Northern Ireland charity chief mourns woman who saved Thai tsunami orphans
Supporters of an Ulster tsunami charity who were preparing to mark the 13th anniversary of the Boxing Day disaster have been plunged into mourning again by the death of the inspirational woman who helped them save scores of children orphaned in Thailand in 2004.
Rotjana Phraesrithong, who was suffering from bone cancer, died just weeks after the Portrush charity's award-winning founder Willie Gregg flew 6,000 miles to say farewell to her.
People in Northern Ireland have donated tens of thousands of pounds to Willie's Orphan Fund to support the Baan Than Namchai orphanage in Phuket, which gave a home and education to hundreds of youngsters after the tsunami.
Golfer Graeme McDowell and jockey AP McCoy have been among celebrities who have lent their support.
Around 250,000 people died in 14 countries in the tsunami, one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history.
Rotjana, who used to help children in Bangkok's slums, was regarded as a surrogate mother to the Thai orphans she helped.
And it's been revealed that one of the orphans who lived at the home at Khao Lak is taking over the running of it.
"That's the positive thing to have come out of this nightmare," said Willie, who described his final meeting in Thailand with Rotjana as heartbreaking.
The Portrush barman, who won the Sunday Life Spirit of Northern Ireland award earlier this year, said: "It was very emotional for both of us.
"Rotjana was a much loved and important figure in the formative years of so many children whose parents were lost in the tsunami.
"We, like Rotjana, knew that she was desperately ill but her death has shattered our people here and in Thailand."
A message from the orphanage said "our mother has left this world in peace after a long brave fight against cancer".
The Willie's Orphan Fund Facebook page said: "Rotjana will never be forgotten and her kind spirit will live on through the many orphans she loved and cared for."
The page also includes more than 300 pictures taken by photographer Stephen Lockhart.
In 2015 Rotjana brought a group of orphans to Northern Ireland to thank people who had backed Mr Gregg's fundraising efforts.
She and the youngsters also went to Londonderry to sing songs at the grave of Gerry Anderson, the late BBC radio presenter who promoted the charity.
Rotjana was the second member of the orphanage management team to die in recent years.
Englishwoman Allyson Parker also had cancer.
Mr Gregg said a thanksgiving service for Rotjana will be held in April and he plans to be there.