Pope Francis said he was “deeply saddened” by the “horrific attack” of a day care center in northeast Thailand that left 36 people — 24 of them children — dead in what has been dubbed as one of the worst mass killings in Thai history.
The Catholic Church leader offered his “heartfelt condolences and the assurance of his spiritual closeness to all those affected by this act of unspeakable violence against innocent children.”
The message was sent by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, to the apostolic nunciature of Thailand on behalf of the Holy Father on Friday, October 7.
Pope Francis prayed that God may grant “divine healing and consolation” to the grieving families and the injured.
“In imploring divine healing and consolation upon the injured and the grieving families, his holiness prays that, in this hour of immense sadness, they may draw support and strength from the solidarity of their neighbors and fellow citizens,” read the message.
“Upon all the beloved Thai people, the Holy Father invokes the blessings of peace and perseverance in every good,” it added.
Catholic community in mourning
Bishop Joseph Luechai Thaiwisai of Udon Thani, the diocese where the massacre took place, also expressed sadness over the incident.
“Like everyone I was so shocked and deeply saddened that so many children died,” said the prelate to LiCAS News.
The killing occurred at a child development center in Nong Bua Lam Phu (หนองบัวลําภู), about an hour drive from the Catholic cathedral in the region, on Thursday, October 6.
“The attack was the deadliest mass slaying ever carried out in our country,” said the prelate, adding that he has offered a special Mass for the souls of the departed and their families.
The bishop said the incident reminded him of the diocese’s child center in Udon Thani where the Church takes care of about a dozen orphans.
“We have to be more careful about their security, including the junior seminarians in our care,” said the prelate.
Archbishop Anthony Weradet Chaiseri of the archdiocese of Thare and Nonseng (อัครสังฆมณฑลท่าแร่-หนองแสง) invited Catholics to unite in prayers and support the family of those who lost their lives.
“I join in the deepest sadness of the families of those who have lost their loved ones in this tragedy,” said the archbishop of the adjacent north-eastern Thai region in a statement to LiCAS News. “I invite Catholics in Thailand to unite in prayers and join in a special Mass for the souls of these innocent victims whom God will give eternal peace.”
Bishop Joseph Pratan Sridarunsil, chairman of the Catholic Office of Social Communication in Bangkok, said the killing of the children reminded him of the “massacre of the innocents” in the Gospel.
“It was always the adults, in this case Herod, [who killed] every male infant,” said the bishop. “It was a shocking event, (I) never thought it would happen in our country or anywhere in the world,” he added.
Khunying Patama Leeswadtrakul, member of International Olympic Committee (IOC) and chair of the Advisory Board, Catholic Association of Thailand, was “extremely saddened to learn about the tragic incident in our beloved home country.”
“No words could ever describe the grief and sorrow the bereaved families and friends are going through,” the devout Catholic community leader added. “This act of violence is an unimaginable and unprecedented tragedy of our nation. I urge every Catholic in Thailand to do everything possible to support the survivors and relatives of these families and to help our nation in healing. We must make sure this will never happen again.”
Fr. Anthony Le Duc, superior of SVD in Thailand, had just returned to Bangkok from Nong Bua Lam Phu when news broke of the tragedy.
“As I touched down at Don Muang Airport, I received the news about this terrible tragedy,” said Father Anthony to LiCAS News. “It’s quite difficult to imagine that such a horrendous thing could happen, and especially to so many innocent young lives. Let’s pray for all the victims and pray for greater peace in our families, community, and world.”
Thai king’s visit
Thailand’s King Maha Vajiralongkorn on Friday visited a hospital treating those wounded in the gun and knife rampage, ending a day of grief and mourning by relatives.
The king is expected to meet survivors of the attack in a rare public interaction for the monarch, who is officially regarded as a semi-divine figurehead.
Bishop Joseph Luechai Thaiwisai said the visit “will certainly boost the morale of the people.”
Coffins bearing the bodies of the victims were earlier transported to temples to be handed over to relatives, many of whom had spent the day mourning at the nursery where their children were slain.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha laid flowers at the nursery in rural northeastern Nong Bua Lam Phu province and handed out compensation cheques to grieving families.
At one temple, 10 white and gold coffins, some so small they looked like toy boxes, were loaded into fridges in the evening ahead of the customary three days of mourning before cremation.
A young father, his face a mask of tears, staggered away from other mourners after watching his son’s coffin loaded away.
Earlier at the small, low-slung nursery, a line of heartbroken parents placed white roses on the building’s steps as the baking sun bore down.
The dead include pregnant teacher Supaporn Pramongmuk, whose husband posted a poignant tribute on Facebook.
“I would like to say thank you for all the support for me and my family. My wife has fulfilled her every duty as a teacher,” Seksan Srirach wrote.
“Please be a teacher in heaven, and my child please take care of your mother in heaven.”
Knife the ‘main weapon’
Armed with his own legally purchased 9mm pistol and a knife, former police sergeant Panya Khamrab began his murderous spree at the childcare center at about 12:30 pm (0530 GMT) on Thursday.
Following the attack, 34-year-old Panya fled the scene in a pickup truck to head home and murder his wife and son before taking his own life, police said, ending the rampage at about 3 p.m.
In total, he killed 24 children — 21 boys and three girls — and 12 adults.
Pitak Kongtapthai, head of the police investigations unit in the province, said most of the deaths were caused by a combination of knife wounds and gunshots.
Panya joined the police in 2012 and rose to the rank of sergeant but was suspended from the force in January and sacked in June for drug use, National Police Chief Damrongsak Kittiprapat told reporters.
Damrongsak said initial tests found no drugs in Panya’s body after the attack, though several locals said Panya was known in the area as a methamphetamine user.
The interior ministry said it would “review and intensify our preventative measures on drugs” in the wake of the attack, including tightening rules on gun ownership.
The police chief said the attacker used his knife as the “main weapon” in the nursery.
He had an argument with his wife hours before the attack, Damrongsak said, but “nothing irregular” was noted when he appeared in court that morning on a drugs possession charge.
Flags on government buildings flew at half-mast on Friday in a gesture of mourning for one of the deadliest days in recent Thai history.
Nanthicha Punchum, acting chief of the nursery, described harrowing scenes as the attacker barged into the building in the rural Na Klang district.
“There were some staff eating lunch outside the nursery and the attacker parked his car and shot four of them dead,” she told AFP.
She said the attacker smashed down the door with his leg and then started stabbing the children.
PM orders probe
Witness Pranom Innurak described how her sister, now recovering in hospital, was injured.
“He (Panya) was driving a car on his way back home and he rammed into everyone on his way,” she told AFP, adding that her sister’s daughter was among the dead.
“When my sister got hit, she wasn’t that hurt yet. She flew out from her food stall. He then used a knife to attack her.”
Thai leader Prayut has ordered a rapid probe into the attack, and on Friday police interviewed witnesses and families.
The tragedy came less than three years after a soldier in the northeastern city of Nakhon Ratchasima gunned down 29 people and wounded scores more in a 17-hour rampage, before he was shot dead by commandos.
And less than a month ago an army officer shot dead two colleagues at a military training base in the capital Bangkok. – with a report from Agence France Presse