Identifying victims 'will take years' : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Identifying victims 'will take years'

David Batty Friday September 14, 2001

Identifying the thousands of victims of the devastating terrorist attacks in New York will take years because many bodies are likely to be so badly mutilated, according to a leading British forensic expert. Professor Peter Vanezis also warned that many casualties will never be identified because their remains will have been reduced to ash by the heat generated by the explosions at the World Trade Centre.

The scale of the forensic investigation will be on par with that undertaken to identify the casualties of the war in Kosovo, said Prof Vanezis, a forensic pathologist and director of the centre for international forensic assistance (CIFA) at Glasgow University.

The professor, whose team is on standby to assist in the identification of victims and body parts recovered from the ruins of the twin towers, said forensic experts would have to analyse every piece of human remains and any traces of tissue found on the tonnes of rubble.

"Pathologists will need to take DNA samples from every body part found," said Prof Vanezis. "It's a gruesome task when they've been burnt and separated - we're probably talking about tens of thousands of pieces. I would not be surprised if it dragged on for years.

"It will be relatively easy to identify intact bodies but there's certain to be a hardcore group of victims so badly burnt and mutilated that it will take at least two years to identify them through DNA profiling. It has taken months to identify remains from one aircraft carrying 100 people. Then there will a considerable number who will never be identified."

Prof Vanezis has worked on war crimes, human rights and disaster investigations across the world, from Bosnia to South Africa.

He said the scale and complexity of the forensic investigation in New York would be similar to that undertaken in Kosovo.

"The number of victims and the state they're likely to be in is comparable to the casualties of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia," he said.

"In the first site we investigated in Kosovo in 1999 people had been herded into a building by the Serbs, shot and then burnt. The bodies were in various states of decomposition and mutilation. There were meant to be 105 people in there but we only found evidence of 45 because some must have been reduced to ash. I expect a similar situation in New York."

CIFA, which was only established in July, has spoken to the Foreign Office, the anti-terrorist squad at Scotland Yard and the US authorities offering its assistance to the New York forensic teams.

Prof Vanezis expects they will be officially invited to assist in the next few weeks because there are hundreds of British casualties.

"We have a team of 20 to 30 experts who will be ready to go out in the coming weeks," he said. "We may also carry out swab testing on relatives of those missing before then to get a DNA match on any bodies found."

His team would try to identify the whereabouts of each victim before the towers collapsed, whether they were on the planes, in the buildings or on the ground, and what role they played in the hijacks.

"We would need to be looking, for example, to see if they had stab wounds, gunshot wounds," he said.

"We would need to identify the people who were the terrorists, who were the key players on the particular aeroplane. To do that helps in the reconstruction of what happened."

He said because remains were likely to be mixed up in the rubble of the towers, forensic anthropologists would have to check all bone fragments to establish to whom and how many people they belonged to.

"For example, if they identify two left femurs we know that means two bodies."

Pathologists and forensic odontologists would also be able to identify victims from tattoos, operation scars and teeth. "Teeth, or fragments of them, are particularly useful as they can survive extreme heat," he said.

Clothing, documents and jewellery were also useful evidence but could be misleading, added the professor.

"They can be stolen," he explained. "The experts will be very careful before declaring an ID, as the bodies of several people killed in the terrorist attacks on Luxor in Egypt in 1997 were misidentified, which obviously caused great distress to the families concerned.",7838,552131,00.html

-- Martin Thompson (, September 14, 2001


Canada's experience with the non-intact bodies from Swissair Flt 111 was that every DNA lab in the country was tied-up for the identification process. One side-effect (probably amongst others) of this was that court cases/investigations of other cases were held-up in the criminal justice system.

-- Rachel Gibson (, September 14, 2001.

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