‘Tears are falling inside my heart’

Nong Bua Lamphu, Thailand — Supaporn Pramongmuk was weeks away from giving birth.

In her eighth month of pregnancy, the 25-year-old teacher went to work as usual on Thursday at a kindergarten in northeastern Thailand where her students were no more than two years of age.

Excited for the birth that was due around October 23 or 24, Supaporn’s parents had hoped their new grandchild would one day attend the same nursery where her mother taught.

But on Thursday, Supaporn and her unborn child were among the 37 killed in one of the worst knife and gun rampages that Thailand had ever witnessed.

“Tears are falling inside my heart,” said Pranee Srisutham, Supaporn’s mother.

“I can’t cry, I can’t speak.”

After discovering what had happened to her daughter, Pranee told Al Jazeera she had cried until there were no tears left to cry.

Supaporn’s husband had no words. Nothing could express his sorrow.

“I’m speechless,” he said, the anguish burning in his eyes.

A woman weeps following the mass killing of children and staff at a nursery in the town of Uthai Sawan in Thailand’s Nong Bua Lamphu province [Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters]

The bodies of those killed in the as-yet unexplained attack, by 34-year-old former police officer Panya Khamrab, on the nursery — located in Na Klang District, Nong Bua Lamphu province about 500km (310 miles) northeast of the capital Bangkok — will be autopsied before being released to their families.

Doctors worked through the night on Thursday to complete the task and return the remains of their loved ones to families so religious ceremonies could be performed.

Local medical staff said on Friday that 37 people had died, many of them children. Flags at government offices flew at half-mast, while Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha and King Maha Vajiralongkorn travelled to the northeast on Friday.

‘The children were sleeping’

Supaporn’s family, her mother, father, husband, and other relatives gathered on Thursday evening at an emergency centre set up near the nursery.

By 9.00pm (14:00 GMT) many families at the Joint Incident Management Centre had already waited as long as eight hours for news of the completion of autopsies and the return of remains.

An area of the centre was marked off for use by a team of psychologists who worked with relatives, listening to stories of loss by those who could speak and doing what they could to bring some comfort to the many tortured hearts and minds.

Parents at the incident centre were in a state of visible shock and heartbreak. Nearby, small coffins had been lined up for the bodies.

Teacher Nanticha Panchum survived the attack.

She told Al Jazeera she saw the gunman walking into the school and had witnessed him attack several people outside.

Panchum said she told her colleague to lock the doors. But the gunman started to smash the glass as she fled to the back of the building and climbed a wall to escape the school compound.

“I was scared because he had a gun. I had no weapons,” Panchum said.

“But, I didn’t think he would do that to the children,” she said.

“The children were sleeping during the day. They were in all three rooms. The teachers were in rooms as well, including the pregnant teacher,” she said.

After scaling a wall to escape the school with another teacher and a cleaner, Panchum said she ran to get help as the sound of gunfire came from the school.

“I heard children cry for a moment and then it was completely silent,” she said.

After running for a while, Panchum met a local district official who was driving by and begged him to go to the school to help.

They approached the building cautiously until they were sure the attacker had left, she said.

“Later, I knew that he’d gone. So we went in and we saw small children were dead, including teachers.”

Drug offence

Panchum said she still cannot believe what had happened.

She had recognised the attacker as a parent who had come to the school quite often to drop off his child. She described him as a quiet person and also polite.

“But this time, he was different from every other time,” she said, describing a look in his eyes “as if he had got angry or got stressed with someone”.

Local officials identified the killer as former Police Lieutenant Colonel Panya Khamrab, who once served at the Na Wang Police Station in Nong Bua Lamphu province, before being fired in June 2022 from the government for drug offences related to methamphetamine.

Danaichot Bunsom, the head of the Uthai Sawan sub-district administrative office, said the suspected killer’s mother had approached him recently to ask if he could help with her son’s drug charge as he was due to appear in court.

The sub-district chief said he declined because he had no authority to deal with the courts.

“His mother asked me to help, but I said I couldn’t. After I refused, she left my house politely,” he said.

“I don’t know the motive for this incident. I only know he had a drug-related case,” he said.

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