsewhere will be able to identify the remains of loved ones.

Sweden sent a team of eight forensic specialists to the region to work with an 18-nation team of 100 doctors on hand to collect DNA and dental records, which are key to identifying remains.

''That is very difficult work, and it will take a long time," said Lennart Malmstrom, the head of Sweden's emergency medical services.

Swedes have been glued to television news reports about the disaster, hunkered down from the cold and the sorrow that permeated a land where at this time of year, it gets dark just after 3 p.m. and cityscapes are shaped by snowdrifts and icicle formations. The long winters here have made the Indian Ocean resorts popular tourist attractions for families, backpackers, and honeymooners.

The tragedy has been brought home over the past few days at Arlanda Airport near Stockholm, where thousands of Swedes returned from Thailand and Sri Lanka with stories of survival and loss.

Police said that 10,000 out of an estimated 25,000 Swedes who were vacationing in Asia had arrived home in the last three days. As many as 50 or 60 of them were young children whose parents were dead or missing, police officials said.

Many of the survivors arriving yesterday on one of three special flights were easy to spot. Some were in tattered flip-flops and bathing suits. Others were sun tanned, but in many instances also battered and bruised. Their hair was still matted from salt water, and they looked hungry and tired.

Many of them had a long stare of incomprehension and expressed a complex patchwork of feelings: horror at what they had seen; relief that they had survived; and, for some, guilt that others were less fortunate.

''You just have all these emotions swirling around," said Kristina Nilsson-Gustafsson, who had just arrived home with her husband and 16-year-old daughter from Phuket.

They were snorkeling offshore at a resort in Koh Lanta when the tsunami hit. They could hear the roar of the surf and watched from out at sea as it swept away so many lives.

''We are so happy that we made it, but what we saw was horrific. You don't know how to feel, because there are just so many who were not as lucky as us," Nilsson-Gustafsson said, embracing her daughter.

A crisis center was set up in the airport where teams of Foreign Ministry officials, emergency medical staff, psychologists, and chaplains were on hand to help those who were returning and to assist families waiting and hoping to reunite with loved ones.

There were long tables where police registered everyone returning, which they said is critical in determining the number of missing and presumed dead. Child psychologists held stuffed animals, poised for the next plane to arrive.

Helen Oscarrson, 25, limped into the terminal favoring cuts on her feet, suffered after she ran barefoot from the beach up into the rocky hills of Thailand's Phi Phi islands as the wall of water approached.

''There wasn't time to think. We just ran for our lives," Oscarrson said, as one of the nurses on hand wrapped a blue blanket around her shoulders and lowered her into a wheelchair.

One of the most captivating sagas has been that of 2-year-old Swede Hannes Bergstroem, who was found unconscious on the Thai resort island of Khao Lak. A relative in Sweden saw his photo on the website of a Thai hospital, and the boy was reunited with his father, Marko Karkkainen, whose tears were captured in a photograph that has become an icon of the tragedy.

Yesterday, father and son returned, the local media reported, but without Hannes's mother, Suzanne. She remains missing.

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