09 October 2022

Miracle of three-year-old who survived Thai nursery massacre

09 October 2022

Paweenuch Supholwong sits on her mother’s lap and fidgets with her pigtails as her mother tells the remarkable story of how the three-year-old girl survived Thailand’s worst mass killing.

She was the only child to emerge unscathed from a day care centre after a former police officer massacred pre-schoolers while they napped.

Two dozen children were among the 36 people shot and slashed to death in an attack that shattered the serenity of the rural township of Uthai Sawan, robbing the small farming community of much of its youngest generation in the blink of an eye.

Paweenuch was deeply asleep and covered by a blanket on the floor when the attacker burst through the front door and killed 22 of her classmates who lay around her — apparently missing her because he thought she was already dead, her mother Panomplai Srithong said.

Another child survived with serious injuries and remains in hospital.

As the community in north-east Thailand unites to share its grief at the scene of the attack and in its Buddhist temples, people have also flocked to Paweenuch, tying dozens of white, yellow and red “soul strings” to her wrists in the hope it will help her also spiritually survive the horror, in the belief that when someone suffers such a tragedy, they lose part of their soul.

“It is to bring the spirit back into her body,” Mrs Srithong explained while holding her daughter.

“It’s like the spirit had left the body and it is being called back.”

Mrs Srithong and her husband were at work in a Bangkok electronics factory when they heard that their daughter’s nursery had been attacked and that no one had survived.

Like many from Uthai Sawan, they had moved to the capital for work and send home money to their family, leaving Paweenuch in her grandmother’s care.

After an initial panic, they learned their daughter had survived and drove home to Uthai Sawan as quickly as possible.

“Breathing was difficult, I can’t describe it, but when I found out my child survived I was relieved,” Mrs Srithong said.

“But I also wanted to know if she had any injuries, if there was any collateral damage.”

She said from what her daughter has told her, she had been asleep under her blanket turned toward a wall and does not seem to have seen or heard the attack.

Rescue workers carried her out of the building with her eyes covered so she did not see the grisly scene.

After the attack she asked her grandmother where her best friend was.

“That’s when she found out that her friend died,” Mrs Srithong said. “This was the person who was sleeping next to her.”

Mrs Srithong’s adult cousin was killed outside the day care, and she attended a temple service Saturday for him and other victims.

“There’s both good luck hidden in bad luck — I’m lucky that my child is OK but I lost my cousin,” she said.

“For other people, some lost an only child who was their hope,” she said.

Uthai Sawan’s 6,500 residents are spread across a dozen villages, living in homes scattered among the sugar cane fields and rice paddies that many of them farm.

There would usually be 92 young children at the public day car centre, but flooding from seasonal monsoon rains, a mechanical failure that kept the school bus from working and other factors kept many away on Thursday when the gunman attacked.

The township has about 100 more preschool-aged children who either go to private day care centres or stay at home, Nanticha Panchom, a teacher who runs the day care centre, said.

Ms Panchom, 43, was in the centre’s kitchen cooking the children lunch when she heard the first shot from outside.

Police said that was the attacker shooting a man and a child in front of the building.

She then heard someone else yell to lock the front door and she ran to get help.

“I never thought he would go inside,” Ms Panchom said as she looked across the driveway to the single-storey building now adorned with flowers and other tributes to those killed.

She worried for the future of the town, adding: “I can’t even imagine what this lost generation will mean to this community.”

Police identified the shooter as Panya Kamrap, 34, a former police sergeant fired earlier this year because of a drug charge involving methamphetamine.

After leaving the day care centre, he killed others along the way, and then his wife, child and himself at their home, police said.

An exact motive has not been determined, but he was due in court the following day to answer for the drug charge.

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