Long road to iden­ti­fy­ing quake vic­tims

Kapi-Mana News - - NEWS - By RE­BECCA THOM­SON

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.

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