Monday, 2 December 2013

Forensic doc feels 'burned' after helping gov't

Dr. Raquel Fortun, a well-known forensic expert, will have to think twice next time the government seeks her help in identifying cadavers.

Fortun, who has been instrumental in identifying bodies in past tragedies, said she and her colleagues have been “burned” after being set aside five days after putting in place a system by which to identify the victims of super typhoon Yolanda.

“If the government asks for help? I don’t know. When I got in, I thought that was it. We had authorization from no less than the Office of the President to do something. If I had known on the fifth day they would just drop us, I would not have said yes. For future requests, I think I’ll have second thoughts, napaso na ako e,” she told ANC.

The forensic expert said a system is very important in identifying the thousands of bodies in areas affected by super typhoon Yolanda.

Fortun and her group started on November 18 but had to pack their bags after five days. This was after the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) questioned their mode of identification.

NBI officer-in-charge Medardo de Lemos already apologized, noting it was only a misunderstanding between the two camps. Fortun was with experts from the Department of Health and World Health Organization, while the NBI sought the help of the Interpol.

Fortun said she does not know if there is a system in place right now after they left.

How hard is the task now? “Is it impossible? The answer should be no. You have to try and you have to be fast. With decomposition, you lose information. I don’t know what’s happening now. Have we not been stopped…we were already averaging 100 bodies a day," Fortun said.

Earlier, Fortun twitted the slow reporting of the casualties of Yolanda. President Benigno Aquino III was reported as saying, “It’s because you have to make sure that there is the certification or a coroner’s report before it is made official.”

In her Twitter account, she answered back: “Certification of a coroner’s report is needed before a body is counted? Do you know Mr. President that we don’t have coroners in the Philippines?”

She also said the system was better during President Gloria Arroyo’s time.

“Arroyo’s term may not have been spanking clean. But at least there was a sense that we were governed,” she noted.

“With former President GMA, you throw all the problems at her and she will deal with them. But the one who is sitting now is allergic to bad news,” she said.

Differences in system

Fortun said NBI already questioned their mode of identifying the bodies since they first met for a meeting on the deployment to Tacloban.

“The NBI was pushing for an Interpol kind. [That of] WHO is more practical…there was no systematic taking of DNA samples, [we] had no dental charting because we don’t even have dentists,” she said.

NBI wanted to do the routine process of gathering DNA, such as swabbing the insides of the mouth of the bodies, she explained.

“Why take routine DNA samples from each body. You can’t just do swabbing because the bodies are already decomposing and may have been contaminated.”

She said the best way to take the DNA is from the bones, but this is out of the question because of the thousands of bodies that they had to work on.

“Imagine the thousands of samples you have to deal with. These are forensic cases so you have to be careful in packaging and labeling. Where will you get your storage facility? How do you manage thousands upon thousands of bodies,” she asked.

She said their system was more basic and simpler.

“We get the basics. We [determine] the sex. Is it an adult or infant? We describe the clothes. For the dental records, it was just photography.”

The bodies are then buried temporarily in trenches, where there will be a numbering system.

A deduction method will then be in place. She said a group will be in charge of antemortem information, where relatives can describe the missing.

“Then maybe we’ll have a database. For example, we look at all male adults for recognition, personal effects. We determine where the bodies are buried. After that, the process becomes more definitive,” she explained.

She said the NBI system was “just not possible.”

She surmised: “I don’t even know if [they] have identified the agency that will do antemortem.”

Monday 2 December 2013

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More than 2,000 ‘Yolanda’ victims unidentified

More than 2,000 fatalities remain unidentified in Tacloban City, over three weeks after Supertyphoon “Yolanda” ripped through Eastern Visayas.

Last week, retrieval teams from government agencies and volunteer organizations recovered more bodies under the rubble, raising the possibility the number of dead could reach 10,000 as earlier estimated by a police official.

The official tally of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) remained at 5,632 dead, with 1,759 persons still missing. The 2,000 unidentified victims were among the 5,632.

In its latest advisory, the NDRRMC on Sunday said only 108 fatalities from Guiuan, Eastern Samar, and Matag-ob, Leyte, had been identified by their relatives.

Monday 2 December 2013

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The Clutha Tragedy: Identification of helicopter crash victims will take time

Their thirst for knowledge about every detail is completely understandable.

At the Clutha Vaults it can appear there is an inordinate delay in answering that most basic question for some of the families, 'Is my loved one, one of the dead?'.

I have no doubt the authorities want to confirm those facts and break the news, but great care has to be taken to get this right.

The law demands it, and a mistake in such a sensitive area is unforgiveable.

It's like a doctor giving a patient a wrong diagnosis, or a miscarriage of justice.

It is clear that the Clutha incident scene remains a very challenging site.

It looks like the remains of the helicopter are holding up the building and vice versa.

Body recovery has to be done safely and professionally and this is going to be a slower process than anyone would want.

I've also no doubt the emergency services will have full regard to the dignity of the deceased of the sort that was apparent in incidents including Piper Alpha, Lockerbie and Stockline.

Meantime, I've no doubt that the list of potential victims held by the police is a larger number than the real number.

Despite appeals, some people won't have checked in with their families to say they are safe and will currently be listed as missing.

I have also heard no confirmation that the final number is eight.

That number won't be confirmed until all the rubble is painstakingly searched.

It is not a clear cut situation.

The police will have appointed a Senior Identification Manager (SIM) with a very distinct role from the well known Senior Investigating Officer (SIO) who investigates the incident.

The job of the SIM is to co-ordinate body recovery, mortuary arrangements, and identification procedure.

An Identification Commission will have been set up which will include the SIM, the procurator fiscal, a pathologist, odontologist, and forensic support.

They look at all the identification evidence available to determine if identification has been established.

I have no doubt that, regrettably, because of problems in accessing and recovering the bodies they will not have all the evidence they really need, which would include visual identification, fingerprints, dental records, DNA, supplemented by things such as personal effects, clothing, scars, tattoos and the like.

It's easy to ask for patience, but also easy to understand the distress the time it is taking is causing. I know the authorities will be working as quickly as humanly possible.

I am also sure the families of potential victims will be having the challenges and procedures explained to them, notably by Family Liaison Officers who will be attached to every family will provide as much information and support as they can.

Finally, my own commiserations to all the families involved in this tragedy.

Monday 2 December 2013

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Mozambique airline crashes in Zambezi killing all 33 on board

Investigations are underway to determine what precisely caused the horrific plane crash that killed all 33 people aboard the Mozambican national airline plane that went down in the Bwabwata National Park in the Zambezi Region on Friday afternoon.

The plane went missing on Friday mid-day, but the Namibian police only managed to locate the wreckage late on Friday afternoon a few kilometres from the border between Namibia and Botswana, in the Bwabwata National Park, and had to guard the scene from lions and other predators until the arrival of inspectors of the Directorate of Civil Aviation the next day.

“We could not really tell how many people were on board [at the time], because it was just bodies and plane parts scattered all over the place. All the bodies were shredded to pieces, it was an ugly scene because none of the bodies were [intact],” said Regional Crime Investigations Coordinator, Deputy Commissioner Willie Bampton, who was one of the emergency and security personnel first to arrive at the scene.

Namibia’s aircraft accident investigation unit is leading the investigation, which comprises of seasoned investigators from civil aviation authorities from Mozambique, Angola, Brazil and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), an independent United States federal agency.

Mozambique’s national airline, Linhas Aereas de Mozambique (LAM), has also sent its own response team yesterday to assist and provide support to Namibian authorities with the investigation.

“We have mobilised Kenyon International, a global specialist disaster and emergency management organisation to assist in the search and recovery of the victims remains and also their personal possessions. For the families, this is important, as it will enable the positive identification of each person who was on the aircraft. The Kenyon team is en-route from the UK to the accident site and by tomorrow we hope to have a clear assessment of the situation there,” said LAM Chief Executive Officer Marlene Manave yesterday morning.

According to senior investigators on the ground, information available so far indicate that the Embraer 190 aircraft started descending uncontrollably from 38 000 feet at about 13h09 on Friday, while still within Botswana airspace until it hit the ground.

Flight TM 470 was a scheduled service from Maputo to Luanda, carrying 27 passengers and six crew members. The 93-seater plane was still under the control of the civil aviation authorities in Botswana when it started its fatal descend.

The 33 people on the plane included 10 Mozambicans, nine Angolans, five Portuguese, one French, one Brazilian and one Chinese national. The remains of the deceased were transported to the Rundu State Hospital mortuary on Saturday evening and flown to Windhoek yesterday morning aboard a Namibian Air Force aircraft.

The accident took place at a time that African countries are working hard to shed off the negative reputation of accident-prone African airlines, the majority of which are still banned from flying over European Union airspace due to stringent EU safety standards. Currently there are only five African countries and their airlines, which are permitted to fly over European airspace, of which Namibia is one.

Linhas Aereas de Mozambique (LAM) said the plane was purchased brand new in late 2012 and had completed 2 905 flight-hours when it crashed. Bampton said the aircraft skidded over 500 metres on the ground before coming to a standstill.

“If it was not for the trees and bushes in the area the plane might have skidded further over the ground,” said the deputy commissioner.

The Mozambican government said it would declare a period of national mourning for the victims.

Yesterday the Namibian government also extended its condolences to the government of Mozambique and the bereaved families. The Minister of Works and Transport, Erkki Nghimtina, said there were no casualties on the ground and indicated that the names of the deceased cannot be released until their next of kin have been informed.

The Minister of Safety and Security, Immanuel Ngatjizeko, who was at the site on Saturday afternoon, described the accident as horrendous.

“What more can one say with destruction such as this, it is a loss for the people of Mozambique and the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC). I understand there were minors on the plane,” said Ngatjizeko.

He also explained that he had to visit the accident scene in order that he could brief President Hifikepunye Pohamba as to what transpired. “Investigations must be done as soon as possible, but of course we want it to be done properly,” Ngatjizeko said.

LAM has also expressed its condolences to the bereaved families. “At this time, our thoughts and prayers are with the families and loved ones of the passengers and crew who were on board the aircraft and it is their well-being and taking care of their immediate needs that is and must take priority,” Manave said in a statement yesterday morning.

As an initial form of assistance, LAM has established family liaison centres in the Maputo and Luanda airports. At the same time, the airline is also providing advice to the families about the international legal processes that have to be followed following a fatal air accident.

LAM further says the aircraft was manufactured in Brazil and was powered by two General Electric CF34-10 turbofan engines. It was delivered brand new from the factory and entered service with LAM on November 17, 2012, said the airline. “Until yesterday [Friday accident], the aircraft had logged 2 905 flight-hours in 1 877 flights,” Manave said.

Sunday 2 December 2013

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