Huge task ahead to ID Katrina victims
By Ed Cropley
BANGKOK (Reuters) – U.S. police face a “hell of a task” to
identify thousands of Hurricane Katrina victims left rotting in
heat and humidity similar to the aftermath of the Indian Ocean
tsunami, a top forensic expert said on Wednesday. “I don’t envy
them at all,” said Detective Superintendent Derek Forest, a
Briton who has been running the largest forensic operation in
history to try to identify the nearly 5,500 victims of the
December 26 disaster in Thailand.
“We had 5,500 here and we’re still going after eight months
– and we’ve still got 1,500 we’re trying to identify,” Forest
“I really do wish them the best, because they’ve got a very
difficult situation on their hands. It’s a hell of a task.”
Many of the conditions which have made the process so
complicated and lengthy in Thailand, he said, would be the same
for the United States, where officials fear Katrina may have
left as many as 10,000 corpses in its wake.
“You’ve got bodies exposed to water and intense
temperatures — and that’s going to introduce bacteria
quickly,” Forest said. The bacteria would start breaking down
DNA immediately, making laboratory analysis more difficult, he
Even though Thailand sent DNA to laboratories in the United
States and China after the tsunami, much of the data that came
back was insufficiently precise to allow for a positive
The two other main methods of post-mortem analysis —
fingerprinting and dental records — might also prove
ineffective in some cases, Forest said.
With fingerprints, the longer a body lies in water the more
difficult it is to obtain reliable prints, while dental records
can prove useless if children have had no fillings.
His comments raise the prospect that many victims of
Katrina — children in particular — might never be identified.
“Children don’t tend to have a lot of dental history and as
oral hygiene improves, they’re having fillings later and later
in life,” Forest said.
“As far as dental records are concerned, I would be more
worried about children than about the older people.”
Before any of the forensic analysis can begin, the bodies
must be recovered. Many will be bloated, unrecognizable and in
an advanced state of decay. Adequate cold storage will have to
be found to prevent further decomposition.
In tropical southern Thailand, where around half the
victims were holidaymakers from at least 25 nations, mobile
refrigeration units were trucked in to store the bodies at a
makeshift morgue in a Buddhist monastery.
Forest said U.S. officials would probably be thinking about
commandeering ice rinks as temporary mortuaries while they work
out how to store thousands of bodies at -10 degrees Celsius or
below — the temperature required to prevent further DNA
“If the numbers involved are anything like what’s been
suggested on television, there are going to be big logistical
problems in terms of storage at the appropriate temperatures,”
In Thailand, some bodies were thrown into mass graves
temporarily to try and halt the decay. Attempting any sort of
visual identification was impossible after a matter of days.
One week after the tsunami, the only way to determine
whether a victim was European or Asian was by analyzing their
pubic hair. Head hair usually falls out easier compared to
tougher pubic hair, and Caucasians tend to have curly pubic
hair while the Asian variety tends to be straight.
“Generally, if a body is exposed to these sorts of
temperatures, it will degrade and decompose very, very
quickly,” Forest said. “One day it will be visually
recognizable. The following day, it won’t.”