How are victims of disasters like the Haitian earthquake identified if they are unrecognisable when they’re recovered from the debris? By using forensic science techniques.
As with the South East Asian tsunami of 2004, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and so many other situations, dozens of bodies need to be identified as fast as possible.
I heard a forensic dentist talk about the terrible working conditions in Indonesia where bodies were stored in unrefrigerated shipping containers (no refrigeration units), waiting to be identified – time was clearly of the essence for multiple reasons – closure for the family before the bodies rot, getting through the bodies before they rot so badly that they’re difficult to handle. Because they had such limited facilities, the dentists and anthropologists rigged up a portable x-ray machine to some school chairs they found in the debris so that they could elevate the machine high enough over the bodies so it could be operational. Bodies like these are not only damaged but often caked in mud, making visual identification not only traumatic for the family but also extremely difficult from a practical perspective and sometimes impossible.
In situations of mass disaster, relatives of the missing also provide DNA samples or are asked to bring along hairbrushes or toothbrushes of their family members so that DNA samples can be collected and compared with cadavers. Dental records are acquired where possible.
I was on a training course in July 2005 with three of the first firefighters who had attended the London Tube bombings two days earlier – they talked about the lack of air in the Tube tunnels, the ambient heat, the smell, the hours they spent down there logging the scene, searching for people and finding bodies. I talked with people whose office windows had been blown out by the London bus bomb in Tavistock Square – crime scene examiners came and took swabs from their office furniture and the roof because knowing the extent of the damage (i.e. spread of the human DNA) helps map the bomb site and determine things like location of the bomb relative to the passengers – vital for working out what happened and possibly for use in prosecution. I don’t think the people who had to go and work in that office will ever look at the walls in the same way again – even the best crime scene cleaners can’t wash away what stains the mind.
The people who go to scenes of mass disaster are a rare breed. CSI makes this job look sexy. It’s not.
Just to throw some petrol on the fire of debate about how long to keep DNA samples on the DNA database if someone hasn’t been charged with a crime, here is an article from the BBC that shows cold case reviews and random hits on the DNA database do occur: Rape conviction ‘backs DNA case’. The Defendant, and now convicted rapist, was arrested in 2001 following an assault for which he was never charged. His DNA profile was uploaded to the UK National DNA Database in 2007 (because of advances in technology) where it scored a hit against an unsolved, outstanding rape case from 1990.
Some will say this is an excellent example of why DNA samples should be retained – what price does society put on solving a rape? On the other hand, some will say that the small number of successful random hits like this are far outweighed by the number of people who consider their civil liberties and human rights are violated by having their DNA retained on a database when they haven’t been proved to have do anything criminal.