Three-year-old Emmy was napping next to her best friend at a day-care centre in northern Thailand when the attacker broke in, armed with a gun and a knife.
The class of 11 children, all around three years old, had earlier been busy drawing and writing. At around 10:00 local time, teachers sent photo updates to all the parents of smiling, happy children.
Two hours later, at nap time, former police officer Panya Kamrab stormed the building. Witnesses said he first shot staff, including a teacher who was eight months pregnant, before forcing his way into each of the three kindergarten classrooms.
He murdered all of Emmy’s friends as they slept.
It is unclear how she survived. She was found awake, curled up next to the bodies of her classmates.
“She had no idea what was happening when she woke up,” her 59-year-old grandfather Somsak Srithong tells me from the family home.
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“She thought that her friends were still asleep. A police officer covered her face with a cloth and carried her away from all the blood.”
Rescuers took Emmy to the second floor to shield her from the horror. They then combed the other two classes, desperately hoping to find others alive.
She is the only child to live through the massacre in Nong Bua Lamphu on Thursday. In total 37 people died – including the wife and stepson of the attacker – and 24 of the dead are children.
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“I feel very grateful that she survived. I held her so tight when I first saw her,” says Somsak.
Emmy’s mother, 35-year-old Panompai Srithong, works in Bangkok during the week. She had been told that all of the children at the centre had died, and needed to be convinced her daughter was still alive.
“I finally got a video call with Emmy and was filled with blessed relief,” she says.
This small town is filled with grieving families, and for the first few days, Emmy’s grandparents struggled to know what to tell her.
We talk quietly as she plays with her favourite Hello Kitty wellington boots in the garden. She keeps asking after her best friend, three-year-old Pattarawut, who was also known as Taching.
They always napped together with their feet touching. She also loved the day care centre and wanted to be just like her teachers.
“Her grandmother finally told her that her school friends had all died, along with her teacher, and the day care centre is closed,” her mum says.
“She just wants to go to school every day. We have to keep telling her the school is closed down. She is too young to understand the concept of death.” BBC reports.
Buddhist funeral rites and prayers for the victims are taking place at several temples in the town to mark the start of three days of mourning.
The motive for the attack is not yet known, but police said Kamrab was fired from his job in June for drug use.
This small rural town in north-eastern Thailand is trying to support the anguished families in their grief. But many are also asking about the widespread availability of deadly weapons and the country’s pervasive problem with drugs.
“Parents are asking: ‘Where is a safe place for their children?’ I’m so sad and I beg that any authority would strengthen our safety,” pleads Emmy’s uncle Veerachai Srithong.
On Sunday afternoon, the family sat in a circle as a religious leader read from a Sanskrit prayer book, conducting a Buddhist ceremony for children who endure bad experiences.
Ammy sat patiently in her mother’s lap, looking around shyly through big eyes and playing with two candles she held.
Relatives splashed one another with rice wine poured from a silver bowl and cried out wishes for good fortune.
They loaded Ammy’s tiny wrists with white threads for luck, pinching her cheeks and whispering blessings.
It was a rare moment of joy in a town plunged into grief.
Later in the day they sat for a Buddhist ceremony at the nursery, where mourners have left white floral wreaths and more presents.
At Ammy’s home, her mother said she believed spirits had protected her little girl.
“My kid is not a deep sleeper,” Panompai said. “I believe there must be some spirits covering her eyes and ears. We have different beliefs, but to me, I think it protected my kid.”
Another relative told local media Ammy’s survival was a “miracle”.
But the family had to break the news to her that her beloved best friend, two-year-old Techin, and her teacher were dead. “She was asking her grandmother, ‘Why don’t you pick up Techin from school?’,” Panompai said.
She does not yet know the full extent of the tragedy she lived through.
PM announces crackdown on drugs
Meanwhile, Thai prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, has ordered a clampdown on drugs, including an emphasis on rehabilitation, following the mass shooting and stabbing at a nursery in north-eastern Thailand that left 37 people dead, mostly young children.
On Monday, the government spokesperson Anucha Burapachaisri said in a statement that Prayuth had ordered the police to urgently crack down on illegal drugs and to bring users to receive treatment.
“[Prayuth] ordered provincial governors to strengthen drug prevention plans to tackle problems in their areas,” the statement said, adding the government had always taken drug eradication seriously.
The opposition Pheu Thai party has said it is preparing to open an extraordinary session of the House of Representatives after the nursery killing. The party – founded by loyalists of the exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose infamous drugs crackdowns were strongly condemned by rights groups and left an estimated 2,500 dead – has criticised the current government for not doing enough to tackle drugs.
The Pheu Thai leader, Cholnan Srikaew, has promised a “war on drugs” if the party wins next year’s elections, including stronger prevention and rehabilitation. The Guardian reports.
An autopsy indicated that Panya had not taken drugs in the 72 hours prior to the attack. However he had appeared in court over drug charges a few hours beforehand, and was due to appear again the following day. His mother told local media he was in debt and had drug addiction problems.
Supplies of methamphetamine have grown rapidly across south-east Asia over recent years. A recent UN report said the price of tablet and crystal methamphetamine had fallen to all-time lows as supplies had surged. According to local reports, a tablet costs 10 baht (£0.24) for wholesale, not much more than a bottle of water. The street price for the pills is between 20 and 25 baht.
More than a billion methamphetamine tablets were seized in east and south-east Asia in 2021 – seven times higher than 10 years ago. Analysts say the cartels, whose production is centred in south-east Asia’s Golden Triangle along the borders between Thailand, Myanmar and Laos, continue to thrive despite police raids.
Statistics quoted by local news show that in 2021, the authorities seized 272m methamphetamine tablets; 8,691kg of crystal methamphetamine; and 484kg of heroin. During the same period, 144,110 people were arrested over drug-related offences.
Cholnan also called for a review of gun legislation. Mass shootings are rare in Thailand, though in 2020 a soldier opened fire at an army base and shopping mall, killing at least 29 people, an unprecedented incident that prompted a debate over firearm ownership, rates of which are high in Thailand. Similar questions have re-emerged after the nursery attack.
Possession of an illegal firearm can lead to a prison sentence of up to 10 years and/or a fine of up to 20,000 baht (£480), though unregistered guns remain prevalent due to poor enforcement.
Thailand had about 10m privately owned firearms in 2016, according to Gunpolicy.org. This included about 4m firearms that were illegal and unregistered. The firearms used in the nursery attack had been obtained legally.