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Service consoles mourners of 4

A Buddhist temple audience is urged to recall the crash victims' deeds.

By S.I. Rosenbaum
Published January 18, 2007


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TAMPA - In the long red-ceilinged room of the temple, the abbot's voice crackled as if it were coming from space.

The mourners, over a hundred of them, sat listening.

In life nothing is certain, the abbot said from 15,000 miles away. We know when we are born, but we don't know when we will die.

The abbot's name is Phrakroovithetsuttikhun, and he was delivering a sermon by long-distance call. He had been traveling in his native Thailand when word reached him that four of his congregants here were killed in a crash.

Pranom Crist, 60, Agustin Valdes, 91, his wife Khanthong Valdes, 41, and her mother Thongjan Kongtan, 73, were killed Monday when Crist tried to make a U-turn in front of an oncoming gas tanker in Sarasota. They had driven south on a fishing trip.

Crist lived in Valrico, the other three in Brandon. They all attended this Buddhist temple in Palm River.

Everyone on the earth will die, the abbot said. It's natural.

As she listened, Nuansee Hill, 61, bowed her head. She had helped make the flower arrangements on the altar: red carnations, white baby's breath.

Crist had been one of her first friends here when Hill came to the Tampa area decades ago from Thailand.

Crist, the wife of an American serviceman, was one of the first Thais to emigrate to Tampa, more than three decades ago.

So for many newly arrived Thais, Crist became a lifeline, showing them how to adapt to a foreign land.

"I try not to see her picture in the paper," Hill said before the services as she filled a bowl with red carnations. "I did not think she could go so fast. She was a good girl, a sweet girl."

Outside the temple, Agustin Valdes' relatives stood in the brisk evening air. They didn't speak Thai, so the abbot's voice was a cipher to them.

Valdes grew up in Tampa, a son of an old Tampa family. He shocked them when he found a bride in Thailand, said his nephew, Gerardo Valdes. He met Khanthong on a trip, wooed her on subsequent visits, and started the emigration paperwork.

"Next thing you know, they're married," Gerardo said.

Valdes was in his 70s then. Khanthong was only in her 20s. But despite the difference in age and culture, the marriage lasted.

"Even when he started to get Alzheimer's, she didn't bolt," Valdes' nephew said. "She treated him like gold."

Khanthong's mother, Thongjan Kongtan, had only recently come from Thailand to join her daughter, he said.

Somewhere in Thailand, the abbot said: Everyone will die. Everyone here tonight will face this. What lasts are our actions. Our good deeds.

At the front of the temple, incense smoke curled in front of the photographs of the dead.

S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached at 813 661-2442 or srosenbaum@sptimes.com

[Last modified January 18, 2007, 05:40:23]


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