Long road to identifying quake victims
Inspector Mike Wright makes no apologies for the length of time it has taken to identify victims of the Christchurch earthquake.
Four months after the February 22 quake, the process is nearly complete. Just four of the 181 victims remain formally unidentified.
Mr Wright, who lives in Whitby, is the Wellington Police district operations services manager and oversees groups such as search and rescue and the police maritime unit. He was appointed to manage the team responsible for identifying earthquake victims.
‘‘There is a huge sense of satisfaction being involved in such a big event. Everyone – police, military, coronal – really pitched in and gave 110 per cent,’’ he said.
The national disaster victim identification team swung into action shortly after the earthquake.
Mr Wright arrived in Christchurch at 3.20am on February 23, and went straight to the red zone. He met with the Canterbury district commander, the Canterbury coroner and members of the disaster victim identification team.
Two of his Australian colleagues had arrived by then and Christchurch staff were also there.
‘‘It was just organised chaos,’’ he said. ‘‘The tension around the CTV building was particularly high. People had been texting from inside that site, so they [search and rescue] knew people were potentially alive.
‘‘The place was constantly shaking [from aftershocks] and there were all the things you get with the smoke and fire.’’
More than 100 victim identification specialists were pulled in from around New Zealand, including police fingerprint specialists, forensic pathologists, odontologists (forensic dentists), forensic anthropologists and DNA scientists.
By March 4, more than 320 national and international personnel were working long hours to identify victims.
The Australian contingent was the largest, with specialists arriving from every state, said Mr Wright.
New Zealand is a member of the Australasian Victim Identification Committee and specialists from both countries have worked together before, including during the 2008 Victorian bushfires and the 2009 Samoan tsunami.
Specialists also arrived from China, Israel, Thailand, Japan, Korea, Singapore, the United States and Britain.
‘‘It was a totally international response,’’ said Mr Wright. ‘‘You have to remember victims were from the Philippines, Iraq, Japan, China, Spain, Australia, Canada, the USA, Taiwan, Thailand, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Guernsey, South Korea and Turkey.
‘‘ That made it hard, too, because some of those countries don’t hold dental records.’’
Mr Wright said the identification process was delicate and all victims were handled with care.
‘‘ Procedures for this sort of thing were decided during [the] Erebus [disaster] and that’s the benchmark we use.’’
Search and rescue teams recovered bodies and took them to Christchurch central police station’s temporary mortuary, where initial paperwork was filled out. The bodies and remains were taken to Burnham Military Camp, where a morgue had been set up.
Identification was carried out in three main phases – ante-mortem, post-mortem and reconciliation.
During the post-mortem phase a body is examined in detail by a pathologist, a forensic dentist, a fingerprint officer and a member of the disaster victim identification team.
Personal effects, such as jewellery and clothing, are photographed in situ, and any peculiarities, such as birthmarks, are noted.
‘‘ Victims undergo the least invasive post-mortem possible, so first we’ll look for obvious signs.
‘‘For argument’s sake, a woman may have had ovaries removed or some surgical operation, such as a hip or knee replacement.’’
During the next phase, interviewers talked to families and police gathered clothing, jewellery, medical and dental records, fingerprints and DNA samples from hairbrushes, toothbrushes and other items.
‘‘In an ideal world you want fingerprint or DNA evidence. It’s emotionally draining for everyone involved to interview the families,’’ said Mr Wright.
Information from the postmortem and ante-mortem stages was then reconciled to find a match, and the coroner was informed.
Mr Wright said the easiest identifications were carried out first, and many victims were identified within five days.
‘‘We were flat tack. The first week the average day started at 7am and finished at 10pm, but on top of that there were personnel at the sites working around the clock for three or four days.
‘‘It becomes emotionally tiring because of the sheer volume and it really sucks the juices out of you, especially when you get down to fragments and you don’t know what you’re looking at.
‘‘But you all look after each other,‘‘ Mr Wright said.
‘‘All of us exist to bring closure to the families. It’s the thing that drives you to keep going.’’
Emotional job: Inspector Mike Wright has been helping the families of victims of Christchurch’s February earthquake.