When Sandy Rubini last heard from her brother, Randy, by e-mail on Dec. 16, he was planning to spend Christmas on the southern beaches of Thailand.
When she heard the news - also by way of her computer - that a series of tsunamis had hit South Asia, killing thousands in some of the very places her brother mentioned he might visit, her heart sank and a feeling of helplessness set in. The only outlet was the machine in front of her.
With tens of thousands killed - and most of them yet to be identified - hundreds of thousands of people across the globe who have yet to hear from friends and relatives living in or visiting the tsunami-devastated areas are turning to the only tools they have: television, newspapers, telephones and computers.
They have turned to Internet message boards maintained by organizations such as the International Red Cross and CNN, where Rubini posted this message in hopes of locating her brother, a limousine driver and investor who was on an extended visit to Thailand:
My 36-year-old brother, Randy Rubini from Michigan, has not been in contact. If you know anything, please e-mail.
Her plea was part of a seemingly endless stream, sent from around the world.
Short of traveling to the affected area - an option some have chosen - there is little else families of the missing can do but hover by their TV sets, search for familiar faces in news reports, post photos and messages on Internet bulletin boards and call embassies, hospitals and relief agencies.
"I spent all Monday evening online searching for ... anything. I felt powerless. I had absolutely no control over the situation, but I felt I had to do something," Rubini, a 39-year-old executive assistant who lives on Whidbey Island in Washington state, wrote in an e-mail.
"I searched the Web for pictures, hospital links, Thai newspapers, Thailand chat rooms - anything that would give me a hint of his whereabouts, or what may have happened to him; something to give me a feeling of being proactive in finding him."
Just as after the Sept. 11 attacks, worried friends and relatives - on the streets and on the Internet - are posting photos and descriptions of their loved ones in hopes of getting answers.
In rare instances, the efforts pay off. And even when they don't, many say, the effort alone is therapeutic - if not providing catharsis, at least occupying their time.
"Looking on the Internet helps to keep my mind on something," said Debbie Wilkinson, of Falmouth, Maine, who is seeking information about her brother, Michael A. Martini, 47, who was vacationing at a Thailand beach resort.
Wilkinson's posts haven't led to her brother, but they have elicited suggestions about other Web sites and agencies to contact, as well as several e-mails from well-wishing strangers.
Her brother left an emergency number, but the family lost it, Wilkinson said, and they were waiting yesterday to see whether he arrived back in Maine, as scheduled.
"The anticipation is the hardest thing," Wilkinson said in an e-mail. "We keep looking at all the pictures on the Internet to see if he might by chance be in one of the pictures. Maybe he is there somewhere helping others and can't call home."
Renee Hope of Vancouver, British Columbia, similarly received good wishes in response to a message she posted trying to locate her brother, since found safe. "I'm Thai lady who live in the US," wrote one, sending along suggestions of Internet sites. "This only thing I can do. Good luck to all of you. Sorry for all of bad things that happen in my country."
She also received e-mail from a woman in Thailand, offering to help.
Pleas for help
The pleas on the Web reflect varying degrees of desperation.
"My friends were in Phuket. I'm a 13-year-old girl from Saudi Arabia. Their names are Frank Worcester and Nicole Dancer. I'm really worried about them and I just want to know if anyone has met them or know if they're OK."
"We need help. I'm Chema Chiver from Mexico City. My friends Jacobo Hassan and Karen Michan were on Phi Phi Island on a honeymoon. ... Now Karen is in Phuket and Jacobo is still missing. If there is any information to locate him, please let me know."
Rubini posted hers after work Monday, after contacting the U.S Embassy in Thailand and the Red Cross to register her brother as a missing person.
She tried calling his friends in Thailand, but either the numbers were out of service or those answering spoke no English.
"I felt myself slowly beginning to mourn him," Rubini said.
Rubini began posting messages on several Internet disaster sites, listing his physical characteristics: "The mole on his left ear; the white scar on his chin; an old hernia scar."
Then she found a link to a hospital in Phuket, which contained about 100 photos of dead bodies, yet to be identified.
Rubini began looking at them.
"Most of the men were bare-chested; the women in colorful swimsuits," Rubini said. "Each was identified by a number. When I scrolled down to CODE 44, I froze. `Oh, God, it's him.'