Fire victims identified, 10 days later

Medical examiner's work complicated by lack of records and DNA residue, rowhouse confusion

June 01, 2007|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,SUN REPORTER

Ten days after an East Baltimore fire that caused seven deaths, the state medical examiner has at last identified all of the victims -- a process complicated by scant medical records, the severity of the burns and the ever-shifting population of the crowded rowhouse on Cecil Avenue.

Only two of the dead have been buried so far. But relatives are hoping that tomorrow they can have a single funeral for the remaining victims, even as they express frustration over the prolonged grieving process that they say has made their anguish worse.

"The family, they are extremely frustrated because they want to have closure," said Victor C. March, the owner of March Funeral Homes. "The longer this goes on and on, the more that they are dealing with the pain."

Added Carroll Howell, who lost two grandsons in the May 22 fire: "We haven't had time to grieve. We've been running from hospital to hospital. To funerals. We would have had them buried at one time if the medical examiner had done his job."

Six of the victims died May 22, the day of the fire. The seventh died Wednesday.

But identifying the bodies has not been simple.

The medical examiner's office challenge came in part from the enormity of the tragedy -- people who could have provided information on the family were badly hurt themselves, some clinging to life at hospitals scattered around the city.

Fingerprints were difficult to obtain because of the burns.

A challenge also stemmed from the poverty in which the victims lived. Medical records were scattered at clinics and hospitals, and many were missing. Dental records were useless in some cases because the victims had never seen a dentist.

"The biggest issue for doing IDs is getting the information," said Dr. David R. Fowler, Maryland's chief medical examiner. "If we've got the information, identifying medical information, then it's easier. This is longer than we would have liked, but there have been special circumstances involved."

The fire disfigured many of the victims beyond recognition, meaning that a simple identification by a family member could not be used to release the bodies.

Such a method is not reliable in the best of cases, Fowler said, because grief-stricken relatives can sometimes deny their loved one is dead. Other times, relatives, queasy about death, do not spend enough time viewing the body to make an accurate identification.

The medical examiner's office prefers to compare the victim to a photograph or check the victim against known dental and medical records. But to do that, they must have at least some idea of who the person is.

The living situation at 1903 Cecil Ave. was complicated, with people from many families seeking shelter under a single roof. "Gathering the information was much more complex than it is when you are dealing with one defined group," Fowler said, adding that in many ways it was more difficult than with a plane crash, where a record of ticket-holders is readily available.

March, the funeral home owner, has been speaking with surviving members of the family for the past week. He said: "There were so many people in and out of that house -- as many as 20."

Once a list of the potential victims was obtained -- cobbled together by distant relatives, a church pastor and neighbors -- officials had a starting point. They wanted to compare fingerprints, and Fowler said that prints can be obtained in most burn cases. But not with the Cecil Avenue fire.

Another option is DNA. But the fire destroyed latent DNA in the house, so doctors would not have a sample to compare to the bodies. Plus, Fowler said, such comparisons take weeks or even months because his office must send samples to overloaded labs.

Instead, investigators had to delve further into the individuals' medical histories. As with many of the city's poor, those records were scattered at various clinics, and in some cases incomplete because of lack of access to care.

Representatives from the funeral home stepped in to help. "We've tried to contact the doctors, we've interviewed the families," March said. "We've gone beyond what our duties normally are because we understand what the families are going though."

Fowler estimated his staff dedicated roughly 100 hours to identifying the victims. "One of the children had dental care and good dental records," Fowler said. "That helped with one case. Two of the others did not."

So the doctors worked with what they could find.

"One of the children had a broken arm," Fowler said. "We could compare with X-rays of the fracture. ... Sometimes people have seen doctors but it is not always useful for identification."

By midafternoon yesterday, the bodies -- all seven -- had been identified. MarQuis D. Ellis, 7, was buried Tuesday. Nijuan L. Thomas Jr., 3, was buried Wednesday. William C. Hyman, 66, was cremated yesterday.

Family members say they are trying to plan a memorial service for Hyman and a funeral for the other four victims tomorrow. They were identified by March Funeral Homes as Dominic Thomas, 27; Tashon Thomas, 16; Davonta Witherspoon, 13; and Melvin L. Beckett, 13.

The spellings and some of the ages differ from lists previously released by a church and family members.

Howell learned about the identifications yesterday. She said: "I feel relieved. I can put my grandchildren in the grave. We can go ahead and get the funeral over with and so they can rest in peace."

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

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