Monday, 21 July 2014

Identifying the victims of MH17

Returning the 298 victims from Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 to their families with dignity and respect is a major priority for each nation involved.

Disaster victim identification (DVI) is a difficult task, but will be made even more challenging in this instance given the delays in body recovery and the interference of the crash site that is said to span over a 10km area including within a combat zone.

Australia has some of the best forensic experts in the world but they have been sidelined, with no access to the crash site or victims due to political obstruction.

Recovering the bodies

The most important phase of an identification operation is the Recovery Phase, which should be conducted by highly trained police and scientific officers. This involves thorough documentation, preservation and collection of bodies, personal property and other forensic evidence at the disaster site.

If the highest possible quality standards are not implemented at this stage of the identification operation, it may significantly delay or prevent accurate identification of victims.

Given the pictures of seemingly untrained military personnel trampling over the crash site and rummaging through the wreckage, it appears that the site has been contaminated and vital evidence has been removed.

Untrained searchers may not recognise items of forensic value to collect or overlook smaller body parts.

The need to document

Each item of property and body part should be given a unique identifying number at the crash site before removal, which should stay with it throughout the entire victim identification process. This forms a chain of continuity that prevents loss or destruction of bodies and items and maintains the value of forensic evidence.

Given the criminal nature of this disaster, these are also vital steps in any future legal proceedings.

For any multi-national victim identification process, the nation in charge of the crash site – and that’s still in dispute – should secure participation of forensic experts from all nations who suffered victims and ensure international standards are used.

Malaysian Airlines has so far identified the passengers and crew from the Netherlands, Malaysia, Australia, Indonesia, the UK, Germany, Belgium, Philippines, Canada and New Zealand.

But despite international offers of assistance, forensic experts – including those from Australia – have not been given access to the crash site or the bodies.

Protecting the bodies

The MH17 disaster will require forensic DVI experts to conduct autopsies, fingerprint, dental and DNA analysis of the victims and compare the evidence to records such as dental charts, medical records, personal photographs and fingerprints from personal belongings.

As the remains of victims deteriorate in fields under baking sun, vital forensic clues will start to disappear such as fingerprints, tattoos, scars, birthmarks and the opportunity for visual identification.

Over the past 20 years DNA has been used in disasters such as the World Trade Centre Attacks in New York in 2001 and the Bali Bombings in 2002 and technologies have improved much over time. DNA samples should be taken of all bodies and body parts recovered from the MH17 crash site so these can be compared against DNA from the victim’s personal items or their close relatives.

The delay in recovering the bodies shouldn’t have an impact on obtaining DNA profiles from victim’s bone samples, but the delay will significantly limit DNA profiling from blood and soft tissue. The explosion

The explosion and fire from the missile attack is another challenge for forensic experts. The associated heat and destructive forces of the initial explosion and resulting crash will make the bodies more difficult to recover and identify.

Despite the successful use of forensic science in many previous disasters, unfortunately there is always the possibility that not all victims can be identified.

To give families of MH17 passengers the best chance of having their loved ones returned, international experts need access to the entire crash area across multiples sites to conduct a thorough recovery using INTERPOL DVI standards.

Open access to evidence already collected from the crash site by pro-Russian separatists needs to be given to forensic experts. This evidence is most likely to contain valuable identification information and provide additional context to the forensic investigation.

Looking for evidence

Despite reports that bodies are now being refrigerated, forensic experts need to start autopsies on them immediately. Not only will these experts look for and recover evidence that will lead to identification, they will also search for evidence that will help to uncover what caused the crash of MH17.

The evidence will be used at Identification Boards and ultimately at a criminal court to help prosecute those responsible for such a heinous attack on innocent people.

The most important aspect of DVI is having access to evidence that can lead to fast and accurate identification and this process should be done while treating victims with respect and dignity.

There is little doubt that this access is being deliberately impeded for political reasons and the victims’ dignity has been ignored.

MH17 identity checks still feasible

Delays in refrigerating the remains of victims of downed Malaysian Airlines flight 17 shouldn't hinder their identification, a forensic expert says.

Specialists should be able to identify even badly decomposed remains, said Dr Chris Griffiths, a forensic dentist and retired air commodore, who has identified victims of air crashes, the 2002 Bali bombings and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

More than three days after the plane fell to earth over eastern Ukraine, pro-Moscow rebels began on Sunday to load bodies into refrigerated train carriages, according to reports.

Dr Griffiths downplayed concerns that the delay would hamper identification efforts, saying that in 2004 it took up to a week to recover tsunami victims.

"They didn't look very nice, but we still identified them," he told AAP.

Three methods are generally used to identify disaster victims: fingerprinting, dental records and DNA matching.

Visual identification is "deeply flawed" and isn't used, he said.

Fingerprinting is useful for victims from countries such as Japan and the United States, which have exhaustive public databases.

But for Australian victims, dental records are the quickest method, Dr Griffiths said.

Even the smallest dental x-rays are often sufficient to confirm an identity, he said.

"As long as you've got the right x-rays at the right angles, you could show them to anyone and they could match the shapes."

It is more difficult when bodies are torn apart by explosions or are burned.

In those cases, DNA sequencing is often the only way to confirm a victim's identification, Dr Griffiths said, which can take significantly longer.

In the case of MH17, he predicted some remains would be "fragmented" due to the explosion from a suspected surface-to-air missile.

But he said the bodies of most victims would probably be largely intact.

In previous aviation accidents involving explosions at high altitude, some victims who had fallen to earth outwardly appeared to have very minimal injuries, he said.

"You look at them and you think they could get up and walk away."

Dr Griffiths said it was difficult to predict how long it would take to identify the remains of the 298 people, including up to 39 Australian citizens and residents, who perished aboard MH17.

But he said most dental identifications after the 2002 Bali bombing, which claimed 202 lives, were completed within three weeks.

Fire is less likely to have corrupted the remains of the MH17 victims, meaning fewer are likely to require DNA analysis, he said, but much will depend on how long it takes forensic teams to gain access to the bodies.

Monday 21 July 2014


Post a Comment