Sunday, 27 October 2013

Thai disaster Victim Identification unit helped identify bodies after the Lao Airlines plane crash in the Mekong River

The Disaster Victim Identification unit was part of an international contingent which helped identify bodies after the Lao Airlines plane crash in the Mekong River.

Sifting through severed body parts may not be the world's most glamorous job, but the work of the Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) unit has proved invaluable in helping give grieving families peace of mind.

Two weeks ago, the DVI team sprang into action as they were called to the southern Lao city of Pakse, the scene of a plane crash which killed all 49 passengers and crew on board.

Five Thais were among the dead after Lao Airlines flight QV 301 plunged into the Mekong River near Don Khor islet on Oct 16 while attempting to land at Pakse International Airport.

The victims included foreigners from multiple nations, making the identification process more complicated.

The Thai DVI team was called in to assist Lao authorities, who lacked the facilities and expertise to properly deal with the crash aftermath.

The team is headed by Pol Gen Jarumporn Suramanee, adviser to the Royal Thai Police Office, and has helped in the aftermath of many large-scale international disasters that often require examining disfigured body parts to establish a person's identity.

In the wake of the Lao Airlines crash, Pol Gen Jarumporn said his unit had managed to overcome numerous challenges to identify the bodies of many of the victims.

Five bodies remain unaccounted for after the crash.

Joining the team were experts in fingerprint, DNA and dental analysis.

The unit also worked alongside divers from the Thai armed forces and marine police. The divers scoured the riverbed for any human remains and wreckage of the ill-fated aircraft.

In an operation where time is often of the essence, Pol Gen Jarumporn said their arrival in Laos did not get off to the best start.

At their first meeting with Lao authorities in Pakse, which was joined also by Australian officials, the DVI team was told they would not be permitted to conduct forensic tests straight away. Apparently there was some red tape that needed to be cleared first, despite several bodies already being recovered and awaiting identification.

When the team finally got the all-clear to begin their work, they were surprised to discover that some of the bodies, believed to be those of Lao nationals, had been given back to family members at the request of relatives.

That caused concern about the possibility of a mix-up, as no autopsies had been performed to confirm the identities of the discharged bodies.

"Victim identification is a delicate issue," Pol Gen Jarumporn said. "In plane crashes, sometimes the victims' bodies are not in the best condition."

He stressed that finding definitive forensic proof is crucial. If even one body is wrongly identified, it will cast doubt on the others.

Identifying a body based on what the victim was wearing before death is not always accurate. "People can be in the same place wearing similar things," Pol Gen Jarumporn said.

Pol Gen Jarumporn said many of the recovered bodies were in a severe state of decay and had body parts missing.

DVI specialists usually analyse the victims' fingerprints, DNA and dental samples. But the advanced state of decay of the bodies found after the Laos crash meant in many cases all three of these methods were impossible.

The team had to inject fluid into some victims' fingers to make it easier to collect fingerprint samples.

Pol Gen Jarumporn said foreign DVI workers at the crash scene had asked to be taught some of the methods which the team had devised to collect forensic evidence.

Lao experts also watched on and learned from the operation, he said.

In this case, taking DNA samples from victims' blood was rendered impossible since the bodies had been under water for several days and were too badly decomposed.

DNA samples had to be extracted instead from the victims' ribs or thigh bones.

The samples then had to be sent back to Bangkok for testing, since there was no facility capable of handling the job in Laos.

Pol Gen Jarumporn said Thailand's standard of DVI work is recognised internationally, noting that his team has worked in many countries and gained a wealth of experience.

Sunday 27 October 2013


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