Christchurch earthquake: DNA sought to identify victims

By Beck Vass

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

Families awaiting news on the Christchurch earthquake are receiving calls from disaster victim identification teams, asking them to bring in toothbrushes and hairbrushes and anything else that may help formally identify their loved ones.

A police spokesman said yesterday that 166 disaster victim identification (DVI) staff were working in shifts to formally identify victims of the 6.3-magnitude quake.

But he said that number would be boosted as more teams arrived to assist DVI officers who are working around the clock in rotating shifts.

Putting names to victims is a painstaking and grisly process.

Many New Zealand police officers have undertaken DVI training and have been called to use their skills around the world, helping to identify victims of Australian bushfires, the 2009 Samoan tsunami and the Boxing Day tsunami in Thailand in 2004.

Now they are coming in droves to help match up reports of missing people to bodies and remains being recovered from the rubble.

A police source said staff were creating lists of missing people in what is known as an "ante-mortem" or "before death" process.

The process involves obtaining detailed descriptions of how the missing people looked when they were last seen. It includes a person's weight, any distinguishing features, dental records, scars, tattoos, eye colour, hair colour, and details of any jewellery and clothing they were wearing at the time.

In extreme circumstances, only a person's DNA would help identify victims and in these cases, a hairbrush or toothbrush which contained traces of DNA would be matched to a person's remains, he said.

"It's a long process. That's why they're saying almost on a daily basis, they're only identifying one person ... because it takes so long."

The source said anyone calling in to report a missing person would face intensive questioning so police could get as much detail as possible to give them the best chance of identifying a victim.

Staff recovering bodies would match the bodies or remains they had found, with the lists of missing people.

"If they're unrecognisable, you can't get the family in to do the visual recognition so you're reliant on all this other data ... it's a huge job."

He said DVI teams would be split into different groups. One would receive the bodies, recording all information on paper. Another dealt with the ante-mortem process, interviewing family members for as much detail as possible. And another group would process the bodies, ensuring they were identified officially.

The source said although some officers would have psychological concerns after dealing with such horrific scenes, that was something they would deal with later.

- NZ Herald

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