The tragic task of matching DNA with victims

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The Independent Online

At a police station in north London a collection of hairbrishes and toothbrushes is being assembled. It is tragic work. The hope is they will provide clues to the identity of many of the hundreds of British citizens who died in the Asian tsunami.

At a police station in north London a collection of hairbrishes and toothbrushes is being assembled. It is tragic work. The hope is they will provide clues to the identity of many of the hundreds of British citizens who died in the Asian tsunami.

Police teams throughout the UK have started to collect the belongings of suspected victims of the disaster in order to identify them among the thousands of bodies lying in makeshift graves or on mortuary slabs.

In Thailand, where there are 39 confirmed British dead and up to 188 likely to have died, the authorities are collecting DNA samples from every corpse, at the rate of about 110 a day.

In order to match up the unidentified bodies with the suspected victims, British police are having to gather DNA samples from the homes of the missing. DNA can be recovered from skin cells lodged in the bristles of the toothbrushes and from strands of hair. Hairbrushes and combs sealed in plastic bags have begun to arrive at the Metropolitan Police's central casualty bureau based at their training college in Hendon, north London. Other material being collected includes dental records - the quickest and most effective way of identification - medical notes showing scars and other distinctive marks, and fingerprints.

The Met's casualty bureau is the heart of the UK operation, where up to 600 police officers and staff have been working around the clock to identify the dead and offer support to the grieving. At the peak of the disaster the centre was having to deal with 17,000 calls a day. From an initial 23,000 "nominals" or possible British victims, the police have narrowed it down to 53 dead (39 in Thailand, 11 in Sri Lanka, and three in the Maldives) and a further 208 thought "highly likely" to have been caught in the tsunami. A further 331 are classed as "possibly" involved.

Another 1,200 are still missing, including independent travellers who may have been in the region at the time but have probably moved on.

It is the 539 possibly or likely to have been involved that are the focus of the missing persons inquiries, codenamed Operation Bracknell.

Detective Superintendent Jim Dickie, who runs the incident room and the intelligence cell which has been searching for people reported missing, said: "It's as traumatic as any crime ... This was an act of nature, which has suddenly taken them away for no apparent reason. It must be terrible for some as there is no one to blame. When we investigate a murder we normally solve it and found out what the motive is and we have some closure. But in these cases how do you explain why a loved one was taken?"

The DNA being taken from the tsunami victims in Thailand will be processed by Chinese laboratories before being returned to the host country and placed on a database. A similar scheme is expected to be set up in Sri Lanka.

Detective Superintendent Richard Woodman, the senior identification manager, said: "We have to be absolutely sure, otherwise mistakes are made and loved ones will end up grieving over the wrong person. We know this will happen from experience, so we have to go the extra mile."

But the police realise that many of the dead will never be found, or identified. In these cases detectives must gather evidence that will convince the coroner that the suspected victim is dead and a death certificate can be issued. The Foreign Office has announced a change in the rules that shortens this process from a seven-year wait in cases without a body to a matter of months.

Detectives are starting to trawl through suspected victims' telephone, e-mail, credit card and banking records to discover whether anyone has used them since 26 December. The Home Office is expected to grant emergency powers to allow the police access to these private records to speed up the process.

Operation Bracknell, at a cost of more than £10m, with 90 officers in Thailand and Sri Lanka, is the largest overseas police operation in peacetime.

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