Thursday, 3 September 2015

Austria struggle to Identify truck victims

Veteran police investigators say they have never faced a task like identifying the 71 bodies unloaded from the back of a truck found abandoned along a highway last week.

The victims, believed to have been mainly Syrian refugees trying to reach Germany, had apparently suffocated. They were so decomposed and drenched in bodily fluids that many of their documents were illegible. Hands were so deformed that traditional fingerprinting methods proved impossible.

Criminal investigators, many of whom had identified victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, are working 16-hour days at a disused veterinary clinic in Nickelsdorf, near where the truck was found Aug. 27. The stench and heat topping 90 degrees compounded the pressure, as most of the early work was done outdoors.

“This is both mentally and physically one of the most challenging jobs we’ve ever done,” said Chief Inspector Kepic Erwin, who heads the team handling the postmortem investigation. “We only focus on the work we’re supposed to do.”

Such gruesome finds are becoming all-too-common as Europe reels from the mounting death toll from the biggest influx of migrants in decades. At least 12 Syrians, including eight children ranging from 9 months to 11 years old, drowned Wednesday as they attempted to cross the Aegean Sea to reach Greece, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency said.

The bodies of the 59 men, eight women and four children found in the truck in Austria were brought to Nickelsdorf, undressed, then sent to Vienna over the weekend for forensic examination.

Their papers and electronic devices are being cleaned and analyzed at a regional police station in Eisenstadt. Clothing and any other belongings remain in Nickelsdorf, where investigators painstakingly search through them for clues.

No one has been positively identified, but an Austrian government official said travel documents found so far suggest at least some of the victims were from Syria where civil war has raged for the past four years.

The grim work has brought the human tragedy in Europe’s unfolding migrant crisis into focus. People from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and parts of Africa are willing to risk their lives to reach safer, more prosperous countries—even going as far as packing themselves into a refrigerated chicken delivery truck with no room to sit and little air to breath.

Activists and migration experts say smuggling has boomed since Europe recently began tightening its internal borders. Hungary last weekend finished erecting a razor-wire fence along its wooded frontier with Serbia, one of the most-popular crossings on the route northward from the Mediterranean.

Many don’t make it that far. The International Organization for Migration says more than 2,300 people have died while trying to cross the sea into Europe so far this year.

Germany, with its relatively strong job market and generous benefits, has been one of the main destinations for the wave of migrants and refugees. Among the hundreds of people prevented from boarding Germany-bound trains at Budapest’s main railway station this week, some said they would turn to smugglers.

Overnight Tuesday, Austrian police rescued 24 Afghan teenagers crammed into a small, nearly airtight van, at risk of suffocation. The van’s two windows were darkened and sealed and the rear door had been barred from the outside, a police spokesman said. The driver—identified as a 30-year-old Romanian—was arrested after trying to run away.

Nearby, in Nickelsdorf, Mr. Erwin said his medical team hoped to finish the forensic research by Friday, while examination of the findings would continue for weeks. Some passengers may never be identified, he warned.

“We do, of course, want to identify everyone, but we have no guarantees,” said Lt. Col. Karl Wochermayr, who came from Salzburg to Eisenstadt to lead the 30 investigators working on identifications.

The task is complicated by the lack of information about the victims. Normally in such situations, authorities have a list of names or other details to match to specific bodies. “Here, we have no idea who we’re looking for,” Col. Wochermayr said.

They don’t even know how long the people had been dead. It could have been “anything from some hours to several days. It is still hard to tell, because of the heat,” which accelerates decomposition, Mr. Erwin said.

A police hotline and email address established to gather tips has received fewer than 200 descriptions of missing people, said Col. Wochermayr.

He said the number is unusually low, probably because relatives may be stuck in war zones or otherwise cut off from communications.

Worried family members and friends arrive at the police station in Eisenstadt daily, handing over photos of missing loved ones and providing investigators with DNA samples. On Monday one man arrived from Hannover, Germany, 500 miles away, because he feared his brother might have been on the truck, Col. Wochermayr said.

The van where the people died, still emitting an overwhelming stench that wafted to a nearby refugee camp, was moved Wednesday to “a safe place,” according to the state prosecutor.

At the former veterinary facility, a one-story gray building with loading bays resembling a warehouse, police Wednesday continued documenting the migrants’ possessions. One officer clad in a hazmat suit spread a pair of jeans darkened by bodily secretions across a sheet of white plastic on the ground. A second officer, also in white, took photographs while a third nearby in civilian clothes wrote down details called out by his colleague in a monotone.

“Black belt, leather. Jeans, dark blue…”

A second team in Eisenstadt is analyzing cellphones, USB drives and other electronic items found with the bodies that could offer clues to their identities.

Police declined to say what they had found, but note that chasing leads isn’t simple. Cooperation with police in Syria is largely out of the question, due to the civil war, and some victims may have come from areas now controlled by Islamic State militants. Police also worry that calling numbers in Syria found on cellphones could expose people there to dangers.

Col. Wochermayr said their current focus is on European phone numbers that might provide clues to the migrants’ final destinations.

Medical examiners in Vienna are collecting dental samples, DNA and records of identifying marks such as scars, implants or tattoos. All the information is being entered into a computer program that is also used by Interpol, an international organization that facilitates police cooperation.

“We’re working against time,” said Mr. Erwin. Even though the bodies have been cooled for almost a week, the decomposition doesn’t stop.

The examiners are all accustomed to dealing with corpses, but the work is nevertheless unusually intense, he said. Each evening a police psychologist arrives to talk with team members. “So that we don’t have to take all the mental images with us home,” said Mr. Erwin.

Thursday 03 September 2015


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