'Titanic' victims exhumed after 89 years

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The Independent US

The headstones on the three graves at Fairview Lawn Cemetery are marked by nothing but numbers and a date. The numbers are 281, 240 and 8 but the date on each of them is the same ­ 15 April, 1912, the date the "unsinkable" Titanic sank in the freezing North Atlantic. For the best part of 90 years these three graves have lain untouched, set among those of another 150 victims whose bodies were also recovered from the ocean and buried in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

The headstones on the three graves at Fairview Lawn Cemetery are marked by nothing but numbers and a date. The numbers are 281, 240 and 8 but the date on each of them is the same ­ 15 April, 1912, the date the "unsinkable" Titanic sank in the freezing North Atlantic. For the best part of 90 years these three graves have lain untouched, set among those of another 150 victims whose bodies were also recovered from the ocean and buried in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

But today the graves are to be opened and the remains exhumed in an effort to identify positively the victims, using DNA testing. It is hoped that all these years later, names might finally be added to the headstones. "This started about three years ago when some people who believe they are related to those three victims, got in touch with the authorities here," John O'Brien, a spokesman for Halifax municipality said. "People here are cognisant that this is a cemetery and most reasonable folks do not take kindly to exhuming remains, but I think they realise that if it will satisfy the families who are involved, if it will bring some sort of closure or comfort to them, we will support it."

Little is known about the three victims, who are among 43 unidentified bodies buried at Fairview Lawn. From records made in 1912 when they were buried, it is known that one of them ­ interred in grave number eight ­ is a young boy, estimated to be no more than two years old. The other two are a woman, thought to be aged in her 30s, and a young man.

The as yet anonymous families, who believe they may be related, hope that DNA testing carried out on fragments of bone will be able to prove conclusively whether the victims are relatives. Having exhausted all other possible inquiries ­ poring through historical records and contemporary accounts ­ they are putting their hope in science.

Ryan Parr, the director of the paleo-DNA laboratory at Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Ontario, is leading the team of scientists who will exhume the remains and carry out the tests. "[One] particular family had just wondered and wondered what happened to their relative," said Dr Parr. "They've done all the research they can do. The DNA analysis is their last resort."

The exhumations had to be approved by Nova Scotia's chief medical officer, Robert Strang, who was concerned to ensure it was not a stunt fuelled by the continuing obsession with all things relating to the luxury liner that set sail from Liverpool on its maiden voyage. The relatives have had to provide written explanations of why they want the exhumations and give their formal approval.

"I wanted to make sure that this was being approached from a research point of view ­ not for financial gain or publicity gain under the guise of Titanic," said Dr Strang.

"The research part of it comes in because the technology and the technique of doing DNA analysis is fairly new, and that's why the researchers are involved."

People involved in the project admit, however, that while the procedure is being carried out in a dignified way, there is a genuine buzz from being involved in such an historic quest.

Alan Ruffman, of the Halifax-based Geomarine Associates, which is also involved in the project, said: "We're looking at this as scientists and we're really going to be looking at the quality of the bone. But I think all of us will find it's going to be quite moving to be close to history."

Titanic went down, with the loss of about 1,500 lives, some 375 miles south-east of Newfoundland after striking an iceberg. The ship sank within three hours of the collision. The wreck was discovered in 1985.

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