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U.S. tracks 4,000 reports of missing Americans

State Department checking thousands of calls

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. officials are investigating about 4,000 reports of missing Americans in the wake of the December 26 tsunami, and 16 people have been confirmed dead, a State Department spokesman said Tuesday.

The actual number of missing Americans remains unclear, and many families are desperate for information on loved ones.

Among the missing is Nicole Weissberg, a 27-year-old graduate student from Denver, Colorado.

Her boyfriend, Morgan Browning, was leaving Denver to meet her when the tsunami hit.

Browning spent days checking makeshift morgues up and down the coast of Thailand before returning home, while Weissberg's family made repeated calls to the State Department.

"You see dead bodies over and over again, hoping that Nicole is not one of them, and feeling relieved when you can't recognize her in any of these people," Browning said.

"If I was going to pick one person to be able to handle something along these lines, it would be her. She is just tough as nails."

From her home in Howell, Michigan, Karen Foust has scoured the Internet in search of news about her stepdaughter, Angie Foust, who had been vacationing in Thailand with her boyfriend, Luke Scully.

"As time passes it gets hard to even read the e-mails, because you're thinking the worst," Foust said.

Dr. Douglas Cellhorn of North Carolina traveled to Thailand to search for his sister -- so far, in vain.

"It's hard to be optimistic when you see so much destruction and the loss of life, the terrible loss of life that's been over there," he said. "It's just devastating."

20,000 phone calls

State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said 16 Americans have been confirmed dead -- eight in Sri Lanka and eight in Thailand.

The Indian Ocean tsunamis killed more than 155,000 people in at least 11 countries. (Full story)

More than 20,000 calls have poured into U.S. embassies and government hot lines since the tsunamis hit -- most from frantic friends and family members who thought someone they knew may have been in the affected areas.

"What we're trying to do is work systematically through all the calls we've received," Ereli said. "Not every call represents an individual."

Sometimes more than one relative or friend called about the same person, creating duplicate records.

Often, those friends or family members did not call back when the person they reported missing was found, State Department officials said.

Some callers were unclear on geography, reporting missing Americans in China, South Africa and even Vermont.

Officials said that the State Department checks into every report.

"Yesterday we started with 5,000," Ereli said. "We've been able to whittle it down."

Other Western countries, such as Sweden and Germany, have released more precise information. (Full story)

"We have worked through the families, the travel agencies," said Jan Eliasson, Sweden's ambassador to United States. "We've sent ... up to a hundred people to go through the hospitals."

Ereli said that U.S. officials soon would be able to be more specific about the number of missing Americans in the region.

The search for Americans focused largely on Thailand and Sri Lanka, a senior State Department official said.

The official said Americans were unlikely to have been in Indonesia's Aceh province because of the long-standing armed rebellion there.

The State Department has sent consular affairs officers to the coastal resort city of Phuket, Thailand, where they are working with local officials to identify the needs of Americans -- whether it be treatment for injury or transportation and money.

Those officers also are working to identify Americans who may be hospitalized or in morgues.

'Not just a bad nightmare'

While the State Department has not released the names of the dead, their stories are coming to light.

Kristi Anderson, 42, was in southeastern Sri Lanka when the tsunami hit. Now, her brother, Bruce Anderson, is making her funeral arrangements in Las Vegas, Nevada.

"The most beautiful place that she's always wanted to go is where her life ended," he said.

Marc Williams is the U.S. Embassy official in Sri Lanka charged with searching for missing Americans.

Signing a death certificate, he said, "This is truly the worst part of my job."

"Sometimes we think we're doing better because the number of found keeps going up," he said. "But at the same time we get a bunch of calls and e-mails saying we need to look for more people."

Brian King, a 59-year-old commercial fisherman in Alaska, was vacationing in Thailand on December 26.

He e-mailed his sister, Janet Nicholas, not long before the disaster. She said she believes he was swept underwater in his sleep.

"When I wake up in the morning and first open my eyes," she said, "I realize it's very real. It's not just a bad nightmare."

CNN's Andrea Koppel contributed to this report.

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