Tracking the dead and the missing

Forensic experts worldwide join the largest and most difficult victim identification operation ever.

Published January 4, 2005 3:18PM (EST)

It might have been numbness, exhaustion or simply that she was too young to realize what she was doing, but 6-year-old Dana Trickett made barely a murmur when the Thai volunteer nurse asked her to contribute a DNA sample to help the authorities track down her missing mother and brother -- both lost at Khao Lak beach in last week's tsunami. Putting down the paper that she had been doodling on, she offered her hand for three nail clippings, allowed the nurse to take a few strands of hair and opened her mouth wide so that a saliva swab could be taken with a cotton bud.

After checking the samples, the police forensic science officer at Phuket town hall slipped the materials inside a brown envelope, marked it d44 and stapled it to the missing person's forms filled in by her British father, Michael. The entire process took less than half an hour, but the results are not likely to come back for months, if they come back at all, because Dana's and Michael's contributions are part of the biggest and most difficult victim identification operation the world has seen.

While corpses are usually disposed of in days, or weeks in the case of murder investigations, the complexity and scale of the tsunami disaster are likely to mean that thousands of cadavers will have to be kept on ice for months. Returning the thousands of dead in Thailand to their families around the world is such a giant data management exercise that microchips are being inserted in bodies to ensure they are not confused. The need for care was highlighted by the exhumation of 300 bodies that were belatedly discovered to have been wrongly identified in the chaotic days after the tsunami struck.

While authorities in Aceh and Sri Lanka are simply burying the dead, the large number of tourists in Thailand has prompted calls for identification and repatriation of the bodies. It will be a huge task. With 5,046 confirmed deaths and 3,810 people still listed as missing, Thailand's official death toll could be as high as 8,000, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra warned. Search teams are still finding more than 100 bodies a day.

The spread of devastation is also unparalleled. After the bomb attack in Bali, Indonesia in 2002, an international team of forensic experts took more than five months to identify 300 burned and decomposing cadavers. In Thailand the devastation is spread over hundreds of miles of coastline, and the victims come from a far higher number of nations. At least 30 countries have reported nationals missing in Phuket, Khao Lak and Phi Phi island.

Such is the complexity of the operation that the British government refused for two days to give even an approximate figure for the number of fatalities and missing. Forensic experts from around the world have flown in to help identify bodies. Britain has dispatched a team of about 20 pathologists, forensic dentists, logistics experts and counselors to help the international operation. It is being led by Australia, whose team was the first to arrive on the scene and gained experience in dealing with the Bali bomb. Police officials will meet at Interpol's headquarters in France on Tuesday to discuss and coordinate identification methods.

There are two picture galleries in Phukhet town hall. The first contains the notice boards for the missing, which feature hundreds of pictures of honeymooners, holidaying families and retirees -- in almost every case healthy and smiling. The second set of boards depicts the ranks of the dead -- close-up photographs of the victims, most of whom have been bloated by seawater and stiffened by rigor mortis. They are horrifying images of distended, twisted, blackened children and adults turned into blood-splattered, gray balloons. It is hard to reconcile the smiling faces with the grotesque death masks. Doing so scientifically is likely to be even more difficult.

In the first few days, families were allowed to visually identify their lost relatives. They scoured temples turned into temporary morgues, paced through seven-high avenues of stinking coffins and opened one body bag after another to identify the missing by appearance, dental records, fingerprints or personal effects. As the bodies decomposed in the heat, the task became increasingly hit or miss. In one instance, three families fought over one body. Finally, on Saturday, police announced that no bodies would be released without DNA confirmation.

What follows is likely to be a long process of collecting DNA samples from families around the world and matching them with materials from the victims, according to Interpol principles on disaster victim identification. Every corpse will be tagged with an I.D. number, details on where it was found and distinguishing marks. Every family claimant must provide DNA samples and, where possible, the dental records, fingerprints and last-known location of their lost relatives.

The Trickett family is one of 30 providing such information every day at the police forensic science center in Phuket. The volunteer nurses, most of whom work for the local telephone company, say the materials are sent to Bangkok for analysis. But with similar samples now being collected from around the world, the final reconciliation of data from the relatives and the victims is likely to be collated in China. "We've been told it is the only place big enough to cope.

They will coordinate everything there," said John Charlesibe, a nephew of Michael Trickett's who has flown to Thailand to offer moral support. As the far smaller operation in Bali took more than five months, patience will be important.

"It will take a long, long time," said Acting Sgt. Tony Matheson of the New Zealand police force disaster victim identification team. "Although the process is similar to that used after the Bali bombing, everything is on a far bigger scale. We've been told there may be 10,000 victims. This is the greatest natural disaster in recent history."

By Jonathan Watts

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