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Phi Phi, for walkers and wheelbarrows, keeps its secret about mystery deaths

Phi Phi Deaths Riddle: That Last Hour at Laleena

Saturday, January 23, 2010
THE MOTHER of tourist Julie Bergheim spoke to her daughter as she lay dying from a mysterious malady on Phi Phi, say reports in the Norwegian media.

Unexplained deaths echo especially loudly in a nation that values the lives of its citizens, and today Norway cannot forget the tragic holiday deaths of Bergheim, 22, and another traveller, American Jill St Onge, 27.

A burst of coverage has followed the closure of the Norwegian investigation into the mystery, and now comes a public rebuke from Bergheim's travelling companion, Karina Refseth, 21,

Ms Refseth remained silent until the Norwegian investigators admitted that, halfway around the world from Thailand, their best forensic scientists were unable to unravel the mystery through a second autopsy and tests.

''I am very disappointed with both Norwegian and Thai police,'' Ms Refseth, who almost died herself from the same malady, told VG Nett, the largest circulation newspaper in the country.

She added that she feared Thai police were more concerned about the reputation of Thailand's tourist industry than to apportion responsibility for the tragedy.

''I am sure that we were exposed to a kind of gas,'' she is quoted as saying, ''and I think Julie died of this gas. I certainly do not feel that the police down there have taken this seriously.''

For the first time, the final awful moments the two women spent together, both close to death, have been revealed in detail.

Unknown to them, another tourist pair, Julie St Onge and her finance Ryan Kells, had been enduring similar agony in the room next door at Laleen Guesthouse.

The two couples probably never spoke or even nodded, yet they went through the same hell, and the two survivors have had to bear the same lack of explanation.

Ms Refseth said the Norwegian friends were out that night in May until 2am on Phi Phi, a highly social backpacker destination about an hour by ferry from Phuket. There are no cars, only paved walking tracks.

''It was the third night and when we got home that evening, I noted a strange smell in the room, but we thought nothing more of it,''she said.

Explaining that the two were on their way home after studying hotel management for 18 months in Australia, where they became friends, Ms Refseth said: ''Julie was an adventurous and bubbly person.

''We had a couple of weeks in Thailand before we moved in at Laleena Guesthouse on May 1 last year,'' she told the newspaper.

''We stayed first in a place without air conditioning, but by chance we found this guesthouse.

''It was so hot that we decided to move in there, the price was quite low, although it had air conditioning,'' said Ms Refseth.

''The third night when we got home that evening I felt a kind of strange smell in the room, but we thought nothing more of it, "she says.

During the hours that followed, the two became so sick that they were unable to move from their beds.

''We just kept throwing up,'' Ms Refesth said. They knew nothing about the tragedy that had already struck the couple in the next room.

Ryan Kells, 31, who also fell sick but had spent less time in the room, was able to have his seriously ill companion pushed to the local island hospital on a wheelbarrow of the kind used to cart baggage and goods around the island.

Nobody thought to alert the other guests in the 10 rooms of the guesthouse to the drama, or the apparent potential danger.

The Laleena maid, who preferred not to be named, has described to Phuketwan how she found Refseth and Bergeim in their room at 9pm the next day, naked and clearly dying.

''We had not paid for the room, so they came looking for us,'' Ms Refseth said. ''I can remember that we told them we needed a doctor.''

She remembers very little of the last hours in the room, but she does know that her friend spoke with her mother at home in Drammen.

''Then she grew so bad that she could not bear to talk,'' Ms Refseth said.

Having been found close to death, the two Norwegian girls were ferried in wheelbarrows to the small Phi Phi hospital.

''I cannot recollect the Phi Phi hospital, I was out of it,'' Ms Refseth said. ''During the night they took us by boat to a larger hospital in Phuket.

''I saw that the light was extinguished in Julie's room. They told me that she was sleeping, and I believed them.

''At first I refused to move, I was so sick that I was not prepared to sit for an hour in the boat, but eventually I gave up, " Ms Refseth said.

''I had asked for Julie several times, but they said she was sleeping. I was angry because nobody told me anything.

''First, the next day, after I had come to Phuket, I learned that Julie had died. It was Mom who called and said that, " Ms Refseth said.

Eight months on, she finds difficulty in talking about Phi Phi.

''No one knew what had happened. First, it was speculated that someone had put something in our drinks. It was suggested that it had to do with food poisoning.

''But we had nothing to do with the American pair. It was just nonsense,'' Ms Refseth said.

The latest of several articles in the Norwegian media this week is accompanied by a photograph of a woman, in deep snow and with more snowflakes falling, kneeling down beside a grave with a black marble headstone.

The grave belongs to Julie Michelle Bergheim, and the woman in her mother, Ina Thoresen, 52. She places candles or flowers there every day.

''On that Sunday I had a strange feeling that something was wrong, so I called Julie on Phi Phi,'' Ms Thoresen told the Norwegian media.

'''She said that both she and Karina were so bad that they could not bear to leave. I asked her to contact a doctor, but she said only that she was not able to talk more.

''Then she had to hang up,'' Ms Thoresen said.
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Comments

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What a frightening ordeal. I really hope they can find the source of the problem so that no one else will suffer such a horrible end. What a waste!

Posted by Lana on January 24, 2010 11:45

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What killed Jill St Onge and Julie Bergheim? What lethal gas almost also killed their companions Karina Refseth and Ryan Kells? The two absolutely linked deaths, hours apart, separated by a common wall less than six inches thick, in two back facing air conditioned rooms of the Laleena Guest House, rooms #4 and #5, one Norwegian, one American, unknown to each other, were apparently caused by the lethal inhalation of a toxic gas that has not been identified.

Young adventurous explorers like Jill, Julie, Ryan and Karina, from countries all over the world travel to the island of Kho Phi Phi, described as one of the most beautiful spots on earth as featured in the film 'The Beach,' staring Leonardo DiCaprio, believe that they are safe and expect to travel home with exotic memories and not the ashes of the love of their lives or the one that they intended to marry.

One thing we do believe is that both Julie and Jill had elevated blood levels of cholinesterase inhibitor, a likely sign of pesticide gas poisoning, as suggested by a couple of research experts asked to comment on the blood results.

We also know that the implied causes investigated by the Thailand authorities such as alcohol and drugs have been eliminated as potential causes of death. All of the investigative effort thus far has focused on life style causes and to our knowledge no effort has been expended to determine if a pesticide might have been the lethal agent.

We are Ryan's parents, Beby and John Kells, living in Los Altos, California, U.S.A. We flew to Thailand to bring Ryan and Jill home. Jill was cremated in a Buddhist temple in Bangkok and her mother met us at the San Francisco airport to retrieve her daughter's ashes. Jill was 27 and she had just agreed to marry Ryan who had proposed to her under a Bali sunset a couple of months before her death.

Jill and Ryan had lived together in Seattle, Washington for five years before embarking on the trip of their lifetime, taking them to Thailand, Malaysia, Bali, Cambodia and Viet Nam, with a final destination of Kho Phi Phi, which was to be less than a week before their planned return trip home.

Imagine Ryan, denied access to a wheel cart by an employee of the Laleena, which he confiscated. Imagine him in the early hours of the morning running through the streets of Kho Phi Phi screaming for help with his dying fiance hardly breathing, having turned blue and her eyes bulging in trauma? Imagine him attempting CPR in the emergency room and his phone call home to tell his parents that Jill had died.

Imagine his parents despair and helplessness with 6000 miles between them and their son. As unimaginable as it might seem, Jill was placed in a power boat, secured by the Island's ''Chief'' at a market rate which Ryan was required to pay. It broke down in high waves on the trip to Phuket.

Imagine Ryan cradling her head from being bumped as the boat encountered high waves. Imagine a transport truck waiting at the dock to take her body to a Phuket hospital. Nothing of these experiences reflects life or death in Norway or America.

Since we, as parents, cannot bring Jill and Julie back, the least we can do is find out what likely act of man caused their deaths. We owe it to them to make sure that no other parents, no other best friends, no other couples planning marriage, suffer a similar fate.

We would like to extend our love and heartfelt sorrow to Karina and Julie's family for their loss. If there is a way to combine the collective resources of those that lost a loved one, a way to coordinate the efforts of the governments of Norway and the United States, then let us try.

While we were in Bangkok the Norwegian embassy was cordial and helpful to us which was in complete contrast to the Unites States Embassy which refused us access to any assistance because Ryan was not related to Jill. This is a major problem for unmarried couples traveling abroad.

In Jill's case she had casual contact with her family and had lived with Ryan for all intents and purposes in a civil union. Further the U.S. Embassy told us on the telephone that, ''They did not have the time to lend assistance to every family that lost someone in Thailand; they were too busy with the approximate 150 other Americans that die there each year while traveling.''

Posted by John Kells on January 27, 2010 04:07

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Mr Kells, very deeply sorry your family is so traumatized by first, the death of Jill, and then the actions of Thai and US authorities.

Thailand is a high risk at every level, from casual poisoning to traffic to gunfire - and it is time for prospective visitors to be made aware of the dangers instead of the misinformation campaign run by tourist industry.

There were seven other foreigner deaths, unexplained, possible murder, in the region during May and June last year.

Editor: Bones, you point is valid to some degree but in the interests of fairness, the vast majority of visitors who holiday in Thailand enjoy their breaks without major incident. While there are some regional mysteries of the kind that happen everywhere, it would be mischievous and a gross exaggeration to tag all or even some of the mystery deaths as ''murders,'' or to promote conspiracy theories.

Posted by Bones on January 27, 2010 08:36


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