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Identifying tsunami victims slow process
Updated: 2005-02-25 02:47

PHUKET, Thailand - In a bustling office, investigators shuffle reports on teeth, fingerprints, tattoos — clues that could help identify those found dead after the Asian tsunami.

It's a grim routine that began after the great waves hit Dec. 26, sweeping away thousands of people. But nearly two months later, only 450 of the estimated 3,000 foreign victims have been identified, and criticism is mounting over the slow pace of the work.

"I'm no nearer to finding my wife," said Kevin Quinn, 37, of Dublin, who was vacationing with his wife, Rachel, at Khao Lak when the tsunami struck. "It's a bit appalling, really."

In Thailand, more than 5,000 people are confirmed dead from the tsunami, which killed more than 170,000 people in 11 nations. Rachel Quinn is among nearly 3,000 still listed as missing here.

Some of the dead were beachgoers who carried no identification, and some bodies were badly decomposed before being found. In other cases, bureaucratic mix-ups caused delays.

In Quinn's case, authorities back home initially failed to send her fingerprints, dental records and DNA samples to Thailand. Then, missteps by local forensics workers seemed to stall the process further, her husband said.

Nick Bracken, a London detective who is heading the Interpol-coordinated Phuket ID center, said the process is taking so long because of its unprecedented scale and the painstaking work required to ensure accuracy.

"The last thing we would want is, in a year's time, a wrong identification is proved and people then living through this nightmare forever," he said. "Could you imagine the need perhaps to exhume people? What happens if they've been cremated? So it's got to be done correctly."

He said researchers were working "flat-out" to make identifications.

At the Disaster Victim Identification Information Management Center on Phuket island, Thai officials stamp forms as foreign diplomats stand by to receive death certificates for their citizens.

About 2,500 corpses are still stored in refrigerated containers in Phuket and nearby provinces. Some bodies were taken out of the country immediately after the tsunami.

The number of bodies identified daily has jumped from about four in mid-January to 20-30 in the past week. The highest number was on Feb. 16, when 43 corpses were identified.

Thai police, who have the ultimate authority over the process, say most foreign corpses will be identified within four months.

Sweden, with 113 confirmed dead and 439 missing, and Germany, with 80 dead and 537 missing, have the highest tolls of foreign victims in Thailand. A half-dozen other European nations each have scores or dead or missing, as do Japan, the United States and Australia.

The sluggish pace has frustrated some European officials, companies working on the project, and relatives who say bickering local authorities, government red tape and a disjointed multinational forensics staff have impeded the effort.

Some European nations have complained that it's taking too long to return the bodies of their citizens. A dispute also erupted among Thai officials over how the identification process would be run.

There are three internationally accepted ways to identify bodies: DNA, dental records and fingerprints. Some critics have complained that officials in Thailand have been too slow to work with DNA.

Reynald Doiron, a Canadian Foreign Ministry official and spokesman for the Phuket identification center, said forensics workers have not fully embarked on the complicated task of DNA matching because they are still analyzing more easily obtained dental records and fingerprints.

About 400 of the 450 matches made so far have relied on dental records. Just one body has been identified using DNA.

"Everyone is getting prepared for the day when DNA will start really kicking in ... when dentals and fingerprints will have been very much exhausted and we'll still have quite a sizable number of bodies to be identified," Doiron said.

For now, the collection of records and samples from governments and families overseas is lagging, Doiron said. Only partial dental records may have been sent in some cases, while legal restrictions may have prevented the release of medical information in others, he said.

There also were problems with some post-mortem samples collected initially, and they had to be redone, Doiron said. Forensic workers say some samples were contaminated or unsuitable for testing.

"A little more time to be very, very precise and absolutely sure that someone can be declared dead is preferable," Dioron said. "There's no other way."

But that offers little solace for people like Quinn, who accepts that his wife may be among the dead but cannot properly grieve until her body is laid to rest.

"I don't know what I should do now," said Quinn.

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