Sunday, 4 January 2015

AirAsia flight QZ8501: 3 more passengers' bodies identified

The East Java Police's Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) team has released the names of three passengers aboard AirAsia QZ8501 whose bodies have been identified.

"In identifying the victims, the DVI team analyzed primary and secondary data," the team said as quoted by in a press conference at Bhayangkara Police Hospital in Surabaya on Sunday.

The primary data used to identify the victims included such personal markers as fingerprints while the secondary data included identification of sexual organs and accessories they wore, the team said.

Following requests from the families of those on ill-fated AirAsia flight QZ8501, police will not allow media to cover the transfer of bodies identified by its Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) team.

East Java Police spokesman Sr. Comr. Awi Setiyono announced on Saturday that the press would no longer be permitted to cover such transfers, as happened with the first four bodies.

“We plead with our journalist friends: There’s no need for the transfer to be covered. The families have objected. This is a private matter, let’s respect this,” Awi told reporters on Saturday.

The spokesman said the objections were mainly aimed at live television coverage.

On Saturday in Surabaya, the bodies of two more victims were returned to families without a ceremony.

“In both cases, we have a match between ante mortem and post mortem data,” Awi said.

Six bodies have been returned to families as of Saturday, seven days after contact with the plane, which was en route from Surabaya to Singapore, was lost.

Separately, 12 more bodies arrived at Bhayangkara Hospital for identification on Saturday, flown in from Pangkalan Bun, Central Kalimantan, where bodies and debris found at the crash site in the Karimata Strait have been taken.

A total of 30 bodies have been flown to the hospital, including the six returned to families. Awi said two more bodies would soon be returned to families, with two others at the final stage of identification. The rest were still undergoing identification.

Awi said the police were collecting DNA data from victims’ families.

East Java forensic team member Sr. Comr. Hery Wijayatmoko said the team was relying on DNA data. “After being in the water for [seven days, it’s difficult to obtain fingerprints],” Hery said.

He said that the bodies were first labeled and separated based on gender and nationality.

The latter stages involved examining the bodies for post mortem data, including dental documentation, property found on the bodies, as well as fingerprints and DNA data.

“It’s not easy, but we have many experts on the team to help speed up the process,” he said.

A number of forensic experts have joined the team, including those from Brawijaya University in Malang, East Java; Gajah Mada Univeristy in Yogyakarta and the University of Indonesia (UI) in Jakarta.

UI forensic expert Budi Sampurna said that police would autopsy the bodies of the pilot, co-pilot and some of the passengers for their investigation.

“Not all the passengers’ bodies will be subject to autopsy. We’re taking only a sample, because not all the families approve [of this method],” Budi said.

Singapore deploys DVI team A Disaster Victim Identification (DVI) team comprising six officers from the Singapore Police Force (SPF) and two forensic experts from the Health Sciences Authority (HSA) departed earlier today for Surabaya to assist Indonesia in identifying victims of the recent AirAsia QZ8501 tragedy.

Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs and Foreign Affairs Mr Masagos Zulkifli joined family members to send off the DVI team at Changi Airport.

Superintendent (Supt) Sng May Yen, who was also part of the DVI team deployed to Phuket during the aftermath of the 2004 Asian tsunami, said that the team will "do our best and try to help as many families as possible."

He said on Facebook: "We will do all we can to support our Indonesian friends in these difficult times. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and loved ones of the victims."

Sunday 4 January 2014

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Explosives trigger mine collapse in Mohmand; 10 dead

At least 10 people were killed on Saturday when a marble mine collapsed in the Safi tehsil of Mohmand Agency. Officials expect the death toll could rise.

Local miner Mir Wais Khan said the incident took place at Jalat Haji marble mine at Khanqah Ziarat mountain in Safi at 3pm. “Around 15 people – 11 miners, two truckers and their two helpers – were at the site when the mine caved in,” he told The Express Tribune by phone.

After the incident, other miners rushed to the site, called heavy machinery from other mines and started a rescue operation. “Four bodies, including that of a trucker, have been pulled out from underneath the huge boulders,” he said, adding that a seriously injured miner was also recovered and shifted to hospital where he is said to be in a critical condition. “There are slim chances of finding more survivors,” he added.

A political administration official, Miraj Khan, confirmed 10 fatalities. “Troops from the Khasadar force and Frontier Corps are also helping with the rescue operation which is ongoing,” he added.

Senator Hilal Rehman claimed that the mine collapsed as the miners used explosives to excavate marble from the mine. “The government should provide the mines with heavy machinery and build a social security hospital at the site as the Fata secretariat and political administration receive billions of rupees annually in taxes from these mines,” he said.

Mine management in Pakistan lacks preventive and protective measures, as a result the number of fatal accidents is high.

Workers endure harsh conditions in makeshift mud shacks or in villages devoid of basic facilities.

Accidents are not recorded in the registry as required by law, and often go unchecked. Mine workers in Pakistan get a pittance for work considered one of the highest-risk activities in the world in terms of safety and health.

Sunday 4 January 2014

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Many bodies of AirAsia passengers won’t be autopsied

Investigators won’t conduct autopsies on most of the bodies recovered from the AirAsia airliner that crashed into the Java Sea, paying mind to cultural sensibilities regarding respect for the dead in this largely conservative, Muslim nation.

Doctors will conduct autopsies on the plane’s crew to detect any possible presence of toxic agents, banned drugs or alcohol. The bodies of foreign nationals will also undergo autopsy in line with international rules.

Officials in Surabaya said Saturday that a “sampling” of passengers on the flight would also undergo autopsies but declined to comment further on how many and which passengers they would be.

For Indonesians on Flight 8501, an autopsy can be conducted only if written consent is obtained from relatives or if police open a criminal investigation in which the autopsy is needed as part of evidence, Dr. Anton Castilani, the director of Indonesia’s Disaster Victims Identification unit, said Saturday.

One autopsy had been completed as of Saturday, according to DVI officials, who declined to comment on the cause of death.

Many Indonesians are reluctant to grant permission for an autopsy, even if it could provide insight into a relative’s final moments. Muslims, in particular, prefer that the deceased are buried as soon as possible after recovery.

Indonesia normally doesn’t conduct autopsies on victims of air or ferry disasters, Dr. Castilani told The Wall Street Journal in an interview.

“There are cultural issues,” Dr. Castilani said. “People refuse to allow autopsies.”

Jonathan Galaviz, partner at Global Market Advisors and an aviation expert, said that autopsies on passengers aren’t mandatory in the U.S. and Europe and wouldn’t be standard procedures in many jurisdictions.

While autopsies may indicate whether a passenger was likely killed on impact or drowned, the more relevant data points on how the plane went down will come from the analysis of the black boxes.

“For most of the passengers, the cause of death is the crash and the data from the flight data recorder and the cockpit voice recorder will most certainly reveal the cause of the crash,” Mr. Galaviz said.

In the U.S., autopsy isn't mandatory for the crew, Mr. Galaviz said. Instead, blood samples need to be taken from their bodies to rule out drugs and alcohol.

“An autopsy would be a very normal thing as part of a suspicious or unexpected death like this” though religious considerations can be taken into account, said Graham Braithwaite, professor of safety and accident investigation at Cranfield University in the U.K. The pathological assessments can also become important during later litigation in determining payouts, he said.

Indonesian police haven’t classified the probe into the crash as a criminal investigation, said Dr. Castilani, who is both a senior police superintendent and a medical doctor. He is leading the effort to identify victims after their bodies are recovered at sea and carried out similar work in the 2002 Bali terror bombings.

For Dr. Castilani, physical examination of the bodies can yield clues and help analyze what happened.

“As the police doctor, you should have your own mind if you find something suspicious,” Dr. Castilani said.

By Saturday, 30 bodies had been recovered, the majority of them “mostly intact,” Dr. Castilani said. He was unwilling to speculate on what conclusions can be drawn from examinations so far.

The identification process is under way in Surabaya, the city on eastern Java island where the flight to Singapore originated. By Saturday afternoon, six bodies sent to the forensics teams had been identified.

Budi Sampurna, forensics professor at the University of Indonesia, who is assisting with the identification, said autopsies may be difficult to conduct “because the bodies are in water for too long, and signs would have been gone.”

Mr. Sampurna said that identification is the priority for the forensics teams.

Sunday 4 January 2014

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Mt Erebus disaster – template for all subsequent air disaster recoveries

This week the Indonesian Navy has been trying to recover some of the 162 bodies from the Air Asia flight which crashed into the Java Sea. A grim and dangerous way to end a year in which 1,320 people have perished in air crashes. The long-term global trend may be for crashes to become increasingly rare, but 2014 was the worst year for fatalities in nearly a decade.

And recovering the bodies from these disasters is one of the more unpleasant, and sometimes perilous, jobs around.

One man knows all about this. Bob Mitchell, now 73, was in charge of attempting to recover the bodies of 257 who died when they crashed into the side of Mount Erebus, in Antarctica, 35 years ago.

It was a sightseeing flight that went terribly wrong and which still attracts conspiracy theories to this day.

But the search and recovery of the bodies became the template for all subsequent air disaster recoveries, from last year’s shocking shooting down of a Malaysian Airlines plane over Ukraine to the Lockerbie disaster of 1988.

Mitchell was immediately aware of the significance of the Erebus crash. On November 28, 1979 he was an inspector in the New Zealand police force and specialist in search and rescue. He had, by chance, spent the day teaching a course in victim identification, before heading off to an early Christmas party.

“I had just got home and was sitting down to dinner when the phone went. It was my boss who told me I had better come in. “At the time it was the fourth largest air disaster in history and I knew straightaway this was going to be a biggie.”

Bob Mitchell says: "The 257 bodies didn’t bother me a great deal because it goes with the territory."

In New Zealand, search, rescue and recovery of bodies is a police job. The fact that the plane had crashed 2,500 miles away in one of the most inhospitable areas on the planet was not relevant. The plane was an Air New Zealand DC10 and the great majority of the passengers were Kiwis.

Mitchell had just a few hours to gather a small team of policeman together, collect some cold weather kit from a Polar expedition base, and fly to Antarctica on a Hercules.

While Mitchell comes across as very level headed, many of the team were overwhelmed by the scene of death and destruction they encountered, in particular, Stuart Leighton, who was just 22 at the time.

“We had no idea what Antarctica would throw at us. We just knew it would be dangerous.”

Even for the experienced policemen, the scale and the freezing temperatures were something they had never encountered.

Leighton recalls: “There was a lot of mutilation with a lot of the bodies. It was grotesque. It was overwhelming. I personally felt a little bit out of my depth.

“I had the thought, 'I don’t belong here. This is for the big boys’.”

Mitchell admits now that Leighton was probably too young to have been part of the mission.

The team leader’s main concern was not the sight of corpses scattered across the glacier -- “The 257 bodies didn’t bother me a great deal because it goes with the territory” -- but the safety of his team.

How they would cope with the sudden winds that would suddenly pick up bits metallic debris turning them into missiles that flew across the site, how they would avoid falling into the numerous fissures in the ice, how they would be able to recover 257 individual corpses, bag them up and return them to the New Zealand mortuary to be identified before the ice runway at the McMurdo station melted?

Mitchell instituted an efficient system, dividing the crash site into a grid. Each corpse, or part of a body, was numbered according to who found the victim and where they were found. “I am a chess player. So, I used the international correspondence chess method of numbering the grid of the crash site.”

He remains a very serious international chess player to this day. And it is a method still used in disaster sites. It helped the team back in New Zealand to match dental records and fingerprints with the passenger list.

After setting up the operation, he spent most of the fortnight at the McMurdo base camp – 70 miles from Mr Erebus. Meanwhile his team slept in tents at the crash site itself. Every day they would laboriously pick through the wreckage, along with the help of a team of mountaineers and photographers.

Viewers of the documentary are left in little doubt it was a gruesome job. Mitchell says: “If anything the film understates it. There is no easy way to deal with a body. You have to pick it up, put a label on it, and you have to handle it. You can’t airbrush it. And some of those bodies were very difficult to get to.”

Some had fallen down a ravine, caused by the burning engine melting the glacier. Many were difficult to put into a standard body bag. Leighton recalls: “These bodies were frozen solid. Whatever grotesque shape they landed in, that’s what they froze into.”

All of the team remember the stench of the disaster.

Mitchell says: “The smell of kerosene, jet fuel, takes me straight back to Erebus. It’s not that I get flashbacks, but I immediately remember.” There were other challenging aspects of the mission, not least the endless presence of loud and aggressive skua gulls, carrion-eating birds of the Antarctica, who kept on pecking at the corpses. The team resorted to burying the bodies again under the snow, once they had been bagged up, to stop the birds getting to them.

They were there for just 14 days but they never stopped working. The perpetual daylight of the South Pole meant that they worked around the clock, 12 hours on, 12 hours off, but never properly resting nor escaping the tragedy, even when having a meal.

Leighton says: “We had one set of gloves while we were there. They were baked with the fatty human remains, the soot, the whatever, and you ended up having to use the same set of gloves to put food in your mouth.”

It is perhaps unsurprising that the experience has severely affected the policeman, who then was just a young man.

“I remember thinking, 'Oh my God, I hope this is not going to traumatise me, I hope this isn’t going to completely screw me when I get back.’ Because I knew it had the potential to do so. And unfortunately it did.”

At the time there was very no proper counselling for the team when they returned. He has spent most of the rest of his life trying to come to terms with that fortnight.

Mitchell, for his part, says though he does not like to dwell on the past, “but there needs to be an opportunity for people to unwind. Stu Leighton’s life has been stuffed up by the fact he did not get the full opportunity to let people know.”

For all the scars some of the team were left with, it was a successful mission. Of the 257 victims, 213 were successfully identified. The Royal Commission into the causes of the crash ruled it was not pilot error but rather errors by Air New Zealand in allowing sightseeing flights to go too low and for changing the course of the flight, without telling the crew. It proved a controversial conclusion and was challenged. The police, however, were universally praised for their recovery mission.

And Mitchell is clear that air crashes, and body recovery, will remain part and parcel of modern life, despite improvements in aviation design. “The airliners are getting bigger and they still crash.”

Sunday 4 January 2014

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