Person of the Week: Christian Pilet

After devastating tsunamis struck South Asia, Christian Pilet and his wife, both Baptist missionaries from Washington state, traveled to the region on behalf of their church to offer help.

Pilet's story begins on the beach at Khao Lak in Thailand.

"We were walking along and my friend Cameron kicked something with his foot, and he said, 'Look, it's a smashed digital camera.' It was obliterated. It was in very bad condition. Finding the camera seemed like a nonevent."

But Pilet was curious, so he took the camera's memory card back to his hotel and plugged it into his Palm Pilot. He found photos of a happy couple on vacation in Thailand, a beautiful day on the beach, and then what looked like a big wave forming out at sea and getting closer and closer.

"We were watching these pictures, seeing people living their lives, enjoying themselves, having a wonderful vacation," said Pilet. "And then it was as if we had picked up a tape recorder and heard somebody's last conversation and then it just ended suddenly."

'This Is the Guy'

Pilet took the pictures around to several embassies in Thailand; he thought the couple might be Swedish or German. Nobody was able to help.

He took the pictures home to Washington, and on the very first night he was home, his wife, Nicole, looked to see if the people in pictures matched any photos on the Internet. Many families had posted photographs of the missing.

"The very first image she clicked on, she said, 'This is the guy.' And I remember thinking when I was falling asleep from jet lag that there's no way you just turn on the Internet and, in just the first click or two, find the people," Pilet said.

But it was true. Nicole had discovered photos of John and Jackie Knill from Vancouver, British Colombia. Their three sons had been searching desperately and had posted their parents picture on the Internet.

So Pilet went to Vancouver.

"When I found out the camera was found and the memory card was readable my jaw just dropped," said Patrick Knill, one of the couple's sons. "I was like, 'No way. How can a camera in all that be found? It's like a needle in a haystack.' "

John and Jackie Knill had been living in Thailand for a couple of months. They were retired and thinking of settling there.

"Thailand was their favorite place," said Patrick. "They found peace there every time. They came back a better person every time, and they were already great people."

The photographs that Pilet found and delivered have helped the three Knill sons deal with their parents' deaths.

"I always knew that when they went to Thailand they were happy," said Christian Knill. "You can just tell by the pictures. They had big smiles on their face. They were away doing what they loved."

Patrick said the photos seemed to convey messages from their parents: "Little things that they are trying to say to us, that we were together, it's OK, and here you get to see what we saw last."

Today, the Knill sons are working to keep their parents' connection to Thailand alive by raising money for a potential orphanage or music school. (Their father was a jazz producer.)

As for Pilet, he says he also wanted to do something for someone else.

"Hopefully these images can take away some of the images of terror that the tsunami raised," he said, "and you can look at the image of them happy in their last day and really be glad they were enjoying a tremendous Christmas."

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