Thursday, 9 August 2012

Dana crash: DNA results out, 132 bodies for collection

Two months after Dana plane crashed in Lagos, killing all 153 passengers on board, the Lagos State Government yesterday said that 132 bodies of the victims were ready for collection by their relatives from today. 16 others are still being processed.

This followed the conclusion of the Deoxyribonucleic Acid results, otherwise known as DNA, in the United Kingdom.

Speaking during a meeting with the affected families at the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital, LASUTH, Ikeja, yesterday, Commissioner for Health, Dr. Jide Idris, disclosed that the results were out.

Some of the medical personnel who carried out the tests were also present at the meeting, while the families of the victims had been appropriately notified which day of the week their representatives would come for the corpse.

Idris said that the state government would be releasing the 132 identifiable bodies to relatives of the victims in batches of 20 to authorised claimants from today.

He said the bodies would be released in alphabetical order and the names of the victims that had been identified would be pasted at the Lekan Ogunshola Memorial Morgue, adding that relatives should come with appropriate documents to claim the bodies.

Idris said: “We have got some of the results of the DNA analysis from the UK.

“The experts have released the results and we felt it necessary to brief the families of the victims on the processes and documentation needed to claim the bodies.

“We will release the bodies in batches of 20 in alphabetical order daily from Thursday to reduce the chaos and to resolve some legal processes needed to claim the bodies.”

LASUTH Chief Pathologist and Chief Medical Examiner, Prof. John Obafunwa, said that 16 other bodies were still being processed.

Obafunwa said that the corpses would only be released to their next of kin after the presentation of necessary documents.

He listed the order of priority for the next of kin as spouses, children, parents siblings, half- brothers and sisters, grandparents, nephews and nieces.

“The next of kin is in this order and they have to present legal documents before the bodies would be released to them.

“But, in the case where the next of kin is not available, he or she has to authorise someone else to collect the body with appropriate identification.

“The authorised person has to come with the driver’s licence, national identity card, international passport and letter of authorisation by the next of kin,” he said.

Already, service of songs had been held for some of the victims of the plane crash.

It will be recalled that one week after the crash, the Lagos State government withheld the corpses on the grounds that DNA tests must be conducted on them for identification purposes to avoid giving bodies to wrong families.

This action brewed controversies. Concerned relations were told to wait until the results were released before coming for collection of bodies.

One of the major reasons the state government took the decision was as a result of controversies and physical confrontations among some family members over the rightful owners of some bodies.

This consequently led to a build-up of tension at LASUTH mortuary, which later got to a peak when an angry relative attacked morgue officials with a cutlass following the state government’s refusal to release the bodies already identified by family members.

The assault was interrupted by a special squad of the Rapid Respond Squad, RRS, of the police. As the police held the angry relative, he was shouting, “You people can eat my brother’s body if you want, since you don’t want to release him to us.”

The police had to station a team of RRS to man the mortuary 24 hours because of these unpleasant developments at the mortuary. Meanwhile, a Lagos State Coroner’s court conducting inquest into June 3 Dana plane crash was yesterday told the challenges some rescue agencies faced in responding to the disaster.

Testifying at the resumed inquest proceedings yesterday, an Assistant General Manager, Airports Rescue and Fire Fighting Services, Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria, FAAN, Mr.John Ekpe, told the coroner, Mr. Alexander Komolafe, that there was no emergency agency that had all the equipment required to save the lives of victims.

The witness said the FAAN rescue team was at the crash site early enough with two fire trucks and a water tanker ahead of other agencies but could not access the actual site of the incident because of the crowd.

Ekpe said by the time his team could accessed the site, “our team recovered dead bodies from the nose of the plane, which was not completely burnt, while Julius Berger was called to evacuate the affected buildings and wreckages with their heavy equipment.’’

Ekpe also told the coroner that FAAN had an emergency plan and disaster emergency team but the search and rescue functions outside the airport falls on the National Emergency Management Agency, NEMA.

Another witness, a Chief Fire Fighter Station Commander /Head of Department of the Airport Rescue and Fire Fighting Services of FAAN, Mr. Sanni Enessi, said that the authority had a checklist of agencies it often call for emergency plan.

Cross-examined by lawyers at the proceedings, Enessi explained that there was no source of water supply near the crash site, adding that the Water Corporation was far away from the scene, hence that the team had to go back to the airport to collect water.

The fire chief said the challenges the team faced on its way was that the road was too narrow and bad, and the surging crowd inhibited the emergency operations. Enessi added that the number of police drafted to the scene was not adequate initially but later more men arrived.

The coroner adjourned the inquest proceedings till tomorrow when the officials of the Federal Road Safety Commission, FRSC, Total Oil, Forte Oil and two other witnesses are expected to appear

Thursday 9 August 2012

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Relatives pray at Khmer Rouge mass grave

More than 200 villagers gathered in Siem Reap’s Kralanh district yesterday to pray and seek solice for relatives executed during the Khmer Rouge regime after their remains were found over the weekend at the southern base of Trung Bat mountain.

Do Dantrey village deputy chief Muth Samkhan told the Post by telephone that cars and motorbikes came to the village in droves yesterday to light incense and pray for the dead.

“Before, we just know that here is a former Khmer Rouge’s prison. We didn’t know they killed a lot of people and buried them underground. We have so much pity, and many cried when they prayed,” Samkhan said.

The village chief added that some villagers from farther afield who had heard the news of the gruesome discovery journeyed to the village to find out if the remains of their missing relatives were there.

Authorities yesterday continued to embargo any more groundwork in the area until experts could arrive to examine the one-time graveyard, now a commercial soil excavation site.

More than 100 people have attended a Buddhist ceremony in rural Cambodia at the site of a freshly uncovered Khmer Rouge mass grave.

Buddhist monks led prayers and people came with offerings of food and drinks Thursday, five days after about 20 skulls and bone fragments were unearthed at the site of a former Khmer Rouge prison.

Village chief Chheng Theng said the offerings were meant to give sustenance to the souls of the dead "because we know they died hungry."

Siev Bun Sorn, 54, whose nine family members were killed in Trung Bat mountain prison, said that he was shocked and pitied his family, whom Pol Pot’s men murdered at the site.

“My anger disappeared for years, but when I saw the bones, I got angry immediately but could not let alone the thought of how much he had suffered,” Bun Sorn said, adding he had only escaped a similar fate by being transferred to a work movement unit.

He said he would be joining other mourners in a traditional Khmer ceremony once authorities allowed the public into the area.

“I am not sure I can find any bodies of my family members, because it was many years ago and they were buried in only one hole,” he said.

Vann Bunna, director of Siem Reap’s Department of Cult and Religion, said that his officials would begin research today to report to the province about the status of the bones and where they should be kept.

Thursday 9 August 2012

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Unearthing Remains in Potter's Field to Give Names Back to the Nameless

On a winter’s night in early 2004, after a late visit at his parents’ house near Cleveland, Javier Reveron called his mother to let her know he had driven home safely. Then he vanished.

Javier Reveron, who went missing in 2004, shown with his mother, Judy, in 2000. He is among those whose bodies have been identified using expertise gained from a decade of using DNA to identify victims of the World Trade Center attack.

Evidence would point to New York. A plane ticket was bought and used. A car parked near La Guardia Airport was broken into, and some of Mr. Reveron’s belongings were found: his wallet, a driver’s license, business cards and a banana peel. There would be sightings, most likely false, in places like Queens and Ohio. Then the trail went dry.

But about six years after his disappearance, the New York City medical examiner’s office discovered what became of Mr. Reveron.

The office is undertaking an ambitious effort to identify the nameless dead in the city’s potter’s field, seeking to capitalize on the expertise that it gained over the last decade identifying remains from the World Trade Center attack.

Through old-time detective work and newer DNA technology, the office established that Mr. Reveron, 27, had drowned not long after arriving in New York in early 2004, and that his body was buried on Hart Island, home to the potter’s field, the graveyard of the poor, unclaimed and, in rare cases, the unidentified.

Some 980 bodies have been found in the city, or its waterways, since 1990 whose identities have never been determined. After a month or more in one of the city’s morgues, the unidentified victims are generally sent to be buried in the same trench graves on Hart Island as the indigents.

But now, as the medical examiner’s office conducts a systematic review of its old cases, the office is not only reopening dormant case files; it is also opening old graves.

Since 2010, the city has exhumed 54 bodies from the potter’s field for further study. So far, the effort has led to about 50 identifications, mostly through DNA evidence.

In the case of Mr. Reveron, his parents, Rigoberto and Judith, came to New York to try to find their son. They handed out fliers and visited store owners who thought they may have seen him. When friends visited New York, the Reverons would give them more fliers to distribute.

“All to no avail,” Rigoberto Reveron said via telephone from his home in Lorain, Ohio. “We didn’t know he had already been buried.”

In March 2010, Mr. Reveron filled out an electronic form concerning missing and unidentified people. Within a few days, he got a call from Ben Figura, the director of identification at the medical examiner’s office, who said, “I personally want to get involved and help you find him.”

The medical examiner’s office got critical biographical information about Mr. Reveron’s son: He was a high school and college wrestler who after college was found to be bipolar. He had an appendectomy, had donated a kidney to his older brother and had the scars from both operations.

That information, Mr. Reveron said, matched “a John Doe buried on Hart Island.” The match was then confirmed by DNA, using an autopsy sample and DNA taken from the parents.

“In April 6, 2010, our chief of police and pastor of our church came looking for my wife and I to tell us a positive match had been made,” Mr. Reveron said. “Six years later.”

The medical examiner’s office declined to discuss any case in which an identification had been made, citing privacy concerns. But the cases, according to a person familiar with the identification process, have also included Sean Wheeler, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who disappeared in late 2003 after a car accident on the Henry Hudson Parkway. His body was found about three months later, floating in the Hudson River by a ferry captain, but it was not until 2010 that a match was made.

Mr. Wheeler’s relatives said they had been in touch with the medical examiner’s office in early 2004, so it was somewhat frustrating to have had to wait so long for an affirmative match. The confirmation of Mr. Wheeler’s death “was very depressing,” an aunt, Kimberly Wheeler, of Independence, Mo., said. “It shouldn’t have taken so long if they’d put any effort into it.”

Another aunt, Carol Wheeler, said that the initial match was based on his appearance, height and weight, and a distinctive fraternity brand on Mr. Wheeler’s arm, and that it was confirmed by DNA testing of his aunts and uncles. “We came to the conclusion that New York was a big city and a lot of people go missing,” she said. “As time went on, you know, it became a cold case.”

Not all of these nameless dead perished unnoticed. The unknown cases include several Chinese immigrants who drowned after the Golden Venture ran aground off Queens in 1993. The episode drew extensive news coverage and shed light on the brutal conditions and deprivations that some Asian immigrants endured to make it to New York.

Another old case that has attracted the attention of the medical examiner’s office is that of “Baby Hope.”

The young girl, about 5 years old, has been known as Baby Hope since shortly after her body was discovered packed into a picnic cooler off the Henry Hudson Parkway in 1991.

As the subject of an active homicide investigation, her body was exhumed in 2007 from St. Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx even before the medical examiner’s office had begun looking into all of its old unknown cases. But at the time, biologists were unable to extract any DNA because her bones were in such poor condition.

“She had been in a cooler in the sun, and her bones were very brittle,” said Sheila Estacio Dennis, an assistant director in the medical examiner’s department of forensic biology.

By 2011, because of advances in the medical examiner’s office in the DNA extraction process, Ms. Dennis said, the office was able to obtain a full DNA profile. It did not yield a match to existing DNA databases from convicted felons or from active missing person cases in which samples had been collected.

Investigators believe that her parents, or one of them, most likely murdered her, as no one has come forward to identify the girl as his or her child.

In reviewing hundreds of old cases, the medical examiner’s office has in effect been conducting a census of “the unknowns,” as Mr. Figura calls them.

The deceased are overwhelmingly male, typically white and often homeless. They are usually found in Manhattan. The sidewalk is a common deathbed, as are subway platforms, where 106 of the unknowns — or 11 percent — were found.

Some 15 percent are presumed homicide victims. About 22 percent of the unknowns are pulled from the water, and investigators presume that many are suicides.

In most of the older cases, the medical examiner’s office typically keeps a tissue sample from the autopsy, which has been used to extract DNA samples in numerous instances over the last three years. In cases without an autopsy sample, the medical examiner’s office has sought to exhume the body.

Fingerprints have also led to identifications in a few cases, as improvements have been made in the sensitivity of the software that compares uploaded prints to various databases. Simply running the prints again years later has resulted in several identifications, Mr. Figura said.

Central to the medical examiner’s efforts is a public database, called Namus, containing information on 7,645 missing person cases and the remains of 8,516 unidentified victims. The database has helped investigators, the relatives of missing persons and even amateur sleuths try to establish matches between the known missing persons cases and the unidentified.

Mr. Reveron’s father, an usher for the Cleveland Indians and a former city councilman in Lorain, followed Mr. Figura’s instructions to use Namus to give a fuller profile of his missing son.

When the identification was confirmed, the Reverons requested that their son’s remains be returned. They learned that Javier’s body had been disinterred before, when investigators suspected that he might have been a match with someone else. When the match came up negative, his body was reburied on Hart Island.

The Reverons decided to cremate the remains in New York, and then took the ashes back to Ohio. On June 19, 2010, the Reverons gave their son “a Catholic Mass and a proper Christian burial,” Mr. Reveron said.

He said the family was grateful to Mr. Figura, saying that without his “personal involvement, we’d still be searching.”

But, he added, “What happened in six years should’ve only happened in one year.”

Thursday 9 August 2012

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