Shattered bodies mean difficult identification

Effort might have to rely on prints, dental records

November 04, 1999|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Medical examiners charged with identifying remains from Sunday's EgyptAir crash will likely have to rely on finger- and footprints, dental and medical records, clothing, jewelry and possibly DNA analysis to confirm the deaths of the 217 people on board.

Investigators who have worked on other air crashes said that, as in the ValuJet, Swissair and TWA disasters, recovery teams are unlikely to find intact bodies.

Relatives of victims of those crashes say families of EgyptAir victims may face a long, emotional wait. And in the end, the families may not be able to provide a traditional burial.

"In most normal cases, you have a body, and you go through the process," said Jim Hurd of Severn, whose 29-year-old son, Jamie, was killed in the 1996 TWA crash off Long Island, N.Y.

And though he had to wait seven months for the identification, Hurd said he eventually felt better "knowing there's a resting place other than the ocean floor for him, and we're positive about that."

Powerful winds kept search ships in port yesterday, and relatives of victims vented their anger and impatience during a meeting with crash investigators, demanding death certificates and wanting to view wreckage and remains.

Families have been asked to provide dental and medical records, fingerprints and photographs, but it was unclear yesterday whether the Rhode Island medical examiner's office is planning a DNA analysis.

While medical examiners who worked on other cases hesitated to speculate on the condition of bodies in the EgyptAir crash off Nantucket, Mass., their experiences with plane accidents, as well as with the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, offer some indication of what lies ahead.

In the 1996 TWA crash off Long Island, most bodies were so badly mutilated that they couldn't be identified through photographs.

Because terrorism was immediately suspected, authorities were faced with a possible homicide investigation. So Suffolk County's chief medical examiner, Charles Wetli, insisted that every body be identified scientifically -- rather than through "soft" evidence, such as clothing, jewelry and tattoos.

Wetli said he required two identifications: a fingerprint or footprint match, along with a match through dental records. This worked fine for the body parts recovered early, Wetli said, but as time went on and remains decomposed in the water, authorities had to increasingly rely on X-rays.

Wetli and his staff also collected blood and tissue samples from relatives for a DNA analysis. In some cases, they sent police to the victims' homes to take samples from clothing, toothbrushes and hairbrushes.

With about a dozen people still unidentified, they sent bone specimens to an armed forces pathology lab in Rockville. It took more than a year, but all 230 people were identified.

The shattering of bodies was worse in the 1996 ValuJet crash, which went down in the Everglades. More than 4,000 body pieces were recovered in 110-degree temperatures in the oil-stained swamp. Of those, only 117 fragments could be identified, and only 70 of the 110 people on board were identified, mostly through fingerprints, said Roger Mittleman, the chief medical examiner. The swamp offered some advantage, as the vegetation held some of the remains above water.

Authorities used rings, tattoos and hair decorations, and matched fingerprints with those on books belonging to victims. An anthropologist helped identify the children by the age of their bones.

"I don't know what they're finding out there but it will be a mammoth job," Mittleman said of the EgyptAir crash. "We're talking about expansive ocean and bones that sink deep in the water, which are probably unrecoverable."

Still, he said, extraordinary feats have been accomplished in recent investigations.

In the Swissair crash, all 229 people on board were identified through DNA, as well as by other means such as medical and dental records, said Ronald Fourney, who was in charge of the DNA identification task force for the crash. In addition to the crash scene remains, authorities processed 310 samples from victims' relatives and 89 personal effects from about 20 countries.

Relatives of victims of these crashes said they went through painful times waiting for what word on the remains of their loved ones. In some instances, death certificates had to be issued before the bodies were identified, so that relatives could settle estates and collect insurance.

The crashes left caskets full of fragments that were never identified; the Swissair flight has 23 such caskets.

The worst part about the waiting, relatives said, is that it allowed their minds to play tricks and fantasize that their loved ones were still alive.

"Because you can't see any physical evidence, it's easy for your mind to think that precious young man is going to come walking through the back door," said Susan Smith of Fort Worth, who lost her 24-year-old son, known as Jay, in the ValuJet crash. Only a small portion of his remains was identified.

"It makes you realize how important it is to have at least the shell of the person, something you can physically see."

Mittleman said, "Probably the most frightening thing is not necessarily the remains, it's the personal effects -- when you identify a note to grandma in a pocketbook, the photographs of victims. These are the things that hit home and say, these are real people and this can happen to anyone, including my family."

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