Heartbroken parents and relatives grieved the death of more than 30 victims of Thailand’s worst-ever mass killing on Friday, a day after a former police officer targeted a school nursery.
They were joined by members of the country’s royal family and government officials who laid wreaths at ceremonial tables at the daycare centre in in the small northern town of Uthai Sawan, as the country tried to make sense of an almost inexplicable tragedy.
Panya Kamrap, 34, a former police sergeant fired earlier this year because of a drug charge involving methamphetamine, rampaged through the pre-school, killing some children even as they slept. Some of the victims were as young as two-years-old.
Another victim was a teacher who was eight months pregnant.
After the slaughter at the nursery, Kamrap drove home, killed his wife and child and then himself.
“I cried until I had no more tears coming out of my eyes. They are running through my heart,” said Seksan Sriraj, 28, husband of the pregnant teacher.
“My wife and my child have gone to a peaceful place. I am alive and will have to live. If I can’t go on, my wife and my child will be worried about me, and they won’t be reborn in the next life. That’s about it.”
Many relatives gathered in front of the childcare centre to start the formal process of claiming compensation, and psychologists were also on site to help them.
The death toll has been put as high as 38, but there have also been reports that the total of people who died was 36. Seven of the 10 people who were wounded were still being treated in hospital on Friday.
Thailand‘s King Maha Vajiralongkorn and Queen Suthida were expected to visit two hospitals treating the wounded, and prime minster Prayuth Chan-Ocha was expected to visit the nursery and the hospitals.
A vigil is also planned in a central Bangkok park.
When asked whether he thought the child care centre was secure enough, Mr Seksan noted the attacker had been a police officer.
“He came to do what he had in his mind and was determined to do it. I think everyone did the best they could.”
Police speculated the gunman targeted the centre because it was near his home.
During a preliminary investigation, police indicated Kamrap was deeply troubled by marital and money problems following his suspension from police duty in January, after he admitted to using two types of methamphetamine.
“He wanted to vent. We learned from his mother that on the day of the incident he was quarrelling with his wife,” local police chief Chakkraphat Wichitvaidya told Reuters. “He may have wanted to do something bad.”
Colleagues in the local police force said he was sometimes bad-tempered and violent while he worked there.
Witnesses said Kamrap got out of a car and shot a man and child in front of the building before walking toward the classroom.
Teachers at the childcare centre locked the glass front door but the gunman shot and kicked his way through it.
The children, mainly two- and three-year-olds, had been taking an afternoon nap.
Piyalak Kingkaew, who led the rescue team that was the first to arrive at the school, shared pictures of the horrific scene that greeted them, with the bodies of small children lying on blankets. One boy dressed in a Manchester United shirt was seen on a Winnie the Pooh bed cover, in a room with walls decorated with cartoon animals.
“We are used to seeing a large number of bodies, we’ve been through it before, but this incident is the most harrowing of all,” he said. “They were little kids who were still sleeping.”
Nopparat Langkapin, a local official in Uthai Sawan, said the victims were “all children of our community”.
“Relatives, families and close friends are deeply saddened by this incident. And we all felt this across the community very quickly. Most of us are feeling depressed and sad because they are our children,” he said.
The attack took place in Nongbua Lamphu province, one of the country’s poorest regions.
In an interview with Amarin TV, Satita Boonsom, a childcare worker at the centre, said it usually had up to 80 children on the premises but there were fewer at the time of the attack because the term had ended for older children.
She said the death toll could have been a lot higher. If more children had been there “they wouldn’t have survived”, she said.
Reactions to the massacre have been pouring in from the international community, with the US and Australia expressing sympathy and solidarity.
“All Australians send their love and condolences,” Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese tweeted.
Pope Francis offered prayers for all those affected by such “unspeakable violence.”
And UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres tweeted: “I’m profoundly saddened by the heinous shooting at a childcare centre in Thailand.”
“This violence is both senseless and heart-breaking,” US secretary of state Antony Blinken said.
Mass shootings are rare in Thailand but there have been several instances in the recent past. The country has one of the highest rates of civilian gun ownership in the region, though still far lower than the US and Brazil, and illegal ownership is also common.
Additional reporting by agencies