Investigators face 'enormous' task to identify bodies

The Victims
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The Independent Online

Body parts were being retrieved from the Gonesse crash site as the process of identifying the victims got under way yesterday. They were carefully placed in labelled bags before being taken to mortuaries.

Body parts were being retrieved from the Gonesse crash site as the process of identifying the victims got under way yesterday. They were carefully placed in labelled bags before being taken to mortuaries.

Much of the remains will be so severely burnt that forensic scientists will have to rely on DNA profiling and dental records for the task.

A leading pathologist, Dr Robert Chapman, consultant forensic pathologist at St George's Hospital, south London, who investigated a Pakistan airline crash in Nepal several years ago, said: "DNA and dental records will provide the best chance of identifying the dead. The traumatic effect of a crash at speed plus the fire from the aviation spirit will make other methods difficult.

"The passengers on the Concorde appear to have been mainly a group of middle-aged or elderly people. It may be that items like pacemakers and artificial hips will have survived and will help identification."

Dr Douglas Chambers, the coroner who investigated the 1987 King's Cross fire where 40 bodies had to be identified, said yesterday that the job facing investigators was "enormous", but at least there was a passenger list. "At King's Cross we were not sure at first who might have died," he said.

According to Dr Chambers, investigators use a range of techniques in identification. "You start with the simplest method and work up. The first and most obvious method is whether someone can recognise the body of a victim," he said.

But he says visual identification is unreliable, even when bodies have not suffered extensive injuries. "I have cases where people have been positively identified by relatives only to have the 'deceased' ring me up some days later and say it was a mistake."

The search will have looked for any personal belongings that might have survived near bodies. But at the heart of the inferno, where temperatures will have risen to at least 1,000C, the wreckage will have to be carefully sifted.

"Fingerprints can be useful for identifying bodies, even those which have been partially burnt. But they only work easily if someone has a criminal record," Dr Chambers said. "The best method is DNA, a technique which we did not have at the time of King's Cross. In many cases they should be able to find some tissue to take a sample. That can be then compared with a control DNA sample from their immediate family."

Normal DNA profiling which is very reliable requires blood, muscle tissue or bone marrow. If bone and teeth are all that remains, pathologists will have to use the newer technique of mitochondrial DNA profiling, which is less accurate and tests only the maternal line.

Dr Chapman believes dental records will be the best method in the first instance. "Teeth tend to survive even in an intense fire," he said. "Using the passenger list, police will begin contacting dentists to obtain X-rays ... which can then be compared with the remains found at the site."

Dr Chambers said dental records should be able to identify 95 per cent of the victims reasonably quickly. "The other 5 per cent will prove much harder," he said.

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