A woman is comforted outside the site of a shooting at a Thailand daycare center on October 6, in the town of Uthai Sawan, in the northeastern province of Nongbua Lamphu. At least 36 people were killed in the attack, police said. Photo: Screengrab / Mungkorn Sriboonreung Rescue Group

BANGKOK – Children lay napping after eating lunch on a rainy day in their childcare center in northeast Thailand, but their dreams soon became the gruesome nightmare of Thailand’s deadliest mass killing of civilians by a lone gunman.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha reportedly plans to fly to the small town on Friday (October 7) to meet relatives and survivors.

When a former police officer entered the daycare center on Thursday (October 6) and began shooting and stabbing staff and kids, and later committed suicide, the death toll rose to at least 38 victims.

Among the slaughtered lay 21 boys and three girls. Thailand’s Central Investigation Bureau (CIB) identified former police officer Panya Khamrab, 34, as the killer. His motivation was not immediately known.

When Panya forced his way into a locked classroom and began randomly stabbing sleeping kids, the nap room became a scene of splattered and puddled blood, with tiny survivors writhing and moaning.

The gunman meanwhile escaped by driving away, allegedly killing people as he fled, and reportedly crashing into a motorcyclist and injuring two people.

Panya soon found his main targets –his wife and three-year-old son – police said. Spent, suicidal and without hope, he shot both of them dead and then killed himself, police said.

Police had surrounded the house while the gunman and his wife and child were inside, perhaps to negotiate with him before the saga ended, the Bangkok Post reported.

“My wife was due next month,” wailed the crying husband of the pregnant teacher who Mr. Panya had stabbed to death.

“I will never get to see my wife with our child,” the husband said on Thai television, while tears streamed down his face.

Soon after the killings, terrified parents and others ran to the neat one-story building to find out if their loved ones survived amid a chaos of weeping and shouting, sirens and security officials, medical staff and Thai media.

Outside, in the daycare center’s garden, unwashed lunch dishes still lay on tables, after the teachers and kids had stuffed themselves with vegetables and rice.

Panya was dismissed from the police force last year after being busted for methamphetamine possession, intoxication, and being a public nuisance, police said.

That clue indicates Panya was grappling with the highly addictive, illegally manufactured drug which can induce hallucinations, paranoia, fears of persecution, and other real and imagined problems.

Ex-cop Panya Khamrab went on an unprecedented shooting rampage. Image: Twitter

The northeast region is mostly agricultural in one of Thailand’s poorest provinces. Illegal methamphetamines are popular throughout Thailand and known as “ya baa” – crazy medicine.

In large quantities, the powder fetches huge profits for criminals who exploit consumers craving cheap thrills.

Frequent arrests, confiscations, addiction, and imprisonment for offenders have wrecked the lives of amateur dealers, impoverished workers hoping for an energy boost, and others lured by meth’s energizing rush.

Panya began “opening fire while the kids were sleeping,” the CIB’s Major General Jirapob Puridet said.

The disgraced ex-cop wielded a 9mm handgun ­– legally purchased for personal use – and a knife, National Police Chief, General Damrongsak Kittipraphat, said at a news conference.

Police General Torsak said the gun may have been a SIG Sauer pistol, and he may have also used a meat cleaver to kill and injure.

No one was able to immediately explain Mr. Panya’s motive, so investigators began piecing together his recent timeline leading up to the murders, hoping to find what triggered the mayhem.

Panya began his day in Uthai Sawan town, 500 kilometers northeast of Bangkok, near the Mekong River which forms part of Thailand’s border with Laos.

In the morning, he went to a local court to hear an update about his drug case. The court told him to appear again the next day (October 7), Police Chief Damrongsak said.

Some Thai reports said the court found him guilty of possession of methamphetamines and was due to sentence him on October 7.

When he left the court, he was displeased so he consumed some drugs – likely methamphetamines – and started to feel paranoid, Deputy National Police Chief, Police Gen. Torsak Sukwimol quoted Panya’s mother as saying.

It was not immediately known what else he experienced or was told while there, but apparently, Panya left the courthouse and drove to the nearby Uthai Sawan Child Development Center, armed and ranting.

He was looking for his three-year-old son.

“He was already stressed, and when he couldn’t find his child he was more stressed and started shooting,” a police spokesperson, Paisal Luesomboon, told ThaiPBS media.

“He started shooting, slashing, killing children at the Uthai Sawan daycare center,” Paisal said.

“The shooter came in around lunchtime and shot four or five officials at the child care center first,” one woman was quoted as saying.

“It’s really shocking. We were very scared and running to hide once we knew it was a shooting. So many children got killed,” she said.

Some staff escaped when the gunman ran out of bullets.

Other teachers locked themselves in a room and climbed out a window.

They were unable to stop him from barging into one of the nap rooms where children – mostly aged between two and four – were sleeping.

“There were some staff eating lunch outside the nursery, and the attacker parked his car and shot four of them dead,” the nursery’s acting chief, Nanthicha Punchum, told Agence France-Presse (AFP).

“The shooter smashed down the door with his leg and then came inside and started slashing children’s heads with a knife,” she said.

Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha has weighed in on the tragedy. Photo: AFP / Chalinee Thirasupa / Pool

Prime Minister Prayut announced: “I have ordered the police chief to travel to the scene immediately, to take necessary actions, and all involved parties to provide immediate relief to all affected people.”

Investigators also want to find out why Panya was initially so obsessed with finding his son, and why he became so angry that he vented his rage with bullets and sharpened metal.

Meanwhile, when local hospitals asked the public to urgently donate blood to keep severely injured survivors alive, people lined up to contribute.

Mass shootings of civilians are rare in Thailand. Thailand’s previous biggest mass shooting occurred nearby in 2020 when an army gunman in a Korat city shopping mall killed 29 people, before snipers shot him dead.

“Local gun laws and the required background checks are quite strict,” the Bangkok Post reported.

“The estimated total number of guns held, legally and illegally, by civilians in Thailand was 10.3 million in 2017, or one for about every seven citizens. Of those, about 4 million were illegal.”

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978. Excerpts from his two new nonfiction books, “Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. — Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York” and “Apocalyptic Tribes, Smugglers & Freaks” are available here